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Old road but new life

 Antica strada ma vita nuova  QUO-224
02 October 2021

Nuns invent work and find other incomes

Sister Rosamaria manages two elegant hotels on Ortigia island, in the ancient heart of the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Both buildings, complete with a wellness center, are owned by the Ursuline Sisters of the Holy Family. “We had to invent a job, so we followed the tourist vocation of the area”, explains the nun who in the mid-1990s was determined to realise this commercial enterprise following the spirit, she says, of the founder Sister Angela Merici: “Keep the old way but make new life”.

The first hotel they opened, called Domus Mariae, was formerly a dormitory, and then, in 1995, it was renovated to provide a more hospitable location. In 2008, the income that they had received permitted them to renovate Palazzo Interlandi, located across the way. This building had been a noble residence built in the fourteenth century, but had fallen into poor condition.  Today, it is the Domus Mariae Benessere vacation home, with a spa included.

The management of the two locations is all done by Sister Rosamaria, who in this way puts to good use her degree in Economics which she received from Bocconi University in Milan.

 “I recognise the criticism of those who think we want to make money”, she comments. “We offer 3-star prices for a 5-star service, while barely managing to cover our operating expenses and taxes. The state treats us as if we’re a big hotel chain but that’s not the case: we don’t have the staff and we don’t want to be purely a business. We are a service to the community like the hotel-clinics I was inspired by”.  Priests who want to stay receive a big discount for their overnight stay and so do families experiencing hardship, and so do disabled people who are able to spend relaxing days here at a very affordable price. Sister Rosamaria also often works as a receptionist to save on expenses: “My three sisters are in their nineties and help me with prayer”, she smiles. “All earnings must go into the common fund of the religious family, which then helps the sisters financially as needed”.  Their satisfaction are the guest’s positive reviews on the Booking website, for “We receive no salary and no help from the Vatican. We have to make do”.

Nuns become managers or entrepreneurs out of necessity. Like the Poor Clare nuns of Arundel, in Sussex, who last winter recorded an album of religious music played with electronic instruments that reached fifth place in the UK charts. The album is available on Amazon, at approximately 17 euros.

Because nuns have to make a living, they are learning to handle the tools of online sales. In France, where the Benedictine nuns of the Saint-Vincent abbey in Chantelle produce creams and lotions with an annual turnover of 1.2 million euros. This money is used entirely for the renovation of the ancient buildings. The monasteries have created the brand, ‘Made in Abbeys’ that brings together products made by monks and nuns. In Spain, the website declausura.org sells beers, jams, handmade creams, wafers or even capons bred specifically for Christmas lunch. In the United States, specifically in Flint (Michigan), the nuns of the Order of Preachers have started a production of work clothes destined for hospitals and made by women in need. Since they lacked managerial and business skills, they accepted the help of economics students from the local university.

However, business does not always go smoothly. The payoff is meager. It is a harsh concept; yet, it is what is happening everywhere throughout the world where women religious unleash their creativity to keep congregations going.

“We don’t have anything of our own”, specifies Sister Elizabeth of the Worker Sisters of the Holy House of Nazareth, who by charism has chosen to work in a company in the Padua area. All of her salary goes into the community’s account, which includes five religious sisters who refer to the congregation for the management of any expense, even the smallest. “If I want to give a wedding gift to a colleague, I have to share the decision with my community and if I receive gifts from my family, the same thing happens”, says Sister Elisabetta. This also applies to family inheritances: under canon law, if a sister receives property from her deceased parents, it is now customary for that property to become the property of the congregation.

“In our case, this happens very rarely”, comments Sister Agnese of the Carmelite Monastery in Carpineto Romano, located a few kilometers from Rome. Here, the main work is the making of scapulars, a tradition that still endures but which yields very little to the conventuals of this monastery. “We manage to produce a few thousand scapulars a year, which we sell for 50 cents each so as not to be subjected to competition from the industry, and therefore the income amounts to a few hundred euros”. The handicraft work of the fifteen religious currently residing in Carpineto Romano also includes the creation of scapulars painted in gold, the making of stoles and chasubles, tablecloths for Mass both painted and in gold, favors for baptisms or confirmations, rosary beads, bookmarks and small pictures. Requests also arrive online, even from abroad. A commitment of four hours a day to devote the rest of the time to prayer and the concrete management of the monastery. However, the turnover is so meager that in order to survive the nuns must receive food parcels from Caritas or accept donations from family members. There is also a little income from those who stay in the monastery for a spiritual retreat and who are asked, if possible, for a donation.

It is not uncommon for congregations to resort to another useful way of raising funds, i.e. donations in exchange for prayers. The Salesian Sisters in Haledon, New Jersey, ask for financial help for elderly religious in need of expensive care. The program is called Adopt a Sister: “As a sign of gratitude for your faith and friendship, the nun you ‘adopt’ will pray for you every day for a year”, the congregation assures in a concrete spirit. “But what really helps us is Providence”, concludes Sister Agnes.

by Laura Eduati