The Holy Land of America
Many believers journey thousands of miles to visit The Holy Land to see the actual sites associated with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. For those of us who have not yet made the pilgrimage or cannot afford to, the replicas found in the Franciscan Monastery church and catacombs and on the monastery grounds enable us to vicariously experience some of the biblical events we’ve learned about during our spiritual training.
The Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a Franciscan monastery and Commissariat of the Holy Land in America. More widely and generally known as the Franciscan Monastery, it is set on 40 shady acres in northeast Washington, DC. The church and monastery, designated a National Historic Site in 1991, have been a place of worship and pilgrimage for thousands of visitors since the church’s dedication in 1899.
A Commissariat of the Holy Land, generally speaking, is responsible for collecting alms for the maintenance of the Holy Places in Palestine. According to the Monastery’s website, “there are at present forty commissariats throughout the Christian world.” Washington, DC’s Mount Saint Sepulchre is one of only three commissariats in the United States.
The vision for the monastery and church belong to Father Godfrey Schilling. He was so moved during his service in the Holy Land that he wanted to give Americans a glimpse of the sites he had seen - sites that most of them would never see in person. He purchased an old farm estate and hired architect Aristide Leonori to design the building. Leonori was very exacting in his designs. He chose the shape of a Crusader Cross of Jerusalem for the church design and incorporated the Byzantine style with Italian Romanesque elements. Replicas throughout the church are to-scale based on photographs and precise measurements he took during visits to the Holy Land.
Intricate and beautiful works of arts including stained glass, sculptures, mosaics, paintings, and other pieces are located throughout the church. On the lower levels are replicas of the shrine of Nazareth dedicated to the Annunciation and the catacombs in Rome, the underground tunnels that became the final resting place for early Christians who preferred burial over cremation to preserve the body for ascent into Heaven as did their sa
vior Jesus Christ. The walls of the catacomb are embellished with religious symbols, paintings depicting the early persecution of Christians, and mosaics of incidences from the bible such as “Ezekiel raising the dead”.
The chambers of the catacombs also hold the relics of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and St. Benignus, the reputed disciple and successor of St. Patrick, the founder of the church in Ireland, and the skeletal remains of St. Innocent, a child martyr.
In the cloister-like Rosary Porticos that run in front of and along both sides of the church are tablets inscribed with the word of the Hail Mary in English, Old English, Japanese, Spanish, Chinese,
Persian and 144 other languages. Fifteen tablets bear translations of The Lord’s Prayer or The Our Father Rosary Prayer. Colorful mosaics depict biblical scenes such as The Descent of the Holy Ghost and The Nativity.
On the west side of the main church is the replica of the 13th century Portiuncula Chapel, the shrine near Assisi, Italy restored by St. Francis of Assisi after a long period of abandonment and where he founded the order which bears his name.
Situated throughout the lawn are statues of well known biblical figures. The statue of the Very Reverend Godfrey Schilling, the visionary and builder of the church, stands in the small grassy plat near the front of the Portiuncula Chapel. Standing nearby is St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, birds and the environment as well as the founder of the Franciscan order. In this statue he is standing with a child and holding a turtle dove . The lawn around the church is beautifully landscaped with trees, roses and other perennials, banana trees, and seasonal flowers.
Other biblical replicas are in the upper and lower gardens located beyond the Cloister walk on the east side of the main church. From the top of the steps, I had a lovely view of the lower garden and Grotto of Lourdes. After a short walk down the steps and to the left, I found the Grotto of Gethsemane which commemorates the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It contains an altar and bas-relief of Christ and an angel. A little further along the path is the replica of a celled Jewish Tomb in the time of Christ.
Following the path I got a closer look at the Grotto of Lourdes, a replica of the one in southern France where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette in 1858. After Bernadette’s death, the shrine at Lourdes became a site for pilgrimages and attracts millions of Catholics each year. Many visitors spend time on benches in front of the Grotto reading their bible, eating lunch or just in quiet contemplation. A little further along the path is the replica of the 12th century Tomb of Mary located just east of Jerusalem and where it is believed the Apostles buried Mary.
On the return loop of the path, I passed the Statue of St. Anne who was the grandmother of Jesus. Beneath the shrine is a replica of the house in Old Cairo where the Holy Family lived during their time of exile in Egypt. Just before the statue of St. Anne, I stood before the first of 14 Stations of the Cross set along the path in the Lower and Upper Garden. Bas-reliefs on the stations depict the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the afternoon of Good Friday, a Franciscan Friar leads worshipers along the garden path praying the Way of the Cross, a devotion to the memorials of the passion and death of Our Lord.
As I walked in contemplation along the path pass the Stations of the Cross, I saw that there were many azalea bushes planted in the naturalized garden beneath the tall trees. I could only image how truly beautiful the garden would be in the springtime. As I reach the Upper Garden I passed Ascension Chapel, a replica of the one on the Mount of Olives in the Holy Land commemorating the Ascension of Christ into heaven forty days after his resurrection. The interior dome of the octagonal edifice is decorated with a vibrantly colored mosaic of the Ascension.
Before leaving the upper garden, I passed more commemorative statues and a small garden pond stocked with several koi in different sizes. For a few moments, I rested on a nearby bench to watch the fish and contemplate the spiritual walk I’d just completed.
The Franciscan Monastery and gardens was probably as close to the Holy Land as I would ever get, but for me the experience was realistic and historically factual. During my visit I felt a sense of spiritual peace and engaged in quiet meditation. I’m looking forward to returning in the spring when the azaleas are in bloom.
Stations of the Cross
If you go
Tours of the monastery and shrines are given daily on the hours at 10:00 AM., 11:00 AM 1:00 PM, 2:00 PM and 3:00 PM. On Sundays, tours are given in the afternoons only, at 1:00 PM 2:00 PM and 3:00 PM. To schedule a group tour, call 202/526-6800. Tours are free but donations are greatly appreciated.
The grounds of the Monastery are open daily 10:00 AM 5:00 PM no tour is required. The Catacombs can be visited only when on a tour. Individuals may join others in the Tour Lobby to form a group.
The Franciscan Monastery is located at
1400 Quincy Street, NE
near the Brookland Metro stop on the Red Line. From the metro stop, you can walk to the Monastery in about 15 minutes, or you can take the H6 Metro Bus.