22 July 2022

The Gelmini volunteers : for the peoples of the Holy Land


Every year, between May and July and between September and November, the volunteers of the Romano Gelmini Association arrive in the Holy Land. They are men and women, almost all of whom are retired, who decide to put their time at the service of the Custody. The activities that they are called to carry out are very varied. Gardening, the olive harvest, small renovations, carpentry work, painting and cleaning keep the group of 8-10 volunteers, who alternate every two weeks,  busy, with each of them offering their competences.

The Gelmini Association was founded in 2008, on the initiative of Ettore, who was then working as an engineer for the Technical Department of the Custody. He had already formed a first nucleus of volunteers a few years earlier, combining the needs of the Custody for renovation work with the desire of some of his friends to visit the places of the life of Jesus. The formula of the pilgrimage of service to the friars seemed the most suitable solution, where prayer, discovery and work come together. 

Emilio was one of  the first volunteers to return to Jerusalem this spring, after a pause of two years due to the pandemic. His group arrived at the Custody at the end of May, after a week in Nazareth, where they worked in the garden of the convent of the Clarissa sisters. He has been coming to the Holy Land since 2011 and remembers how, after several years, he has been able to reap the fruits of work begun more than a decade ago. “We started in archives that were brimming over with books and full of dust. We would move them from one side to the other, initially even without understanding the meaning but then, coming back year after year, we realized the logic.”

The Gelmini volunteers put themselves at the total disposal of the Custody: they do everything they are asked to do, also ensuring that they come into contact with the local communities. Preserving the stones to protect the  living stones that live in the land. The motto of the association effectively says “for the peoples of the Holy Land”, they explain to us as we dine on the first floor of the Maria Bambina guesthouse, where they stay when they are in Jerusalem.

“The hospitality in the guesthouse has also changed a lot… At first the rooms were not the modern ones where the pilgrims stay today but they were still the ones designed for the girls’ orphanage that  Maria Bambina had been. So the basins were small and low, for little girls. We would make do,” we are told with a smile. 

Voluntary service with the Gelmini Association is an experience that its members can no longer do without. And it has pushed them to return to the Holy Land year after year, for more than ten years. “It is an experience midway between a pilgrimage and a period of voluntary work,” Emilio continues. “The pilgrimage risks at times being too quick. The time is short,  and there are so many places to visit. And you end up running from one place to another, without being able to stop and reflect on the importance of the Holy Places. The two weeks of service leave room for prayer.” The Gelmini volunteers follow the rule of ora et labora. They start the day with prayer and interrupt their work to pray. 

Silvia, who lives in Milan but is originally from Puglia, has no doubts at all: “If it were up to me, I would stay here longer. But at home my grandchildren are always asking me, “Grandma, why are you always going to Jerusalem?”  

(Translated by Joan Rundo)

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