Catacombs and Old Byzantium I

On a quiet hill in the Brookland neighbourhood of Washington DC, there is a hidden architectural and historical gem; the Franciscan Monastery of Mount St. Sepulchre.

The Franciscan order was established by Saint Francis in the 12th century, and in 1342 Pope Clement VI entrusted the Franciscans with the upkeep of all Christian shrines in the Holy Land. Their custodianship is still in effect today, and this monastery in northeastern DC was built to provide a taste of the Holy Land to those who could not travel to the original shrines. Both the building and the grounds are filled with full-size replicas of many of the principal shrines and chapels of Christianity. It is a veritable Holy Land in America.

The beautifully manicured gardens, which you got a sneak preview of in my previous post, are home to replicas including the grotto at Lourdes, the Stations of the Cross and the Portunicula church in Assisi; the church built by St Francis.

old byzantium mount st sepulchre monastery washington dcold byzantium mount st sepulchre monastery washington dc

old byzantium mount st sepulchre monastery washington dcold byzantium monastery catacombs washington dc franciscanold byzantium monastery catacombs washington dc franciscan

Impressive though the grounds were, however, it was what was inside that I found most spectacular. The rooftop gave a clue as to what was in store.

old byzantium mount st sepulchre monastery washington dc

The roof adorned with a Jerusalem cross – a large cross surrounded by four smaller ones.

The Jerusalem cross (aka Crusaders’ cross) was the Crusaders’ symbol for Jerusalem, and was adopted by the Franciscans. The floor plan of the church loosely resembles the symbol, with large aisles at right angles forming a cross and dividing the space up into four quadrants, and it was built to resemble the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. The altar is covered by a large bronze baldachin which is supported by four columns, each adorned with statues of the twelve apostles.

 The Franciscan order has been entrusted by the pope with the upkeep of the Holy Land Christian shrines since the 14th C.

old byzantium mount st sepulchre monastery washington dc

old byzantium mount st sepulchre monastery washington dcold byzantium mount st sepulchre monastery washington dc

It was a dazzling display of neo-Byzantine architecture, and such an unexpected surprise that at some point along the way I forgot I was still in the US.

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old byzantium monastery catacombs washington dc franciscanold byzantium monastery catacombs washington dc franciscan

Mount St. Sepulchre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is definitely worth seeking out if you are in DC. It is a little off the beaten track at 1400 Quincy Street NE, but is not too far a walk from the Brookland CUA Metro stop. The H6 bus stops nearby too.

If you go, I highly recommend a guided tour, because this is the only way to gain access to the lower church… and the catacombs. The catacombs get a post all to themselves: Catacombs and Old Byzantium II.

old byzantium monastery catacombs washington dc franciscan


About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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50 Responses to Catacombs and Old Byzantium I

  1. trishworth says:

    This post is fantastic, Ailsa. I follow the blog posts of Dennis Aubrey who writes about French Romanesque churches and takes awesome photos, like yours, so this is the sort of thing I’m interested in. This church in DC seems to have been transported across the seas. What a great find!

    • ailsapm says:

      Oh Trish, this place is wild, so unexpected and more than a little surreal. I’m so glad you enjoyed my post about it. I love Dennis Aubrey’s blog, and his photos are spectacular – he really knows how to capture architecture on a grand scale. I am a big fan of his work.

  2. Wow! This is gorgeous and absolutely stunning! Thank you so much for sharing these photos and info!

  3. Madhu says:

    What an impressive church Ailsa! Without the accompanying text, one could be forgiven for assuming this was in Istanbul!! And you have captured the scale really well.

  4. Gilly Gee says:

    Amazing Ailsa!

  5. That was an excellent post today. Thanks so much for sharing it. I
    really enjoyed reading it very much. You have a wonderful day!

  6. Jar Of Salt says:

    Wow. Absolutely spectacular. I love the details and the story behind old churches… What an amazing find!

  7. I’m looking forward to the next instalment!

  8. adinparadise says:

    Absolutely beautiful, both inside and out, ailsa. Love your photos.

  9. Madoqua says:

    Hard to believe the photos are not from Europe! Exquisite detail makes for amazing architecture and decor. What a superb place, and what great pics!

  10. fgassette says:

    BEAUTIFUL! Well captured. Thank you for taking us inside to see this amazing church.


    • ailsapm says:

      Very happy to have shared it with you, Francine. Check it out if you’re in town, it’s quite a wonderful experience. xxx

  11. My goodness, yiour post delivered a feast for the eyes this morning! The Byzantium-6 photo reminds me of a Willliam Morris design. Every image is amazing. Thanks! z

  12. cocomino says:

    What a great architecture. 🙂

  13. Ailsa, these photos are incredible. The more I scrolled, the more I was blown away. I love Washington, DC but have never seen any of this. We will need to visit, no doubt. Your photography adds to the beauty. I don’t know anything about architecture but i want to visit Dennis Aubrey’s blog. I am a novice at this photo game, but the more I see, the more I’m learning ( and am encouraged that I’ll improve.) thanks for the eye candy. 🙂

  14. Amy says:

    Thank you for touring ut to the Mount St. Sepulchre. Majestic building, beautiful garden, and the inside… sure is a hidden architectural and historical gem!

  15. This really is just a beautiful place – thanks for “discovering” and sharing it! We’ve been to the National Cathedral, but never here…

  16. Imelda says:

    Wow! What a find. Thanks for the info. Maybe, one day, we will be by NY – I will keep this place in mind. 🙂

    • ailsapm says:

      It was a lucky find, Imelda. It’s actually in Washington DC, not New York, so look for it if you ever get to visit Washington. It’s worth the trip! 🙂

  17. This is beautiful! Thanks for a great post!

  18. Inge says:

    Oh WOW! What a magnificent architecture inside the church! Beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

  19. classicmoviewatcher says:

    The colors are just phenomenal…

  20. Jeff Sinon says:

    Such a beautiful place, and you captured it so well.

    • ailsapm says:

      Thanks Jeff. I made a valiant effort – it was an impossible place to capture in its entirety, or its grandeur, so what I settled for was a glimpse of something far greater. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in town! xxx

  21. Angelia Sims says:

    Wow. I don’t even have words. This is truly breathtaking. The images and the photography. Amazing job.

  22. Cathedral seems overwhelming at first, I like the way you broke it down into areas highlighting design and architecture. It must have been fun to tour the catacombs.

    • ailsapm says:

      Thanks c & c – I was originally going to write just the one post, but there was too much to tell, so I figured it would be better to write two separate posts.The catacombs were brilliant! 🙂

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