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A Glimpse of the Holy Land at DC’s Franciscan Monastery

The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, also known as the Monastery of Mount St. Sepulchre, is a working monastery located in the Brookland neighborhood.  Although the United States is home to a number of monasteries from various different orders, what sets this one apart is that it features exact replicas of holy sites, pilgrimage locations, and other places across the Holy Land.

This makes perfect sense, because, as I learned, the monks of the Franciscan order (Orders of Friars Minor) are explicitly tasked with caring for the Holy Land, and have been doing so since their founding by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209.  (Religious geeks also know that there are three orders of Franciscans, the others being the Order of St. Clare for females and the Third Order for non-vow-taking members of the lay community).  All members of the Orders of Friars Minor take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

The monastery itself was originally planned for New York City (on Staten Island), as a place for Americans to get a taste of the Holy Land.  These plans later changed and the location was moved to its current site; the building was completed in 1899 and in 1991 became a national historic site.

All of this and more you can learn with a tour of the monastery, offered several times a day during the week and on weekends.  If you are lucky you’ll get a friar as your tour guide, although other guides have close ties to the church and many are from the Third Order.

The tour begins with the lovely sanctuary upstairs, featuring gorgeous iconography, stained glass from Germany, and a 3-dimensional mural of the crucifixion.  But the real treat is descending into the basement, through a small locked gate.  Here the Catacombs—900 miles of spiraling tunnels below Rome—are meticulously replicated, with details such as ancient writing and pictures painted on the walls, old lighting fixtures, and small chapels dedicated to various saints like those found in the real Catacombs.  Also replicated is the Basilica of Nazareth, complete with its trademark broken column that has mysteriously withstood all these years.  In addition, the underground section also has a few features unique to it, such as the Chapel of Purgatory and the bones of the child Saint Innocentius.

You should be sure to visit the gardens in the summer, which are alive with tulips and well-maintained gardens.  My favorite part of the outdoor section of the monastery is the walk around it under the portico, with the “Ave Maria” written on tiles in 200 different languages, some of them ancient.

All-in-all, this monastery is not as stunning as its neighbor, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and yet is quite an intriguing, unique, and peculiar place to visit.  You certainly won’t find such replicas of the Holy Land anywhere else in America.  Except for Orlando’s Holy Land Experience which has a, um, different take…

To visit:  1400 Quincy St. NE, Washington, DC 20017.  202-526-6800.  Tours are on the hour 10-12 and 1-3 Monday-Saturday, and on the hour 11 and 1-3 on Sundays.  A 15-minute walk from the Brookland Metro stop (red line).


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