The Lebanese Connection

When a friend sent me a list of inexpensive hotels in Rome, I booked two rooms for Holy Week under the listing of "Lebanese Nuns"--partially out of desperation, mostly out of curiosity. Lebanese nuns in Rome? The thought of staying at a convent alarmed my 14-year-old son, who has been raised in a loose Judeo-Christian tradition. Would we have to partake in any religious rituals? he wanted to know.

No sooner did my husband, son, daughter, and I exit the G.R.A. (the beltway around Rome) but we became lost. When I approached two cyclists to ask directions to the area called Monteverdi Vecchio, one readily agreed to lead us there himself, as it was his neighborhood and he was heading home. Following him for several miles in and out of traffic, up and down hills, while he fearlessly took lefts and rights across large avenues, our stay in Rome was already turning out to be extraordinary.

A turn onto the horseshoe-shaped Via Fratelli Bandiera landed us in the midst of a labyrinth of streets carved into Rome's westernmost hill, Gianicolo. Beautiful old villas in what was once a very affluent section of the city rose in layers of wide tile roofs on the hillside. Behind a locked gate was the courtyard and entrance to the more contemporary three-story convent of the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross.

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We were met at the gate by the sweet, middle-aged Sister Innocence Rizcallah, who barely spoke above a whisper in Italian--our voices dropped an octave or two to accommodate hers and the stillness of the convent into which she had led us. It was Palm Sunday, and in a small living room a group of nuns was watching an event being televised from the Vatican nearby. The feeling was entirely homey: Elderly Mother Superior appeared to ask Sister Innocence to open a vial of medication for her, but on discovering us greeted us pleasantly.

The two had come to Rome from Lebanon some 25 years before with the intention of providing free lodging for members of their order, The Franciscan Sisters of the Cross. While their guests still included nuns (mostly from Africa) and some priests who were spending time in the Eternal City, paying lay families had become very welcome.

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