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Hidden Holy Land in D.C.

For nearly 112 years, Mount St. Sepulchre in D.C. has been home to a Franciscan monastery and its Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher — complete with replicas of Jesus' tomb and other holy sites.
Clergy perform an evening ceremony at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, on the 800th anniversary of the Franciscan Order, in Washington D.C.Jacquelyn Martin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a Christian pilgrimage with her church group, Kristin Toorop looks up to Calvary and her eyes open wide.

She listens as tour guide Gloria Harrington tells the story of where Christ was crucified, with Mary Magdalene kneeling at his feet.

"I'm sure you recognize the scene of Jesus on the cross, between two thieves," Harrington says, before leading the group to take a closer look. "Let's go up to Calvary."

But this is not the sacred Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where Christian tradition says Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Rather, it's a replica of Calvary, hidden in a leafy neighborhood in Washington.

For nearly 112 years, Mount St. Sepulchre in D.C. has been home to a Franciscan monastery and its Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher — complete with replicas of Jesus' tomb and other holy sites. About 25,000 people visit each year to see its shrines representing the holiest places in Christianity.

During her first visit in October, Toorop, a 43-year-old accountant from Philadelphia, said she was more than impressed.

"To be honest, I think this place is better than the National Cathedral," she said, walking through the Byzantine-style church located across town from the well-known Episcopal cathedral that often hosts presidents and national events.

"This place is more spiritual," Toorop said. "I feel closer to Jesus and to his story and to the pain and suffering he went through because there's these relics here."

This photo taken Oct. 3, 2009 shows Brother Sebastian Tobin, left, attending a ceremony in honor of St. Francis at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, on the 800th anniversary of the Franciscan Order, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Her pilgrimage to the church with a busload of parishioners from Nativity of Our Lord Church in Warminster, Pa., came on the same day the Franciscan Order celebrated a remarkable moment — its 800th anniversary. The order was founded by St. Francis of Assisi, who traveled to Rome in 1209 to ask the pope's approval.

"They wanted to live the Gospel as literally as they could," said Father Jeremy Harrington, who heads the Washington monastery. That includes a simple life, serving others, with no real worldly possessions of their own.

Hundreds of friars have passed through the D.C. monastery over time, often in preparation to serve in the Holy Land where Franciscans serve as the Catholic Church's chief custodians of the holiest sites. It's also the place where Good Friday collections from all U.S. Catholic churches are sent before the Vatican distributes the money to support the Franciscans' work.

In the Holy Land, they try to foster peace and reconciliation among Muslims, Jews and other groups, Harrington said. They also strive to make the Gospel accessible to people in the tradition of St. Francis.

This photo taken Oct. 3, 2009 shows shows the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher, located at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, is seen in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Harrington, 77, dressed in the friar's traditional brown robe, serves as guardian and commissary of the monastery. He's one of 20 who live there full-time, celebrating Mass twice daily and meeting together for morning and evening prayer. Other priests stay for shorter periods while studying at nearby Catholic University of America.

"We are the supply line for the friars in the Holy Land," Harrington said. "We recruit men to become Franciscans and go to serve there. We support them emotionally, spiritually and financially."

Their church is filled with intricate works of art and the unique to-scale replicas of various sites.

The site dates to 1897 when Father Godfrey Schilling purchased an old farm estate to build the monastery and church. He had returned from serving in the Holy Land and wanted to offer Americans a glimpse of those sites that many would never see in person.

Architect Aristide Leonori was hired to design the building, which was made in the shape of a Crusader Cross of Jerusalem. It incorporates the Byzantine style with Italian Romanesque elements.

Leonori also visited the Holy Land to take measurements and photographs of sites that were to be reproduced inside the church. Several artists created the colorful paintings, mosaics, stained glass and statues that adorn the altars and walls.

The details are exacting. The Altar of Calvary, for example, is set high in the church to show the actual height of Mount Calvary. Tour guides at the church said Jesus' body was taken to a tomb located the exact distance across the church where a replica of the tomb is situated. Stone from the real tomb in Jerusalem was sent for use in the D.C. replica, they said.

"I've never been over to the Holy Land. I've never traveled," said Debbie Schultheis, 41, a recent visitor from the Warminster, Pa., church. "But this gives you a nice documentation of Jesus' life."

On the basement level, visitors find replicas of the shrine at Nazareth dedicated to the Annunciation — when Mary learned she would bear the child of God — and the nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

There are also replicas of the catacombs in Rome with altars holding the real remains of St. Benignus, a second-century martyr put to death by the Roman emperor, and the body of St. Innocent, a child martyr, to show the persecution of early Christians.

Outside, the monastery's expansive gardens are filled with colorful roses and more replicas depicting the garden of Gethsemane, the tomb of the Virgin Mary, the Portiuncula Chapel that St. Francis restored and other sites.

The monastery is contemplating an expansion that could include private, solitary retreats on the wooded areas of its grounds to offer a place for prayer and reflection.

"That's our life," Harrington said, "to be people of peace."