Convents catch on in Italy as clean, cheap hotels





Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

Topin this file photo a nun stands in front of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Bottom, Sister Martina clears dishes during dinner for pilgrims in Casa Mater Mundi, an 88-bed hotel which opened in the Holy Year in a residential neighbourhood in Rome. Travellers are increasingly turning to convents in Italy for lodging.

In these jittery times, when travelling might seem to come down to a wing and a prayer, a few prayers as perks with bed and breakfast can be a welcome extra.

So what if these B and B’s also have strict curfews in this Eternal City? Motherly innkeepers, spick-and-span bathrooms, some of the cheapest room rates in town plus an ambiance of spirituality more than compensate for any inconvenience, find that many travellers like staying in convents in Italy for lodging.

“We feel very, very secure here, which is very important when you are in a strange country,” said Joan Shoti, a middle-aged woman from Sydney, Australia, staying at Fraterna Domus, a hotel run by nuns whose religious mission is hospitality.

The hotel is “the most spotless place you can imagine, but the most important thing is the caring you get from these nuns,” said Shoti. “Of course, nowadays you feel very insecure travelling, but when one stops in a place like this, one feels totally safe.”

Sister Milena, who helps run the 40-guest Fraterna Domus inn a few blocks from Piazza Navona, said the Missionaries of the Fraterna Domus (Latin for “brotherly house”) was among the first to have lodgings for tourists and pilgrims.

“Now everybody does it,” said Sister Milena. “We carry out the charisma of hospitality.”

Many of the convents started opening their doors to paying guests in the run-up to the Holy Year in 2000, when the religious and millennium celebrations drew 25 million visitors to Rome.

Worried about a shortage of hotel rooms, the government offered low-cost mortgages and remodelling loans to convents and monasteries.

Massimiliano Vavassori, a researcher for the Milan-based Touring Club Italiano, which monitors tourist trends in the country and publishes a guide to convent lodgings, said there are no firm figures on how many convents are now in the lodging business or how much revenue the guests generate.

“More than 50 per cent of the religious places aren’t registered” as lodgings, Vavassori said. In some cases, “it’s a case of a friend lending help. You can (just) leave an offering since the hospitality is offered for charity, not for business,” he said in a telephone interview.

Sister Milena said the nuns occasionally take in “desperate” travellers whom the police find wandering around Rome in the night with nowhere to sleep. Those guests aren’t charged, she said. But paying guests at convents get a good deal in Rome, where modest hotels can charge upward of $190 US a night for a double and hostels are rare.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike are among the guests at Fraterna Domus who pay $104 a night for a room with twin beds, private bathroom and fluffy towels emblazoned with the convent’s name. A crucifix is affixed in each room.

Many convents also serve bargain-priced dinners, cooked by nuns who ladle out pasta, soup and salad and pass around carafes of wine for guests and for diners who walk in off the street. Nuns clean the bathrooms and make the beds, helping to keep costs down.

Don’t look for baskets of complimentary toiletries in these nunneries, and many of the rooms have no TV, wet bars or even phones. But intangibles abound. “There are pilgrims who need (human) contact, a word,” said Sister Martina, who helps direct Casa Mater Mundi, an 88-bed hotel which opened in the Holy Year in a residential neighbourhood in Rome.

“There’s a chapel. Some (guests) pray. Some even pray with us. There’s apostolate in that,” Sister Martina said. “I’m not saying we preach, but when we respond to them, our response is religious.”Associated Press