Mount St. Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery
The Mount St. Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery is located in northeast Washington, D.C., at 14th and Quincy Streets in the Brookland neighborhood. It was built between 1898 and 1899 in a neo-Byzantine style under the direction of Roman architect Aristides Leonori. The monastery is part of an attempt to create a “Holy Land” experience in the United States. In keeping with this mission, the monastery houses numerous shrines, a library, and a replica of the catacombs of Rome which, while empty except for one set of relics, have official Papal endorsement.
Backstory and Context
In 1880, the United States Commissariat of the Holy Land was established in New York City by the Very Reverend Charles A. Vassani. The base purpose of the Commissariat is to collect alms for the maintenance of the Holy Land, but Reverend Vassani and Father Godfrey Schilling both began to plan on creating a Holy Land in the United States, as well as a Holy Sepulchre. Originally, the appointed location was planned for Staten Island in New York, but this was eventually scrapped in favor of building on a hilltop in Brookland, Washington, D.C.
In 1896, Reverend Vassani passed away, but Father Schilling continued with the project in the Reverend’s stead. In 1897, the abandoned McCeeney Estate was purchased with the intention of converting it into a monastery and a church. With several Brothers overseeing the property, Shilling brought in Aristide Leonori, a Roman architect who would design the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, to design and supervise the construction. Leonori traveled to the Holy Land to take measurements and photographs of the sites that were to be reproduced.
Fr. Godfrey came up with an ingenious method to acquire funding for the construction. He sold paper bricks, which he called “building bricks,” for ten cents each. These papers were 2.5 x .5 inches and contained a medal of St. Anthony of Padua. Consequently, by the time the church was finished, it was almost debt-free.
The cornerstone of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was laid in 1898 on the Feast of St. Joseph, and the church was completed in 1899. The floor plan loosely resembled the fivefold Jerusalem cross. Architecturally, the style is neo-Byzantine, inspired by the Hagia Sophia, with Romanesque influences. Many artists and architects have contributed to the development of the monastery. One of these individuals, John Joseph Early, designed the Rosary Portico which surrounds the church. The portico contains fifteen chapels that feature the mysteries of the Rosary and plagues engraved with the Hail Mary prayer in almost two hundred languages (both ancient and modern). It is modeled after the Cloister of St. John Lateran in Rome and Saint Paul's Outside the Walls. The facade is decorated with Christian symbols from the Catacombs.
The neo-Romanesque Monastery attached to the church features replicas of shrines from Israel, the Lourdes Grotto, and the Porziuncola. It also houses a library, a pipe organ, and bones of Saint Benignus of Armagh, brought from the Roman Catacombs. Guided tours of the church, catacombs, stained glass windows, and gardens are available. In keeping with the Franciscan tradition, the monastery engages in educational, fundraising, and recruiting efforts, in addition to promoting pilgrimages and providing pastoral ministry. The Mount St. Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
Carter, Elliot. Catacombs of Washington, D.C., Atlas Obscura. Accessed April 29th 2020. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/catacombs-washington-dc.
"Franciscan Monastery | History." Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. Accessed September 25, 2016. http://www.myfranciscan.org/our-mission/history/.
Lampl, Elizabeth Jo, and Judith Helm Robinson. Franciscan Monastery and Memorial Church of the Holy Land, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. September 1991. Accessed April 29th 2020. https://npgallery.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/91001943.pdf.
"Mount St. Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed September 25, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_St._Sepulchre_Franciscan_Monastery.