The church, inside and out, is based on the Byzantine Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The premise behind the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America makes sense: Provide full-scale replicas of sacred sites for those who can’t make it abroad. This Epcot of religion, near Catholic University, hits the highlights of Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, plus assorted European points of interest.
Backstory: St. Francis of Assisi swapped his riches for rags in the early 1200s. Today, Franciscan friars care for Christian landmarks throughout the Middle East.
Inside: The main floor of the monastery’s 1899 church will dazzle Catholics, fans of Byzantine decor and behind-the-times secularists who had no idea confessionals now sport “occupied” lights and automated “giving kiosks” accept all major credit cards. It’s downstairs, in the reproduction catacombs, that the spooky magic of ancient times takes hold.
The first three centuries A.D. weren’t kind to early Christians, who interred their dead and honored their martyrs in tunnels beneath Rome. Our tour passed the bones of St. Benignus, a Roman soldier who converted and paid the price; and paused between murals depicting the Colosseum, where we were asked to reflect on death by wild animal. Later, the guide matter-of-factly explained that St. Cecilia survived 24 hours in a sauna, then lived for three days after an attempted beheading.
Outside: In the gardens, serene paths wend through an all-star lineup of Holy Family-related spots. Among them: the Grotto of Gethsemane, where the Gospels say Jesus sought courage before his ordeal. The Rosary Portico, an arched walkway that circumscribes the church, makes for good friar-watching.
Gift Shop: The no-frills space stocks greeting cards, rosaries, incense and other goods. We bought the St. Joseph Homeseller’s Kit ($7.50). In this market, it can’t hurt.
Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, 1400 Quincy St. NE; 202-526-6800. The monastery is about a half-mile from the Brookland Metro stop. There is a parking lot across the street.