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A Tale of Two Dames

At the beginning of this year, a small group of Lay Centre residents and friends started asking the question, “During this anniversary year, how can we appropriately honor all the work that Donna and Riekie have put in over the last 25 years?”

And the answer presented itself: “We cannot… but the pope can!”

On Thursday, December 1, 2011, the co-founders of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas were invested with two of the pontifical orders of knighthood:

  • Prof. Donna Orsuto was created a
          Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great;
  • Ms. Riekie van Velzen was created a
           Dame of the Order of Pope St. Sylvester.

The investiture took place during a mass celebrated at the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo by Archbishop Joseph Tobin, CSsR, Secretary of the Pontifical Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in front of over 150 residents, guests, and friends of the Lay Centre.

Archbishop Tobin invests Dames Donna and Riekie with the regalia of their orders

Archbishop Tobin invests Dames Donna and Riekie with the insignia of their orders

The Eucharist was part of a week of events celebrating the Lay Centre’s 25th anniversary and a new alliance with the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago, IL, USA. The papal honors were a surprise to nearly everyone present, even the honorees.

“When Donna invited me to celebrate this liturgy tonight, she mentioned that St. Gregory the Great had grown up in the neighborhood and played on the property,” Archbishop Tobin said just before introducing the awards, “she had no idea that her relationship with St. Gregory was about to move to a new level!”

Truth be told, we were a little concerned that if Donna or Riekie found out beforehand, they would be too nervous or too humble to accept!

Nancy Lindsay, chair of the Board of Directors, introduced the nomination at the end of the homily. Archbishop Tobin read the papal briefs officially creating the Church’s two newest Dames, and blessed the insignia of the Orders before presenting them to Professor Orsuto and Ms. van Velzen. I had the great privilege to serve as Master of Ceremonies for the entire liturgy, including preparing the Rite of Investiture (based on resources borrowed from the Association of Papal Orders in Great Britain, who have an excellent website)

Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great

Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great

The orders carry no obligations, and primarily only ceremonial privileges: Both women are now entitled with the style “Dame” (the female equivalent of “Sir”), post-nominal lettering of the order (Donna Orsuto, DSG; Riekie van Velzen, DSS), a place in processions and seating in the sanctuary during liturgies and church events, etc. They even earn salutes from the Swiss Guard if they are wearing the insignia of the order. But the right attached to the orders that both seemed most interested in was that, as Equestrian Orders, the new Dames have the privilege of riding a horse into St. Peter’s Basilica! (Not that anyone has tried in recent decades…)

The Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great was founded in 1831 by Pope Gregory XVI. It is conferred as a reward for services to the Holy See and the Church on gentlemen and ladies who “by reason of their nobility, the renown of their deeds, or the degree of their munificence are deemed worthy to be honored by a public expression of esteem on the part of the Holy See.”

Pontifical Order of Pope St. Sylvester

Pontifical Order of Pope St. Sylvester

The Pontifical Order of Pope St. Sylvester was founded a decade later, in 1841, also by Pope Gregory XVI. It is conferred as an honor for “the laity who are active in the apostolate, in particular in the exercise of their professional duties and masters of the different arts.”

On a personal note, I have to say thank you a thousand times (mille grazie!) to Bishop Brian Farrell of the PCPCU for helping us navigate the process of the nominations, and devoting a great deal of time to the effort on our behalf. It is not as if he has nothing else to do, as secretary of a Pontifical Council and on the team leading the Apostolic Visitation of the Legion of Christ! The demands of his office even meant he could not be there in person, to deliver the awards he had helped obtain, as he was in Constantinople representing Pope Benedict to Patriarch Bartholomew on the patronal feast day of the Holy See of Constantinople (St. Andrew’s Day, 30 November).

Likewise many thanks to Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald for his support and direction in the process, Archbishop Joseph Tobin for presenting the honors on behalf of the Holy Father, to Cardinal Koch for his sponsorship of the nomination, and to Cardinal Bertone for his approval of the same!



  1. […] on. Thankfully, all these little things went largely unnoticed by most, or were overshadowed by the big surprise that went off beautifully […]

  2. Eveline says:

    Well done AJ. Our dames Donna and Riekie deserve it.

  3. Jimmy Mac says:

    Having had the privilege of meeting both and participating in some of the Lay Centre activities over the past few years, I echo the kudos well deserved by these two Dames.

    Ad multos annos!

  4. […] Lay Centre 25th Anniversary and Papal Knighthood for co-founders […]

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