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Vacuuming capitals

Volunteers love to tell visitors stories about the Laurenskerk. But they also have wonderful personal stories to tell.

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It’s cold in the Laurenskerk, because the underfloor heating isn’t working. Organ music booms around the space as somebody practices on the instrument. Three enthusiastic Laurenskerk volunteers gathered around an electric heater in the coffee corner talk about their experiences with one of the most striking buildings in the centre of Rotterdam. Two of them work together in the coffee corner, and the third has been a big devotee of the church since his youth and guides visitors around.

Plaster from Amsterdam

The guide recalls that even during the war years he played on the piles of rubble that lay around the church. Although part of the structure remained standing during the fire, the building was badly damaged. Later, in the 1950s, he witnessed the renovation. For instance, he got to know the sculptor responsible for reconstructing many of the sculptures that now grace the church. Luckily, plaster casts of the embellishments had been made before the war and were stored in Amsterdam. Thanks to this, the original decorations could be recast after the fire. The capitals – tops of the columns – were chiselled in a shed on site, following the model of the plaster casts. The sculptor even made a few small plaster casts for him as a present to take home.

Imposing building

“I always knew I wanted to go to the Laurenskerk,” explains another volunteer about her choice to help maintain this striking building. She simply felt attached to it. And it is an open, easily accessible church that relies on volunteers. It’s very enjoyable to work in such a fine building with a great atmosphere. Perhaps that’s because of the simplicity, or perhaps it’s the imposing grandeur. And its history is also impressive. Every morning the sacristan opens the door. That’s the person who ensures that everything runs smoothly in the building. In a church like Laurenskerk, that calls for quite a bit of effort, because the building is now used for all sorts of functions. One of the volunteers was also sacristan ‘of the Laurens’ for 7.5 years. It was never her ambition, but the opportunity just came her way once. And it went well, although the days were long, certainly on Sundays. But it is special because the ‘Laurens’ is still the symbol of Rotterdam, one of the few buildings that remain from before the war.

Perhaps that’s because of the simplicity, or perhaps it’s the imposing grandeur. And its history is also impressive.

Coming home

Visitors sometimes come with remarkable stories. The photos of the damaged church hanging in the coffee corner are always popular attractions. “One time I had an elderly German lady at the desk,” the volunteer recalls, “who asked if they had done that? Tears were streaming down her face.” That’s what’s so special about working in the church. You get to know so many people from other countries. “Working in the church is a bit like coming home.” The volunteers are always glad when they arrive. There are also plenty of regular visitors, such as the group from Oud-Beijerland who visit the church on Saturday, and the stamp collectors who gather in the coffee corner every Saturday morning. When the sacristan opens the door at 11 am, they’re already waiting outside. Visitors also often ask about their family, about who got married in the church and when, and where people are buried. The volunteers do their best to help, or to refer them to the right address. The volunteer who likes to guide people around even conducted archival research into the tombs in the church floor. There were some 1400 of them, each with a story of its own.

“One time I had an elderly German lady at the desk,” the volunteer recalls, “who asked if they had done that? Tears were streaming down her face.”

Taking turns to make a round

The church is characterised by special details that the volunteers have a particular bond with. For instance, one of the ladies says that the space that strikes her most of all is the choir of the church, the space where the altar is located and where church services are held. More specifically, she is particularly fond of the majestic copper choir railing, which survived the war. The other coffee lady says she feels attached to the whole building, not necessarily to one particular spot inside. The ladies often work together in the church. Then they always make their rounds. “Hey, would you mind making a round?” They can also check whether the panels in the choir need to be closed again.

More specifically, she is particularly fond of the majestic copper choir railing, which survived the war.

Nuns’ gallery

The man is more taken by the imposing graves in the church, mostly of heroes of the sea. He’s only too pleased to point them out and has a lot to tell about them. All the details rapidly pass in revue during an enthusiastic tour of the building. He points out the gun barrel on which a hero in marble rests, his open visor beside him, the poetic texts carved into the graves, and the various chapels designed by artists. In the choir the sacristan moves around on a mobile lift that reaches to the ceiling, a vacuum cleaner in one hand. It’s the only way to keep the capitals nice and clean. “The sacristan can do everything,” the guide explains.

“The sacristan can do everything,”

The volunteers point out the beams in the roof of the church, high beneath the ridge. One of the ladies once walked on those beams when she helped the sacristan to replace the lamps. A small door in the wall leads you up. And up there, it is sometimes said, you’ll also find the triforium, also known as the ‘nuns’ gallery’. But the railing in front of that corridor was only placed in 1915, so it seems unlikely that a nun ever walked there. “For goodness sake, the nuns would have come crashing down.”

Every detail

After the sacristan descends back down to the stone floor of the church, he briefly talks about his relation with the church: “You start to see every detail”. He has to be careful not to spend all day and night in the church. “In a way, the building becomes part of you, but it’s really great.”

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