ROME – Initial negotiations have begun between the Catholic Church’s Order of the Holy Sepulcher and Bill Gates’s Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts chain about the potential opening of a luxury hotel near St. Peter’s Basilica, catering to the wealthier tourists and pilgrims visiting the Eternal City.
The property in question is the Palazzo di Domenico della Rovere in Borgo, simply called “Palazzo della Rovere,” which is located along the Via della Conciliazione, the main street leading up to the embrace of Bernini’s colonnades in St. Peter’s Square.
Previously owned by the Jesuit order, the building now belongs to the Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, which consists of roughly 30,000 Knights and Dames throughout the world, who are dedicated to providing financial support to the church in the Holy Land.
The funds are given to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which operates pastoral, educational, and social works in the territories of Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Cyprus.
The building dates from the Renaissance and contains a turret, a large courtyard, and ancient frescoes by Italian artist Pinturicchio, and is the only property owned by the Order of the Holy Sepulcher. It currently serves as the Order’s global headquarters.
Until recently, the building was occupied by the family-run Hotel Columbus, which closed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only the Order’s administrative offices remained open.
Now, the Order is in initial negotiations with the Four Seasons chain for a 27-year, roughly $52.4 million contract for a swanky new hotel complete with a spa, gym, and restaurants staffed by world-renowned chefs.
The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is headquartered in Toronto and operates more than 100 hotels and resorts worldwide.
Although it was founded by Canadian hotelier Isadore Sharp, since 2007 Microsoft founder Bill Gates has been a majority stakeholder in the chain, owning around 71 percent through his Cascade Investment holding company.
According to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, which claims to have documents related to the negotiations, after the closing on the Hotel Columbus, the Order of the Holy Sepulcher’s Grand Master, Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, gave his consent at the end of 2020 for a public tender for the property.
The tender noted that it was for hotels rated with four or fewer stars.
Within weeks, nearly 60 offers were made, and that list eventually dwindled to 10. Last summer, the Order reportedly reduced the number to just three candidates for the contract, eliminating other prominent chains such as Hilton and Marriott.
Negotiations with Four Seasons have just begun. According to Corriere della Sera, the multi-million-dollar contract would stipulate an annual rent of just over $1 million and would include the reconstruction of the property and restoration of the frescoes.
A business plan for the hotel includes 64 rooms plus 11 executive suites and two super suites, with a starting cost of around $514 a night. It also includes an underground parking area already under construction.
The goal is to have the contract signed and the work completed in time to host pilgrims and tourists, albeit wealthier ones, in time for the 2025 Jubilee of Hope.
Critics of the decision have argued that placing such a luxurious hotel on property owned by the church runs in direct contradiction with the “Pope of the poor” and his vision of a “poor church for the poor.”
Notably, the hotel would be located near where many homeless people sleep at night, taking refuge under the cover of several buildings just outside St. Peter’s Square.
Several companies that lost the bid, including the Radisson and the Centurion Hotel Management chains, have said they are considering whether to lodge a formal complaint with the Vatican Gendarmerie, and have even threatened a class action suit if they believe it is warranted, saying Four Seasons entered the tender late and is a five-star chain, above the stipulations of the tender.
In a statement published on their website May 18, the Order of the Holy Sepulcher defended their decision-making process as regards the Palazzo della Rovere, saying the Order, “Like a faithful and prudent administrator…has a duty to take care of everything that has been entrusted to it and that it manages with transparency.”
“Until recently, part of the building was rented to a hotel company to cover, through remittances, the management costs of the Order, so that all the donations received can actually be directed to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem,” they said, insisting that this was the idea behind the donation of the property to the Order “from the beginning.”
The Order said it has been looking for a new company to manage the vacancy left by the Hotel Columbus, one that can do the necessary restoration work in line with the city of Rome.
To this end, an international commission was established by Filoni to evaluate the options.
“This Commission has indicated its preferences and has chosen – in accordance with the rules laid down by Pope Francis for the Holy See – the manifestations of interest, following market research, that best correspond to the needs and purposes of the Order,” they said.
They insisted that each step of the process has been approved by the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, and said the Order is aware of its responsibility “to preserve and manage the property with care and transparency, in the light of its mission of evangelization and attention to the Holy Land.”
“This ethical line is clear in the ongoing preliminary talks with the candidate hotel companies,” the Order said.
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