For Christians around the world, this is Holy Week, a time to ponder the mysteries of salvation. Throngs will descend on the Holy Land to walk the way of the cross, see Gethsemane and Nazareth, Calvary and Bethlehem. In a quiet corner of Washington, D.C, an area filled with religious institutions from Howard University’s School of Divinity to the Catholic University of America, the John Paul II Center and the National Shrine, you’ll find the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. Open to the public with free tours of the church and the catacombs, it offers visitors an opportunity to ponder the Bible stories without the need for a passport.
This is a gorgeous time to go as the tulips begin blooming and the trees return to life. Walk onto the property and you’ll find yourself in a place of peace, quiet in spite of its location in the middle of the nation’s capital.
One aspect that makes this place so remarkable are the replicas of places in the Holy Land: Jesus’ tomb, the place of his birth in Bethlehem, a memorial to the Ascension. Even the catacombs of Rome have been recreated underneath the remarkable Byzantine church, filled with domes, arches and colorful artwork.
The church, built in the late 1890s, is laid out like a Jerusalem cross — which has four little crosses tucked into the corners of the main cross. In the church those little crosses are four chapels devoted to Mary, St. Francis of Assisi (founder of the Franciscans and an advocate for the Holy Land), St. Anthony of Padua and St. Joseph.
The four main “arms” end with memorials to Nazareth, where the Annunciation took place, Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and to Calvary and Jesus’ tomb. The main church is devoted to Jesus’ death and resurrection with a replica of Jesus tomb in the Holy Land.
Even its dimensions offer some interesting insights. The distance from the altar to that tomb is the distance of Jesus’ tomb from Jerusalem’s wall. You have to climb up stairs to an altar memorializing the crucifixion. The height, our tour guide told us, is the height of the hill of Calvary.
At every step, you’ll find places to stop for prayer and reflection. A portico leading to the church contains altars to the Mysteries of the Rosary and plaques with the Hail Mary and Our Father in the world’s languages.
The first 10 Stations of the Cross, which recall Jesus’ last hours before his resurrection, are spread among the flowers of the adjacent garden. (The last four are inside the church.) There are places to sit and read both inside and out. There are services throughout the day.
I came out of curiosity and found the grounds and the architecture stunning. I was interested in the various devotional aspects — especially since this is supposed to be a recreation of places where Jesus lived and died. And, I was surprised to find out when I interviewed a couple of women who were in the Holy Land last fall, there are some distinct similarities. (See Good Friday’s blog post for more.) One additional note: This could easily become a day of devotions for those interested in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception or Blessed John Paul II Center. If you want to add lunch to your day away, I have to recommend the restaurant I went with my family, Menomale. A Neapolitan pizzeria only a few blocks away, it was terrific. I even got a quick look at the wood-fired oven with bricks important from Italy. Several other restaurants are located on 12th Street nearby.
© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman