Rome’s changing religious landscape

ROME — Church of the Seven DolorsI stopped in the other day at the Church of the Seven Dolors in Via Garibaldi, a hidden gem tucked into the side of Rome’s Janiculum Hill. Designed by the Baroque architect Francesco Borromini in the mid-1600s, it is flanked by a large convent of Augustinian sisters.

The sisters ran a nursery school there until a few years ago, and in the late 1980s our daughter attended. The teacher was Suor Lucia, an octogenarian with limitless energy who had a no-nonsense approach that seemed to work wonders with her rough Trastevere students.

I knew the complex had recently been restored, and when I stepped inside the courtyard I could see the place looked refurbished. But something didn’t seem right. The church door was closed, and the door of the convent had two potted plants and a red carpet outside.

I soon discovered that the convent had been transformed into a hotel — not just any hotel, but a very ritzy one. The Donna Camilla Savelli Hotel is named after the Duchess Camilla Virginia Savelli, the Roman woman who had the idea for the original convent in 1642 and paid for its construction. The hotel offers elegant accommodations, sitting rooms, a bar and a panoramic rooftop garden. A room for two costs about $450, while the Imperial Suite goes for $1,200 a night — I’m sure that’s more than Suor Lucia’s annual budget back in the day.

I asked about the nuns, and it turns out there are four left. They’ve moved into a smaller annex, and they open the church for an hour every morning.

Rome’s landscape is dotted with religious houses, convents and monasteries. For years the prevailing wisdom was that even in the face of declining membership, religious order should hold on to their property. You never knew when the next springtime of vocations might occur. Some orders have, in fact, kept their convents fairly full, mainly with sisters from Third World countries. But others have gradually emptied. Some of these complexes are big and cost a lot to heat and maintain. And in today’s European economy, hanging on to vacant real estate is not a good move.

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