The Catholic church’s Order of the Holy Sepulchre and Bill Gates’ luxury Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts are discussing the possibility of opening an upscale hotel near St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Aimed at the wealthier among the tourists and pilgrims visiting the Eternal City, the hotel would be located in the Palazzo di Domenico della Rovere on Via della Conciliazione, the main street which leads up to St. Peter’s Square.

The Palazzo della Rovere is a Renaissance building featuring a turret, a large courtyard and frescoes by the Italian artist Pinturicchio. Formerly owned by the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, it is currently the global headquarters of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The order has 30,000 knights and dames worldwide, all dedicated to providing financial support to the Catholic church in the Holy Land.

Funds from the order are given to the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem, which operates pastoral, educational and social enterprises in Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Cyprus.

A $52.4m, 27-year contract

The negotiations between the order and the Four Seasons chain involve a proposed 27-year contract worth $52.4m.

The luxurious hotel would feature a spa, gym and restaurants staffed by renowned chefs. The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, headquartered in Toronto, operates more than 100 hotels and resorts worldwide.

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The chain was founded by Canadian hotelier Isadore Sharp, but Bill Gates has been its majority stakeholder since 2007 through his Cascade Investment holding company, which owns 71%.

According to documents obtained by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, negotiations began following the closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic of the Hotel Columbus, which previously occupied the Palazzo della Rovere.

The order’s grand master, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, gave his consent for a public tender for the property at the end of 2020.

More than 60 offers were initially made and the list was narrowed down to three candidates which included the Four Seasons chain.

The proposed contract would set an annual rent of just over $1 million and include the reconstruction of the property and restoration of the frescoes.

A place to stay for the Jubilee of Hope

The proposed hotel will have 64 rooms, 11 executive suites and two super suites, with a starting rate of $514 per night. An underground parking area is already under construction.

It is hoped to have the contract signed and the work complete for the wealthier tourists and pilgrims attending the Catholic church’s 2025 Jubilee of Hope. A jubilee is regarded as a special holy year of grace and pilgrimage in the church, and this will be the first such year since 2000.

Critics of the proposal argue that the presence of a luxury hotel on church-owned property contradicts the vision of a “poor church for the poor” promoted by its current leader, Pope Francis.

The hotel’s location near where homeless people seek shelter at night has also raised concerns.

Several companies that lost the bid, including the Radisson and Centurion Hotel Management chains, are considering filing a formal complaint with the Vatican gendarmerie, and even pursuing a class action lawsuit.

They claim that the Four Seasons chain entered the tender late and exceeds the specified rating of four or fewer stars.

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre has defended their decision-making process, stating that they have a responsibility to manage the property transparently and take care of their entrusted possessions.

They emphasise that the income generated from the hotel would cover management costs, allowing all donations received to be directed to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and fulfill their mission of supporting the Holy Land.

Cardinal Filoni to evaluate hotel management options

The order stated that they have been diligently searching for a new company to manage the vacancy left by the Hotel Columbus and to ensure that the restoration work aligns with the city of Rome’s standards.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni has established an international commission to evaluate the options for the hotel’s management.

The order emphasised that each step of the process has received approval from the Vatican’s secretariat for the economy, underscoring its commitment to transparency.

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre also expressed its awareness of the ethical considerations surrounding the project and asserted that ongoing preliminary talks with the potential hotel companies adhere to these principles.

They remain dedicated to their mission of evangelisation and attention to the Holy Land, while responsibly preserving and managing the property.

As negotiations between the order and Four Seasons continue, the future of the luxury hotel near St. Peter’s Basilica remains a topic of debate, raising questions about the balance between opulence and the church’s commitment to social justice.