NEW YORK — Sonia Salerni was recently sitting at the kitchen table of her bed and breakfast, talking to two new guests who had stopped by, when she heard a familiar late-afternoon sound. From across the street, the bells of St. Mary's Catholic Church were ringing, reminding the faithful that it was 6 p.m. “It's time for the Angelus,” she announced.
And then — in commemoration of the Incarnation — she, her husband Tom and their guests began to pray.
When the prayer ended, she resumed the conversation, as if praying with strangers were the most natural occasion in the world. In fact, it is. The Salernis are not shy about sharing their faith. Consider the name of their business: Holy Family Bed and Breakfast.
Or, more accurately, consider why Tom views it more like “our little call,” rather than a business.
“As just strictly a business, it wouldn't make sense,” he says. “Because the amount of work, time and care that go into this, you can only give because you think you're doing what you should be doing in response to the [Holy] Spirit.”
Their ministry involves praying, discussing and sharing their faith with guests, about 80% of whom are pro-life Catholics and Protestants.
When hosting the latter, or non-believers, the couple say they are “tactful” in talking about their faith.
“My approach is to listen,” Tom says. “If they want to hear some thoughts, I'll give what my heart is hearing. But mostly I listen. That's the best way I can share my faith, by sharing my ears. And then if there is a word to be said, hopefully I'll respond to the promptings of the Spirit.”
From the outside, it's impossible to tell that the three-story, red-brick townhouse, situated minutes from midtown Manhattan, is run by a devout Catholic couple. The building is plain; it doesn't even have a sign. The only hint of what the place is about comes near the front door, where there's a small statue of the Blessed Mother and a St. Francis holy water font. But open the door, and you immediately realize that this is no ordinary bed and breakfast.
On the walls of each floor are crucifixes, paintings and statues of angels and Jesus, St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary. There are also several bulletin boards, filled with pro-life items — articles, bumper stickers, prayers and photos of guests and posters, including a large Knights of Columbus sign on the first floor that says “The Natural Choice Is Life.”
Even the names of the rooms have a Catholic connection: St. Mary, Gesu Bambino, Sacre Coeur, St. Joseph, and Sts. Ann and Joachim. For those who want to relax, the Familyland and Eternal Word Television Networks are available for viewing in each of the guest rooms, while books by Catholic authors line the shelves in the Holy Trinity sitting area, which has a five-foot-tall statue of the Blessed Mother.
When the Salernis, along with Tom's father and brother, bought the vacant building in 1996, the original plan was to use it as office space for a business partnership between Tom and his now-deceased father, who was an architect.
“We more cooperated with the unfolding events rather than planning it naturally,” says Tom, 50, who now works as an architect for Queens College in Flushing, and helps his wife at Holy Family in his free time. “I don't think we could have planned this.”
Tom hadn't even planned on becoming a Catholic. Even though he is of Italian heritage, his grandparents' religious backgrounds were Waldensian Protestant and his parents, who immigrated to New York City, ended up marrying in the Methodist Church. Growing up in the Astoria section of Queens, he and his family rarely went to church. They only celebrated the major feasts — though he says his parents had a deep reverence for God, mainly from centuries of the Catholic faith permeating their culture.
When Tom was in his 20s, he started on a spiritual quest, trying out a number of different denominations.
In 1984, at age 33, after “seven years of blessed investigation,” Tom was baptized a Catholic.
Sonia, 54, meanwhile, grew up in Manila with a father who was a cultural Catholic and a mother with a Marian devotion. “Magnetized” by the Eucharist, she felt an intense devotion to the Catholic faith and, by the time she was 14, she dreamed of becoming a Carmelite nun.
She never did, but she learned a lot about America from an American priest in Manila who was her spiritual confessor. She remembers him telling her about the Roe v. Wade verdict and calling it “a dangerous time.” He predicted that it would lead to a lot of killings of unborn babies. The seed of her pro-life activism had been planted.
When Sonia moved to America in 1979, she worked several jobs before taking a job at the United Nations in 1980. She lived for almost a decade at a woman's dormitory in the Times Square area run by Polish nuns and was active in church activities. Then, one day in 1990, she attended a Legion of Mary lecture. The speaker: Tom Salerni. The topic: the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They married in June of 1991 and, during their four-week honeymoon, visited Marian pilgrimage sites throughout Europe, staying primarily at bed and breakfasts. Another seed was planted — their love of bed and breakfast lodgings.
The only hint of what the place is about comes near the front door, where there's a small statue of the Blessed Mother and a St. Francis holy water font.
Although she was well compensated at the U.N., Sonia wasn't finding spiritual fulfillment in her job — especially since most people there favored population control. So she began leading novenas to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and the Sacred Heart at Holy Family, a church near the U.N. She also began praying the rosary in front of abortion clinics and attending March for Life rallies in Washington, D.C., with her husband.
Then, in 1996, still unhappy at work, Sonia quit the United Nations, where she had been working in the General Assembly, preparing the agenda and informational materials for officials. The buyout money she received went toward renovating the three-story townhouse that housed Tom and his father's architecture office. Since the top floor wasn't being used, it became a place that the Salernis rented out. Their first guest was a Polish priest.
After Tom's father died in 1997, Tom didn't want to continue the architect's business without his partner. That's when the Holy Family Bed and Breakfast idea solidified and became a full-fledged reality.
Over the years, some guests have arrived and then departed because the bed and breakfast is a bit too Catholic for their tastes. There was the time when two Muslim men asked that religious images be removed from their room. The Salernis refused, and the men left.
Other guests like the environment. “It feels more like home,” says Maureen McGeary, 30, who lives on Long Island and stays at Holy Family usually one day a week because it's close to the Catholic church she attends in Manhattan. She added that she likes the Salernis' friendliness and warmth and the fact that they believe in God and Jesus, like she does.
Meanwhile the Lockes, a retired couple from Connecticut, searched the Internet for lodgings close to Manhattan and picked Holy Family because it seemed like “a nice, safe place,” says Judith Locke, who adds that she and her husband happen to be pro-life Catholics. She considers Holy Family's Catholic environment to be “a plus,” but that didn't factor into the final decision of where they stayed. Mainly, she likes the fact that it's a “quiet and clean” place.
Guests, who come from all over the world, usually hear about the bed and breakfast through word-of-mouth referrals, the Internet, local church bulletins, and through the Salernis' involvement in various Catholic groups, such as the Apostolate for Family Consecration and the American Life League.
Sonia says owning Holy Family is “a 48-hour-a-day” job. Still, she feels like she's “doing something for the greater glory of God.” And, to her, that's the best work in the world.
Carlos Briceño writes from Woodside, New York.