catacombs & crypts of the franciscan monastery

Saturday, August 25: The catacombs in the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C. are “faithful copies of those in Rome,” according to a publication by the Monastery.  Many scholars have written that the Roman catacombs came about to help persecuted Christians to bury their dead secretly.

The Martyr’s Crypt in the catacombs is a  circular chapel much like those found in the maze-like hiding places of the early Christians.  Here the relics of St. Benignus, brought from the Roman Catacombs, are encased in the wax figure beneath the altar.

the relics of St. Benignus, encased in a wax figure

From this crypt, a short passageway leads to the Chapel of Purgatory.  This chapel is dedicated to the faithful departed and is meant to remind us of the fleeting nature of this life.  The paintings and decorations are symbolic of death and of the life to come.

a relief decoration on the alter in the Chapel of Purgatory

Here the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for the souls of those “who have gone before with the Sign of Faith and who sleep the sleep of peace.”

Death depicted as mosaic skeletons
close-ups of the mosaic skeletons

Beyond the Purgatory Chapel are  two chapels typical of the larger ones of the ancient catacombs — those dedicated to St. Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr, and St. Sebastian, Soldier and Martyr.  Both have altars which house faithful replicas of statues found in Rome.

the altar with St. Sebastian

On the walls of the chamber between these two chapels are some beautiful paintings.

the painted chamber between St. Sebastian’s Chapel and St. Cecilia’s Chapel
more paintings in the central chamber

We end our time inside the Monastery catacombs in the Nativity Grotto, faithfully reproduced here as it exists now in Bethlehem.  The altar in the center niche is like that of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Mosaic of the Nativity over the altar in the Bethlehem Grotto.

Beneath the altar is a silver star which commemorates the spot where Christ was born.

a reproduction of the silver star that marks where Jesus was born in Bethlehem

The Bethlehem Grotto is hung with garlands from Christmas; the guide tells us that people who have been to Bethlehem and who come to this grotto say it looks just like Bethlehem, except without the garlands.

the Bethlehem Grotto hung with garlands

Finally, we climb out of the catacombs and explore the church on our own.  It’s difficult to get a good photo of the beautiful stained glass windows, but I finally get one that’s passable.

stained glass windows in the church

St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, is the patron saint of animals and the environment and is one of the two patrons of Italy, along with Catherine of Siena.  He is also known for his love of the Eucharist, for his sorrow at the Stations of the Cross, and for the creation of the Christmas Nativity Scene.

St. Francis, born around 1181, was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi and lived the high life as a young man.  When he went off to war in 1204, he was directed in a vision to return to Assisi, where he lost his taste for the worldly life.  On a pilgrimage to Rome, he begged with beggars at St. Peter’s and decided to adopt a life of poverty.

A statue of St. Francis with a wolf in the gardens at the Monastery

St. Francis believed that nature itself was the mirror of God. He called all creatures his “brothers” and “sisters,” and even preached to the birds.  He was known for his great love of animals and he had a deep sense of brotherhood that led him to embrace those for whom Christ died.  It’s argued that, more than any other man, he imitated the life, and carried out the work, of Christ in the footsteps and manner of the Savior.

He called the Holy Land the “Pearl of the Missions,” since Jesus was born, lived, ministered and died there.  In 1217 the Province of the Holy Land was established, which included then and still includes today Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and the islands of Cyprus and Rhodes.  St. Francis visited the Holy Land in 1219, during which time he tried, unsuccessfully, to convert the Sultan in Egypt.   In 1224, he received the stigmata, making him the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ’s passion.  He died in 1226 while preaching Psalm 141.

The Franciscans have succeeded for over 750 years in the conquest and preservation of the Holy Places in the Holy Land.

Home of the Franciscans in Washington, DC

11 thoughts on “catacombs & crypts of the franciscan monastery

    1. I know, I couldn’t believe this place! The death mosaics were really striking… I found it so amazing that the Franciscans basically replicated most of the holy shrines in Jerusalem!

    1. Haha, yes, they put the actual remains in wax because the Friars didn’t want to have an actual skeleton showcased in their Monastery! Those death mosaics are pretty dark and scary!

      1. what happens if it gets really hot down there and the wax melts? or if they run out of candles – a skeleton encased in wax brings new meaning to human candle, no?

  1. What an interesting place to visit. That “purgatory” painting is not terribly appealing to me. 🙂 The mosaics are really amazing. Thanks for sharing. I’d love to visit for myself.

  2. Back at the turn of the 19th Century, travel to the Holy Land was a long dangerous trip. Fr Godfrey, the abbot of the monastery initiated the replicas so that a safe pilgrimage in this country would be possible. The Franciscans are the Catholic caretakers of the holy sites, so it was for them a no-brainer. my grandmother down the street, one block away, from the monastery, and what a great place to live near. My cousins and I would disappear to the gardens regularly and take spiritual time there and in the church. There are three of the most spiritually moving things to do in Washington at the monastery during Holy Week. The first is to attend the Tenebre on Wednesday, which is a sorrowful burial ritual held in the church that is incredibly solemn and intense, as it should be, since it represents us not knowing the saving benefits of the crucifixion, and is as we would have felt had we known Jesus during that time and witnessed the events of those days. The second is to attend the Stations of the Cross in the gardens, where several thousand show up and people take turns carrying the cross along the way. The third is the burial of Jesus the late Good Friday afternoon after the Stations. Even growing up in DC, the influence of St Francis was a strong force toward my vocation as a deacon. My wife and I miss the monastery terribly since moving hundreds of miles away, and it is one influence in our desire to return.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Deacon William. Those three things to do during Holy Week sound really moving. When I return home to Virginia in August, I will try to visit the Monastery again and hopefully by next Easter, I can do these things you suggest. I am currently living in Oman and finishing up my contract here, but I can’t wait to return to the Washington area, which is the place I call home. It’s so funny, in all the years I’ve lived in northern Virginia, I never even knew about the monastery until I read about it in the blog of an Irish girl traveling around the U.S. Funny, isn’t it, how we sometimes don’t even know the things we have in our own backyards!

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