Domus Australia welcomed its first guests on 16 July 2011. They were a mother and daughter from Adelaide. Summer was in full swing and Rome was abuzz with tourists. There was a real sense of excitement and anticipation as the whole enterprise finally launched into action.
To arrive at that point, though, people from both sides of the world had to put in a mammoth effort over several years. From the search for a suitable property, to the negotiation and purchase of the site, from developing the scope and purpose of the centre to the design of the floor plan and choice of contractors, from the construction and restoration to the handing over of lots of keys, hundreds of people would be involved.
The project has gained a sort of legendary status here in Rome as it was finished on time, under budget and inaugurated in the presence of the successor of St Peter, who noted that the project had brought "a little corner of Australia to the ancient city of Rome."
There has been much interest in Rome, not just because it was undertaken in a period of economic uncertainty, nor because the results are stunning, but mainly because it speaks of a confidence in the future of the young Church in Australia. As one guest said, it makes you proud to be an Aussie!
Domus Australia is situated in the Port Pia area of Rome, near Termini, at the corner of Via Cernaia and Via Castelfidardo in what was once a Marist Fathers' property. Many Australian Marists are familiar with the property under its original guise and the Marist contribution to the Church in Oceania is a notable point of connection.
The property, which was built in 1890, has three main wings consisting of the administration block and information centre, the chapel and conference centre, and the accommodation and entertaining areas, including a rooftop terrace.
The whole building was strengthened, renovated and restored to bring it up to current building regulations and standards while maintaining the classical design prerequisites due to its position within the historic centre of Rome.
The moment a shovel is dug into the ground in Rome an archaeologist must be present. The thought of excavating an entire floor below ground therefore would make any builder nervous. In the course of the building works, as has been widely reported, several ruins dating to the first century BC were uncovered. These included part of the foundations of a large building of unknown use, some sewerage troughs complete with contents (!), and some brick pavement laid out in herringbone formation. All of these have been preserved and some are on public display.
The accommodation was specifically designed for the Australian traveller with king size beds and roomy showers and with a mind to the usual things that Aussies miss when out of the country, like the ability to make a cup of tea in their room!
While also being part of the management team, my role is primarily one of providing pastoral care for the visitors and guests. Naturally, I say Mass each day and am available for confession. Recently I started a holy hour on Thursday evenings for a group of Italian young people, which the locals from the area are starting to frequent as well.
Especially during the high season in the summer and autumn every breakfast and evening meal has provided an opportunity to mix with the guests. It's great to hear of their adventures at the churches and sites and to be able to suggest places that are of particular importance for first time visitors to Rome. Our Visitors Centre is able to provide information and tickets to Papal Audiences and special events.
The Chapel, which was completely renovated and restored, can seat up to 150 people. The majority of Australia's bishops concelebrated the Mass of Dedication of the new altar presided over by Cardinal George Pell on Sunday, 16 October. This was at the end of their retreat day as part of their ad limina visit. The St Mary's Cathedral Choir made wonderful use of the building's acoustic and restored organ for the occasion.
On Wednesday, 19 October, Pope Benedict XVI made an historic visit to Via Cernaia, 14/B. Arriving with members of the Papal Household, the Holy Father blessed and officially opened Domus Australia in the presence of the Australian bishops and many Aussie expats and special guests.
In thriving health and with enthusiasm the Pope said that the Church, like good parents, should provide her children with "roots and wings". That is a firm foundation in the faith and the freedom to live that out, strengthened by the sacraments. Domus Australia exists to help all visitors in their search for faith and freedom, while exploring the beauty and history of this fascinating Eternal City.
Cardinal Pell described the loyalty of the Australian bishops to the Pope as rock-solid, and Benedict XVI in turn prayed for the pilgrims that would come through the doors of Domus Australia. As he was leaving, having greeted some more guests outside in the courtyard, he repeated this pledge to me and promised to pray for me in my role as rector.
All Australians and indeed all visitors can say that they have a very good friend in Rome called Domus Australia.