Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America (Washington, D.C.)

Main entrance to the shrine

It was a delight to visit once again earlier this year the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C.  Such solitary grandeur - a true pilgrimage destination - on a wooded hillside in Northeast Washington.  There is found the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a truly fascinating church and liturgical space designed by one of my favorite architects, a Roman by the name of Aristide Leonori (1856-1928).  A visit to the shrine brings new life to the Gospel.  My mother first introduced me to Franciscan Monastery after she visited and said I would particularly appreciate it after having been to the Holy Land in 2006.  Therefore I was determined to make a stop here the following summer after my first trip to the Holy Land.  Needless to say, I was most impressed. For a virtual tour, see here.  

Architectural print with rosary walk

The Memorial Church was completed in 1899 and consecrated in 1924.  It shines with an ingenious interior design, alluding to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, offering a chance to see  replicas of certain holy places found within the Basilica and throughout the Holy Land.  Its floor plan loosely resembles the Jerusalem Cross, representing the five sacred wounds of Christ.  Visitors are instinctively drawn to three shrines inside the church, chief among them a faithful copy of the empty tomb of Christ in Jerusalem known as the Holy Sepulchre - the holiest shrine in Christendom, for which the church is named.  

Also, Mt. Calvary is re-created with near life-size statues.  The brilliant interior layout includes also the Nativity grotto, reproduced as it appears in Bethlehem as well as the anointing stone where the body of Christ was placed after His death, a popular site for visitors to Jerusalem.  The four corners of the church offer chapels dedicated to St. Joseph, St. Anthony of Padua, the Blessed Mother, and St. Francis.  All adorned with marbled altars and floors with mosaics, stunning stained glass windows temper the light, and beautiful plaster works and stencil work can be seen throughout.   

Depiction of Calvary

Other mini-shrines and altars within the church commemorate the cave in Nazareth, the grotto of Bethlehem, and Mt. Tabor.  The celebrant's chair is in the style of the Roman Cosmati, illustrating decorative geometric mosaic.  The whole scheme was conceived to lead the eye to the altar under the baldachin or ciborium, the main focus of the liturgical rites and the climax of the decorative scheme.    

The bronze baldachin over the main altar is not original.  Rambusch Company of New York, experts in liturgical design, were hired in 1949 to restore and redesign the chapel.  The previous Romanesque and Italian Renaissance interior was redecorated for its jubilee, brought into stylistic harmony with the exterior design in a more Byzantine style.  

The original marble version of the baldachin in Roman style (see below) was removed and replaced with a striking bronze version in Art-Deco by Rambusch.  From the white marble predella floor, four bronze columns now sweep upwards to form a canopy over the altar, echoing the soaring dome above.  The new style baldachin was chosen to heighten the experience of the interior by framing the high-relief panels in the four elevated altars in the transepts when viewed from any vantage point in the church.  

The surface of the baldachin is covered with sculpted decoration.  On the inner face of the columns are bronze statues of the apostles, with their gaze directed at the altar of sacrifice.  a unique with its statues of the 12 apostles, 3 on each pillar.  The new baldachin expresses an inventive ornamental style with enamel colors, reflecting influences of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco, once novel looks that flourished at the time the shrine was originally constructed and being completed.  Not to mention the sanctuary boasts a lovely painting of Our Lady of Palestine by Charles Bosseron Chambers (1882-1964), a well-known artist called the "Norman Rockwell of Catholic Art."   The Neo-Classical dome can be seen in the image below.  

The majestic sanctuary of the shrine - a unique liturgical space

Each year some 50,000 people visit the shrine and its magnificent campus of 42 acres.  It includes botanical gardens that change with every season, an oriental garden, a grotto of Gethsemane, an Ascension chapel, and a reproduction of the tomb of Mary.  Further there is a Lourdes grotto, Stations of the Cross, and a replica of the Portiuncula chapel found in Assisi.  Other statues and reproductions of Holy Land shrines are found throughout the gardens.  

Rosary plaque commemorating the Hail Mary prayer in Latin

Surrounding the church are found exquisite rose gardens and tulips in the spring, an oasis of peace and beauty.  A rosary portico or cloister walk that surrounds the church contains plaques of the Ave Maria prayer in nearly 200 languages, including various Native American Indian languages.  The peristyle columns are influenced in part by the cloisters of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran and the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls, both in Rome.  Attached to the shrine is the Neo-Romanesque monastery, archive, and library for the Franciscan friars.  Nearby within walking distance is the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; both excellent pilgrimage destinations in the nation's capital.  

The main altar of the shrine, with the tomb of Christ in the background

The shrine is under care of the Franciscans of the Holy Land.  It was originally the brainchild of Rev. Charles A.Vassani (1831-1896) who established the U.S. Commissariat of the Holy Land in 1880.  Their goal was to remind visitors of the Franciscans' work in the Holy Land and to call attention to the importance of the Holy Land's preservation.  He along with Fr. Godfrey Schilling, O.F.M. (1855-1934) began to plan and design the shrine, dubbed the "Holy Land in America," complete with a copy of the aedicule, or tomb of Christ found in Jerusalem. 
The creator of the shrine, Fr. Godfrey Schilling, O.F.M.

A statue of Fr. Schilling stands in front of the shrine, identifying him as the superior and builder of the shrine church.  Originally the two priests envisioned the shrine to be build in NYC.  Eventually, the plans changed to the nation's capital.  The land was purchased in 1897.  Fr. Schilling and the architect, while visiting the Holy Land, took measurements and photos of the holy sites so as to reproduce the tomb of Christ and the other shrines in their new "Little Jerusalem," Washington, D.C..  I encourage all Catholics to visit here on pilgrimage.  To learn more, interested readers can purchase a book on the art and architecture of the shrine here.

Replica of the tomb of Christ - entrance

The Shrine is well-known for its Easter Triduum liturgies, which some Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre attend (not to be confused with the Knights of Mount St. Sepulchre, the diligent volunteers at the shrine).  In fact, the office of the Middle Atlantic Lieutenancy of the EOHSJ is located at the shrine, while their D.C. investitures are generally held at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception so as to accommodate the large congregation.  For members of the Equestrian Order, their attachment to the Holy Land is strong and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday is their most important annual liturgical feast.  

This is celebrated with great devotion at the shrine, following the annual procession on Good Friday to the tomb of Christ, with a statue of Christ laying in repose on the anointing stone and being carried by the Knights of Mount St. Sepulchre on a burial shroud into the tomb.  The Liturgy of Holy Saturday is a celebration of great joy everywhere, rejoicing at the empty tomb.  When the Gloria is intoned the sound of organ music is heard along with bells that are rung, as the Church anticipates the joy and triumph of the Resurrection of Christ on Easter morning.  

Welcome sign above the entrance

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