Alessandra Tarantino  /  AP file
Sister Martina clears dishes during dinner for pilgrims in Casa Mater Mundi, an 88-bed hotel in Rome. Motherly inkeepers, spick-and-span bathrooms, some of the cheapest room rates in town, plus an ambiance of spirituality more than compensate for any inconvenience, say many travellers who are increasingly turning to convents in Italy for lodging.
updated 4/2/2007 1:45:19 PM ET 2007-04-02T17:45:19

In these jittery times, when traveling 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&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 travelers 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 traveling, 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 remodeling 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 percent 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" travelers whom the police find wandering around Rome in the night with nowhere to sleep.

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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 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 neighborhood 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."

"Sometimes it happens that a person confides a problem in us. We invite them to pray, or we pray for them," said the nun.

Sister Martina insisted that Holy Year financial breaks didn't influence their decision to open the hotel, which was once a convent that her order, the Sisters of the Institute of Divine Love, purchased from Franciscan nuns with dwindling members.

The place, with a garden shaded by leafy palm trees and towering pines, was needed primarily for novitiates who come from Peru and the Philippines to study, Sister Martina said.

"At first we had only expenses," said Sister Martina, citing the remodeling to meet European Union safety standards and to give guests private bathrooms, TVs and phones. "But now there is some money left over" from the lodging business to help the nuns in poor countries.

Mater Mundi has an 11 p.m. curfew, a little later than some other convents, and some double beds, compared to the twin beds many other convent hotels offer even to married couples.

Rev. Gregory Apparcel, of Santa Susanna church, which administers to the U.S. Catholic community in Rome, said he hears some complaints about curfews, but "most people don't care. They are dead tired by 9 p.m." after a day of pounding the cobblestones of Rome.

"I know there are a lot more people going" to convents "because I get a lot of people writing" for information, said Apparcel, whose church's Web site lists convent lodgings in Italy. "Since Pope John Paul II died, the number has jumped enormously."

Vavassori of Touring Club Italiano said that while modest prices are the big attraction of religious lodgings in Rome, convents and monasteries are popular in mountain and other remote, panoramic places because they often are the only lodging around for miles.

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Photos: Italian dreams

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