Still dazed by the Byzantine glory of the Franciscan Monastery of Mount St. Sepulchre, I followed the guide as he led the way down to the Lower Church via a staircase off-limits to the general public. The archway above the staircase was emblazoned with a single word: Nazareth.
At the bottom was a replica of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth; the spot where Mary said yes to the Arch Angel Gabriel. The level of detail was extraordinary, even down to a vandalized pillar – apparently thieves in Nazareth smashed the pillars because they thought that jewels were hidden inside.
Then we were off exploring the dark, meandering tunnels of an elaborate maze of faux catacombs. The original catacombs in Rome provided refuge for early Christians and were extensive underground networks. These catacombs, in the heart of Washington DC, had an eerie authenticity to them; dimly lit, with dark, gaping recesses on either side waiting for bodies. There were crypts along the way, two of which contained the remains of saints who had originally been buried in the catacombs.
We emerged from the darkness into an underground chapel complete with ornate altar and intricate mosaics lining the walls….
…through dim passageways and rooms covered with early Christian graffiti and artwork…
…and finally, dramatically, we entered the Grotto of the Nativity.
I climbed up the spiral stairs leading from the grotto, which had holes in the steps to provide underground ventilation, and took a last look back; still trying to process this bizarre journey.
In order to create accurate reproductions, the founder of the monastery, Fr. Godfrey Schilling, travelled to the original shrines to take extensive measurements and photographs. The phenomenal design is the work of architect Aristide Leonori, who was also responsible for the Basilica Church San Guiseppe al Trionfale in Rome and the Church of St. Joseph in Cairo. This place worked its magic on me so completely that I was genuinely startled to step back out into the hustle and bustle of DC. It was the most surreal experience I’ve had in quite a while, and I felt oddly dislocated; pleasurably out of place in space and time.
You won’t find this remarkable place on the usual must-see list of Washington DC, but it was one of the highlights of my visit. I cannot remember how I stumbled across it, but I’m awfully glad I did. Do not miss it.
The Franciscan Monastery of Mount St. Sepulchre is located at 1400 Quincy Street, a short walk from the Brookland CUA Metro stop. The H6 and 80 bus lines stop nearby. There are guided tours daily which I highly recommend, because it is the only way you will get to explore the Lower Church and the catacombs. The tours are free but donations are welcome.