Goodbye (Hotel) Columbus — Hello to Bill Gates’ Four Seasons Chain?

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre denies Italian media reports that the Four Seasons Hotels group has been finalized as the manager of its hotel property in Rome.

The Palazzo di Domenico della Rovere in Borgo stands on the Via della Conciliazione in Rome.
The Palazzo di Domenico della Rovere in Borgo stands on the Via della Conciliazione in Rome. (photo: Dgruendel / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL 1.2)

VATICAN CITY — The Order of the Holy Sepulchre has said it is still considering which company to choose to run a hotel in a renaissance-era building it owns just outside St. Peter’s Square, casting doubts over Italian media reports that it had decided to give the contract to a luxury hotel chain majority-owned by the American billionaire Bill Gates.

Why it matters: Should the Order give the contract to the five-star luxury “Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts” group, it could reportedly be a potential embarrassment to the Order given Bill Gates’ pro-abortion and pro-contraceptive positions. Observers say it could also embarrass Pope Francis, who wants “a poor Church for the poor,” and clash with the increasing numbers of homeless who sleep outside the hotel and in St. Peter’s Square at night. Questions have also been raised about the competition process, raising the specter of another possible Vatican financial scandal, although the Order denies this. 

Details: According to an article in the May 18 edition of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the Four Seasons Hotels group was about to be announced as the new manager of the hotel space in the building — known as the Palazzo di Domenico della Rovere in Borgo — on the Via della Conciliazione, the boulevard leading up to St. Peter’s Basilica. It would spend 50-million euros, spread over a 27-year lease. Since September 2021, Gates’ investment company, Cascade Investment LLC, has owned 75% of the Four Seasons group after it took a massive controlling stake worth $2.21 billion in the hotel company. Gates himself is not personally involved in the Rome arrangement.

The palazzo — a Renaissance-era building older than St. Peter’s Basilica and featuring a turret, grand courtyard and frescoes by Pinturicchio on the main floor — was donated to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre by the Holy See, and is the only building at the Order’s disposal.

The mission of the order, which dates back to the Crusades and is made up of 30,000 knights and dames worldwide, is to support the religious, spiritual, charitable and social works and rights of the Catholic Church and Christians in the Holy Land, particularly of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

In recent years, a large part of the palazzo was leased to a family-run hotel company, and remittances were used to cover the costs of the order and sent as donations to the Latin Patriarchate. But the hotel — known as the “Hotel Columbus” — closed in 2018 after the settlement of a long-running dispute between the family and the Order. The building then fell vacant except for offices belonging to the Order.

Corriere della Sera claimed the Four Seasons business plan calls for “64 rooms plus 11 executive suites and 2 super-suites, starting at a rental cost of 490 euros per night, two high class restaurants, a spa, a gym, plus underground parking already under construction.”

What the Order says: In a statement dated May 2022, the Order said that since fall 2020, it “has been looking for a new company that can manage the hotel space and take charge of the necessary restoration work,” according to the “rules of transparency indicated by the Holy See” and with the approval of Rome authorities. 

It added that the grand master of the Order, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, set up an international commission to look into how to move the project forward in ways that “best correspond to the needs and purposes of the Order.” Each step of the process, it added, “has been reported to, and is approved by, the Secretariat for the Economy.” 

Corriere della Sera alleged irregularities in the awarding of the contract, claiming the Four Seasons group did not “formally participate” in the tender process, leading to at least one hotel company possibly lodging a formal complaint.

Possibly in response to this claim, the Order stressed in its statement that it was “aware of its responsibility to preserve and manage the property with care and transparency, in light of its mission of evangelization and concern for the Holy Land,” adding that “this ethical line is clear in the preliminary discussions underway with the candidate hotel companies.”

What the Register has discovered:  The facts are disputed. On the one hand, sources say it is widely known that the Order has decided on the Four Seasons group, but it is possibly reluctant to make the news public because of embarrassment. Other sources close to the Order insist that no award has been made about the palazzo and maintain that other companies are freely participating, and that the whole project is still under discussion. It was also not a public tender but a market survey, which was then followed by expressions of interest. The talks are ongoing and, therefore, no public updates are expected on the matter until a decision is made.