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Their sanctuary can be your bed, your breakfast

At Belfry Inne in Sandwich, a transformed choir loft.
At Belfry Inne in Sandwich, a transformed choir loft. (Globe Staff Photo / Ellen Albanese)
By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / January 2, 2009
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When we were children, dozing off in church was a no-no. Even the grownups grown-ups were obliged to sit up straight, face front, and keep an alert visage no matter how dull soporific the sermon.

What a treat, then, to discover four former New England churches turned into comfortable inns, where falling asleep is not only tolerated but encouraged. Their innkeepers have done a remarkable job of preserving historic structures while providing modern comforts. And they have clearly had a little fun repurposing ecclesiastical architecture and traditions for their overnight guests.

Belfry Inne & Bistro, Sandwich

Looking at the Abbey of Belfry Inne is like looking at a painting by Picasso: All the pieces of the 1900 Corpus Christi Catholic Church are there, but they're not necessarily where you expect them to be. The former confessional holds wine and liquor. Pews were used to build the bar. The regal, hand-carved wooden altar adorns one wall as you enter the bistro, and the altar rail frames the fireplace. The Stations of the Cross are still visible carved into the wood-paneled walls of the dining room.

The Abbey is one of three lodgings on the property. Christopher Wilson also renovated the Victorian, gingerbread-house former rectory next door, dubbed The Painted Lady, and the circa 1838 Village Inn.

Abbey guest rooms are named for the days of the week. The Monday room's bath is in the former bell tower. The Tuesday room, in the former choir loft space, has the church's original circular stained glass window, 10 feet in diameter, which sends prisms of light dancing across the walls and king-size bed. Many rooms feature pew headboards, and in the Saturday room, a section of the church's original exterior brick wall rises behind a Jacuzzi tub. The abundant stained glass windows, all original, suffuse the spaces with soft color.

''Almost daily someone wanders in to say this was where they used to go to church, or were baptized or married,'' Wilson said. ''Recently we had a family who threw a 25th anniversary party for their parents, who were married in the church. They had photos of their wedding and it was fun to see the difference.''

One former parishioner is now waiting tables in the bistro. Lulu Roy of Sandwich said she never pictured herself serving liquor in the church she attended as a child. ''It bothered me a little at first,'' she said, ''but now I pretty much embrace it. I think my God has a sense of humor.''

Haven by the Sea, Wells Beach, Maine

On even the warmest day an ocean breeze races down Haven by the Sea's long central hallway, which was once the center aisle of St. Mary's Catholic Church. A block from the ocean in a residential neighborhood, the former church is distinguishable by its peaked roof, arched double-door entry, and long, narrow silhouette.

The original church was built in the 1920s, said Susan Jarvis, who bought the building with her husband, John, 11 years ago. It was the summer mission of St. Martha's Church in Kennebunkport before it became St. Mary's. Jarvis said the biggest challenge in converting a church into an inn was to preserve the feel of the church and yet make the space comfortable and inviting with the modern efficiencies today's guests demand.

They kept the vaulted post-and-beam ceiling 38 feet high at the peak over the altar. To save energy they installed a dropped ceiling in guest rooms, but from the street, the original arched window shapes are intact. Woodwork and hardwood floors are all original, and there's an original pew in the hallway.

Rooms have king, queen, or twin beds, and all have private baths. There's a suite with a fireplace and double Jacuzzi, and a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment for weekly rentals.

The altar space is now a two-level dining room, and the confessional has been turned into a sleek bar with eggplant walls cheekily called Temptations. and painted eggplant. ''Former parishioners tell us they much prefer asking for a martini than for forgiveness,'' Jarvis said.

14 Lincoln Street, Niantic, Conn.

Were you married in Niantic's Congregational church at 14 Lincoln St.? If so, you were married here when it the property served as a Congregational church , innkeeper Susan Hahn wants to hear from you. One of Hahn's projects at this former church-turned-inn is gathering wedding photos from couples who tied the knot here during the church's 84-year history.

Built in 1879, the white clapboard church served the community of East Lyme until 1963, Hahn said. It has been a bed-and-breakfast since 2003 and is on the market.

The features of the original church include the bell tower from which the 60-foot steeple toppled during the Hurricane of 1938, two-story-high leaded windows with wavy antique glass, and the original wide pine floors. The inside walls and 22-foot ceilings in the sanctuary were tinned in 1900, Hahn said, and the intricate pressed pattern is visible beneath white paint. The sanctuary is an elegant dining room, with a massive crystal chandelier and walls hung with original paintings by Connecticut plein air painters.

The four guest rooms all have private baths, and the two on the second floor have original pressed tin ceilings. Hahn said the Rose Dreams Suite, with its two queen beds, is popular as a ''sister suite.''

Hahn's favorite story is of an elderly couple who rang the doorbell one day and asked if they could have their picture taken inside where the altar once stood. ''They said they had met here when they were 5 years old during Sunday school, and had become best friends and eventually married here years later,'' Hahn recalled. ''And that day was their 50th wedding anniversary.''

La Cappella, Point Judith, R.I.

La Cappella means ''the chapel'' in Italian, and innkeeper Frank ''Cy'' Cybulski has chosen an Italian theme for this former fisherman's chapel.

Cybulski said La Cappella was built in 1878 as a satellite of the Baptist Church in Wakefield, to lure farmers and fishermen unwilling to travel the three 3 miles into town. It operated as a church until about 1978, then was used for several purposes until Cybulski bought it and opened it as an the inn in 2002. Its most prominent architectural feature is a bell tower.

There are three rooms on the second floor (the innkeeper lives on the first). In the Roma and Firenze rooms, arched alcoves reveal the lines of the original chapel. Each room features a king- size bed, Italian linens, antique furnishings, and air conditioning. Guests share a sitting area and a large bath, making the inn ideal for families.

The location is the main selling point, according to Cybulski. It's on a peninsula, which means cool ocean breezes and proximity to beaches, the fishing villages of Jerusalem and Galilee, and the ferry to Block Island.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

If You Go

The Belfry Inne & Bistro

4-8 Jarves St., Sandwich

508-888-8550,; 800-844-4542

www.belfryinn.com

Abbey double rooms $245-$315 with breakfast .

Haven by the Sea

59 Church St., Wells Beach, Maine

207-646-4194;

www.havenbythesea.com

Doubles $169-$350 with breakfast. (Closed January, and February this year of 2009 only, but reservations will be taken.)

Fourteen Lincoln Street

14 Lincoln St., Niantic, Conn.

Niantic, Conn.

860-739-6327

www.fourteenlincolnstreet.com

Doubles $225-$295 with breakfast.

La Cappella

796 Point Judith Road

Point Judith, R.I.

401-789-8871,; 866-791-5465

www.lacappella.biz

Doubles $125-$140 with breakfast.

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