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Abbey Hotel: amens to amenities

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John J. Kim

The Abby Hotel in Bettendorf, which overlooks the Mississippi River , was built in 1917 by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

BETTENDORF -- The nuns who built The Abbey Hotel probably wouldn't use the personal temperature-control gauges, modem hookups, workout room or televisions that are part of the building today.

However, guests at the 19-bedroom Bettendorf hotel overlooking the Mississippi River appreciate the modern amenities. Built by nuns known as the Carmelite Sisters, the building first belonged to the sisters and later to an order of monks.

Since the hotel opened in 1991, its business has grown steadily to attract not only the romantic couples owners first expected, but also business travelers and a booming banquet business.

``I was here when we said, `All right, we'll have two or three guest rooms filled and a few banquets,'|'' general manager Paul Plagenz said. ``Now, if we're not booked, we're scratching our heads.''

Except for holiday dinners for occasions such as Mother's Day, Father's Day, Easter and New Year's Eve, the Abbey limits its dining facilities to catering, banquets, and meals for hotel guests. The hotel hosts at least one event a day, marketing manager Alexa Florence said.

People staying at The Abbey can eat in the sun room on the east side of the building. A chef and his assistant churn out dishes such as mushroom soup or shrimp and vegetable strudel. They do it all in a small kitchen that was a crypt when the nuns were there.

The guest rooms -- each the size of four or five of the nuns' cells -- were revamped with new heating, air conditioning, electrical wiring and phone hookups. The renovation, which took about 15 months, cost more than $1 million, owner Joe Lemon said.

Part of the difficulty in renovating the building stemmed from the lifestyle of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who completed the monastery in 1917.

The sisters believed in being completely cloistered. Once a woman entered the monastery, she could not leave. The windows were mostly covered so nobody could look inside, and no one from the general public could enter the building.

To get food and supplies to the sisters, business people had to set the materials in a rotating door called a turn. A sister would spin the door, retrieve the goods, and rotate the payment out to the vendor.

Also, the walls the sisters installed were so thick -- sometimes 20 inches or more -- that hotel guests often say they can't hear anything from outside their rooms, Mr. Plagenz said.

``My office has four walls just like the sisters had them,'' Ms. Florence said. ``We joke that even if there were ever a tornado or bombing, everyone would come to my office.''

Mr. Lemon, who grew up in Rock Island, and his wife, Joan, knew what they were getting into when they bought the building.

Mr. Lemon started investing in Quad-Cities buildings during the late 1980s. When he toured the monastery, he thought about opening it as a small-scale bed and breakfast. He never expected the project to turn into a multimillion-dollar undertaking that would occupy half his time.

``It was because of our desire to preserve this building,'' Mr. Lemon said. ``The spiritual history was really important to us, and this is a building that couldn't be built anymore.''

The Lemons, who live in Sausalito, Calif., spend about half their time in the Quad-Cities managing The Abbey. They have been careful to preserve the feeling the sisters created by keeping some original art works, avoiding gaudiness, and restoring a third-floor cell as a museum room to demonstrate the nuns' way of life.

The museum room is sparsely decorated, with a Bible, nun's habit, low bed, latrine and a cross.

However, some of the building's simplicity was lost after the Carmelite Sisters moved to a smaller building in Eldridge in 1975.

The Franciscan Brothers of Christ the King, who moved into the building in 1978, turned the monastery into a retreat house. They invited the public for banquets and tours, decorated the building like a lodge and built a swimming pool on the lawn.

``They were very liberal and fun-loving,'' Mr. Plagenz said. ``They were more of `Let's have fun' kind of guys.''

Richard Nagel volunteered for the brothers during the 1980s, serving coffee or acting as a host at their gatherings. During that time, he decided he wanted to study to be a priest.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John J. Kim

The chapel now is used mostly for weddings and some religious ceremonies. Father Richard Nagel, a retired history teacher, also conducts Anglican services for a small congregation.

Rev, Nagel was ordained in the early '90s, and the Lemons asked him to stay at The Abbey to manage the chapel, where he now conducts Anglican services for a small congregation.

A retired junior-high-school history teacher, Mr. Nagel said he has learned a lot about the history of the chapel, which the nuns reconstructed after carrying it piece by piece from its former Davenport site in 1917.

``It was a gradual accumulation of knowledge,'' Mr. Nagel said. ``I get stories from many, many people. One lady came and told me that her sister was a sister there. A World War II veteran told me he had weekly conversations with one of the sisters.''

-- By Laura Oppenheimer (January 22, 1998)

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