In 2020, when everyone was locked down due to COVID-19, former Vancouver writer John Paul Sonnen turned time in isolation into something constructive. The author has completed an account of the history of his favorite church in Rome, Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo.

The sometimes overlooked church is the spiritual center in Rome of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. In 2014, Sonnen was invested into the order in an age-old knighthood ceremony at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver.

The author first visited Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo (dedicated to Saint Onuphrius and located on the Gianicolo hill) as a teenager in 1998, and he describes it as one of the “best kept secrets” of Rome.

From the moment he first encountered the church, stumbling upon it with friends, Sant’Onofrio became a personal favorite for him among a locus of churches. Over the years, his affinity for Sant’Onofrio has only grown since he moved to Rome for higher education and over time he acquired an increased knowledge and passion for art and painting. Renaissance architecture.

Sonnen finished writing the book, Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo: journey to a citadel of faith (AROUCA Press, 2021), during the 2020 COVID lockdown and dedicated it to his wife Natalie, who grew up at Holy Trinity in North Vancouver and whom he met and married in Rome.

John Paul Sonnen finished writing Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo: journey to a citadel of faith during the COVID 2020 lockdown.

The contents of the chapters were assembled from scraps of paper and notes that Sonnen kept while he was a history teacher and tour guide in Rome and the Vatican. Written and laid out with the help of the Vancouver publisher, the book has the pilgrim in mind and concludes by offering a self-guided tour with a map and illustrations intended to inspire pilgrims who will hopefully will visit the church themselves one day.

Sant’Onofrio has an illustrious history dating back to its construction at the end of the 15th century, a period that coincided with the High Renaissance. It was an exceptional period that produced some of the most magnificent works of art in history, especially in Rome where Renaissance art was seen everywhere. The most important images of Sant’Onofrio are attributed to the famous architect Baldassare Peruzzi.

The designation of Sant’Onofrio as the Roman Chapel of the Equestrian Order dates back to the time of Venerable Pius XII at the end of World War II, when the Pope providentially foresaw that the order would continue to grow in the years of after war.

The Church of Sant’Onofrio al Gianicolo in Rome. (Lalupa/Wikipedia)

In response to the growing needs of the order, on August 15, 1945, he issued from the Vatican a Motu Proprio decree granting the order in perpetuity the use of the Church of Sant’Onofrio with its adjoining monastery and the Torquato Tasso museum. This privilege gives members of the order a convenient meeting place in central Rome to carry out religious ceremonies and works of charity in a spirit of unity and mission.

Inside Sant’Onofrio is the final resting place of Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), the greatest champion of the conquest of Jerusalem. He was a famous Renaissance poet who spent his last months in the nearby monastery and died there at the age of 51. Tasso’s immortal work was titled Jerusalem Deliveredan epic poem that sang Sir Godfrey de Bouillon, ruler of the kingdom of Jerusalem and winner of the first crusade.

In the words of Pius XII: “In this church, in fact, still lives the memory of Torquato Tasso, illustrious poet, who sang in exquisite verse the exploits of the Crusaders who fought to restore freedom to the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem: and there also there is an ancient monastery which – after the legitimate cessation of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Jerome [the monks who initially inhabited the site] – can suitably accommodate this equestrian Order and provide it with a convenient center for the performance of its religious ceremonies and its acts of piety and charity.


The universality of the Church is perceived and felt like nowhere else in the city of Rome. Every year, several thousand people visit this church and admire the picturesque view of Rome from its front garden. Sant’Onofrio is therefore a crossroads for people from all over the world who visit, many for different reasons. As visitors gather on the small grassy knoll with a splashing fountain and pews in front of the church, they can sometimes be heard discussing their keen interest in various aspects of the church, with varying interests that include both art or architecture, history and legend, knights and ladies, poetry, saints and sinners.

A main draw is not only the Renaissance church and front gardens, but also the outer Renaissance cloister attached to the church – an attraction well known for its charming and peaceful atmosphere, topped by a gallery balcony portico style. The view is lovely to behold any time of the year, especially on a rainy day.

The gardens of Sant’Onofrio were in fact a favorite gathering place of Saint Philip Neri who during his lifetime (which coincided with Tasso) he lived for many years in Rome and held gatherings on the slopes of Sant ‘Onofrio in the middle of his vineyards for immensely popular youth groups for generations.

The Torquato Tasso Museum (Museo Tassiano) also attracts visitors, housed on the upper floor of the old monastery adjoining the church. The museum, although small, contains some interesting artifacts related to Tasso’s life and death. Visitors enter by appointment only, to see the chamber where the poet died and to view original artifacts related to his life. Tasso remains to this day a prominent figure of the Renaissance and is considered the greatest poet of this period, a link between the declining medieval culture and the new Renaissance culture that followed it.

In the book, readers are reminded that Sant’Onofrio is forever a spiritual home in Rome – and a site to visit, conveniently located near the Vatican. Indeed, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica can be seen from the convent and adjoining gardens, where a gentle breeze is sometimes felt amidst colorful flowers in full bloom during the summer months.