In early December I stumbled on what may be the largest breakfast in Chicago. It didn't come with a flashy, down-home title, like the "Monster Truck Driver Combo" or the "Peterbilt Protein Pile-up." Instead it was served to me in near silence, by two demure monks at the Monastery of the Holy Cross, where I was staying as a guest at the bed-and-breakfast (chicagomonk.org).
The piping-hot homemade bonanza created just for me, a solo traveler, looked like this: three blueberry muffins, two strawberry-stuffed croissant French toast sandwiches, hash browns amounting to at least one large potato, three sausage links, strawberry yogurt, a half carafe of orange juice, a small pitcher of Michigan maple syrup and a plate of fresh pineapple and strawberries, which had been smothered in maple syrup. The monks, it seems, are related to Buddy the Elf.
Diabetic shock aside, you can't argue with the rate of $165 a night (prices increase according to how many people are in the party and include that giant breakfast) for an entire apartment in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, south of the Loop. The Garden House B&B, which actually is a two-flat behind the monastery, serves as the main source of income for the monks. The Garden Apartment, where I stayed, is on the first floor and has a kitchen, two bedrooms, one bathroom, a dining room, a living room (with a futon), TV and DVD player. The Loft Apartment upstairs has three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, a breakfast room and a kitchenette. I wondered, before my stay, if I should take my own hair dryer. There was no need. Both apartments come with all the amenities you'd expect in a hotel and more: iron, hair dryer, coffee, tea, free parking, toiletries, even a pack of Pond's makeup-removal wipes, which, I must say, are fabulous.
Upon my arrival, I asked if there are any rules to abide by. I wasn't planning on throwing a wild party or anything, but I'd done some reading online and found that some religious room rentals come with certain expectations.
"Can unmarried couples stay here?" I asked the guest master when I checked in. "Is there a curfew?" As he handed me the keys to the apartment, he assured me that they don't ask any questions about relationships, and there are no curfews. He emphasized that they strive to offer the same hospitality as any hotel, and the only rules are no smoking and no pets. He did mention a few times of the religious services and invited me to attend but was never anything but polite about it.
Religious accommodations for both religious and nonreligious guests are certainly nothing new. But because they're not always advertised, travelers generally don't hear about them unless they know to search them out. Kind and welcoming, the Benedictines, an order of the Roman Catholic faith, have a long history of welcoming travelers. The founder of the order, St. Benedict, often is quoted as saying, "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for him himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
While stays in monasteries and convents are more frequently associated with Europe, there are a number of religious institutions across the U.S., including in the Midwest, that open their doors to travelers regardless of faith. Within their walls you can expect to find a clean, safe, peaceful setting and affordable prices.
In 2008, author Trish Clark published the first of three guidebooks on religious accommodations around the world ("Good Night and God Bless," with new editions in 2009 and 2010), which with her website at goodnightandgodbless.com offer an overview of many of those spots, including a handful here in the Midwest.
Clark, who lives in New South Wales, Australia, said that she has been staying in convents, monasteries and other spiritual spots for more than 30 years. She created her guides because she met so many people who were interested in doing the same but didn't know where to begin.
"My mantra has always been that these places are cheap, clean, safe and almost always well-located, and I think these are some of the reasons they attract guests," Clark said. "However, they also attract the traveler who is looking for a unique experience, something different."
Through her decades of experience, she does offer this piece of advice to travelers: Be sure that you speak with the hosts before arrival and make sure that they do, indeed, welcome tourists. Many properties are interested only in providing more of a spiritual retreat experience and are less interested in travelers seeking a good deal.
"A religious guesthouse offering accommodation to those who are looking for a spiritual experience is very different to one that offers tourist accommodation," Clark said. "There are usually strict rules here: silence, compulsory attendance at certain prayers and religious celebrations, etc. Important not to get the two mixed up," she said.
At the Monastery of the Holy Cross, the motto is "Silence in the City," and it's spot on. The front door of the house opens into a quiet section of the Bridgeport neighborhood. The only noise I heard all night was a neighborly conversation on the sidewalk revolving around dog walking. It was cozy as could be, and I spent a fair amount of time in the living room watching "Good Times" reruns and working.
Glancing around at the eclectic wood furnishings and gold lamps, I thought to myself that this feels like the kind of apartment you might expect your parents to downsize to, with the exception of the midsize crucifix above the twin bed in the second bedroom. At least, in the case of my parents.
Are you monastery material?
Trish Clark, author of "Good Night and God Bless," has been staying in religious accommodations for more than three decades. She suggests that tourists ask these questions before making a reservation:
Are guests given their own key and can they come and go? Is there a closing time or curfew?
Can men stay in these places? Are families welcome?
Are all meals available? If not, are cafes/restaurants or transportation nearby?
Do guest rooms have in-suite bathrooms?
Is it compulsory to attend religious services?