The nation's capital certainly doesn't lack for beautiful houses of worship. There's the Washington National Cathedral and North America's largest Roman Catholic Church, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. But for another option for quiet reflection that's far off the tourist track, make a trek to spend a day at D.C.'s Franciscan Monastery.
The Franciscan Monastery in Washington is home to a thriving Franciscan community, committed to the Order of St. Francis. Visitors are invited to make a pilgrimage here to see the beautiful church and century-old garden, and even take a retreat in a hermitage.
History of the Monastery
This monastery in D.C.'s Brookland neighborhood is the U.S. headquarters of the Holy Land Franciscans, whose mission includes raising funds and awareness for ministry in the Holy Land, and who have cared for the sacred shrines of the Holy Land for 800 years.
The Franciscan Monastery's history begins in New York, where The Very Reverend Charles A. Vassani established the Commissariat of the Holy Land in 1880. Vassani dreamt of building a “Holy Land in America” by planting a Holy Sepulchre on Staten Island near the entrance to the New York harbor. He wanted to bring the Holy Land to Americans who couldn't travel abroad.
Instead, Vassani and another Holy Land Franciscan, Father Godfrey Schilling, ended up purchasing this land in D.C. in 1897. Architect Aristide Leonori undertook the project, visiting the Holy Land for inspiration. He broke ground in 1898 and the church on a hill was completed one year later.
Vissani died before he could see the realization of his dream for a place where Americans who didn't have the time, money, or health to visit the Holy Land could be inspired on U.S. soil.
What to See and Do
Experience the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land's beautiful architecture and full-size replicas of the Holy Land's shrines, including the Tomb of Christ, Ascension, and more. The outdoor Rosary Portico with its formal rose garden is beautiful, and there are more gardens to explore — including a vegetable garden where 8,000 pounds of food is grown every year to donate to parish food pantries and non-profits. There are also underground catacombs, inspired by original burial sites for early Christians in Ancient Rome and replicated here in DC.
You can visit the main church and gardens on your own, but guided tours are also available for a more complete experience. The guided tours include an introductory video, behind-the-scenes info, and access to places not visible without a guide. Hour-long guided monastery and catacomb tours begin on the hour, Monday through Saturday, at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., and 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. The first part of the tour covers the Upper Church, while the second part covers the Lower Church, where the catacombs are located.
Walk-ins are welcome, but groups of six or more must make reservations. Note that the Lower Church is only accessible by stairs.
During the summer, there are guided garden tours at 11 a.m. and noon. every Saturday. The gardens are open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.
The monastery also offers retreat experiences at the hermitage, a peaceful, one-room urban retreat for one person located on the monastery's 42-acre grounds. The sleek hermitage is designed by architecture and design students from nearby Catholic University. Bed linens, towels, and cooking utensils are included. Guests are responsible for their own meals. For information and reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are special guided tours throughout the year, corresponding with holidays. For example, the Lenten Tour is available at 1 p.m. on the Fridays of Lent. There's also a specialized Stained Glass Tour at noon on November 1, the feast of All Saints. That tour honors the saints of the Franciscan Order and others who are depicted in the church’s stained glass windows, with explanations of the symbols in the window and the lives of the saints. Consult the Franciscan Monastery's calendar of events to see even more tours and programs throughout the year.
Things to Do Nearby
DC's Franciscan Monastery is located in the Northeast quadrant of Washington. Major attractions in this area include Union Station, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, Anacostia Park, the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.