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Monday, June 15, 2009

Thing 157: The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America

"This fossilized snake in the marble is over 400 million years old -- sorry if there are any Creationists on the tour," our guide, Claude told us. Which seemed like a kind of a weird thing to say, because on a tour of a monastery, at the foot of a statue of Mary, Mother of God, it seems safe to say there will be one or two Creationists around. Does the Pope know there's a 400 million year old fossil in this church? And if so, what does he make of it, exactly?

That was but one of many of the bizarro moments from my tour of the Franciscan Monastery. You may recall that I only recently learned that this place existed when I toured Brookland earlier this month. I was so taken with the place that I immediately set up a return trip, complete with picnic, to spend some more time on the grounds and have a chance to tour the church and catacombs.

We had a picnic of a half dozen people, and we ended up setting up across the street, in a large patch of shady grass, so as not to disturb the people that might be there for more sacred purposes. On Sundays, there are tours of the church at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm, and I hopped on the 3pm tour.

The church is stunning -- gold leaf and stained glass and marble, an elaborate enameled covering over the dais, ornate statues and wood carvings. It reminded me of when I was traveling in Prague by myself, just sort of trapsing through the city and ducking my head into random churches, when I poke into one of them and everything was shiny and golden and elaborate. The unexpectedness of the beauty of this church, tucked away in Northeast DC, is really awesome (as in, inspiring awe).

Our tour guide, Claude, swept into the waiting area and abruptly began the tour. Short and rather stout, with a short, greying beard, Claude was dressed like a British Colonial guard in India circa 1880, head to toe in white with a red sash. He was very knowledgeable and good natured, but quite abrupt, and had the straight-ahead, rehearsed mannerism of someone who has given this tour, many, many times.

He took us through the church, explaining that this is a replica of a the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy Land, complete with replica tomb and replica...catacombs. That's right, the catacombs I was so looking forward to were...fakes. Basically, we went underground, through a dark tunnel with indentations that, if these really were catacombs, would have had dead bodies in them.

After the tour, I spent some time in the rose garden and walking through the cloisters, taking in the bright and shiny mosaics of scenes from Jesus' life. Everything was blooming and the grounds were bathed in sunshine. It was a really pleasant afternoon, and if you haven't visited yet, I really encourage you too. But don't expect any real catacombs.