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Bringing a part of the Holy Land to America

(Published February 8, 1999)


Staff Writer

This year, the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland, the American home of the Order of Friars Minor established by St. Francis of Assisi, celebrates its 100th anniversary. Over the years, there have been few changes to the building itself, but major change has occurred in the lifestyle of the brothers and their continued mission to help those in need.

Father Kevin, the pilgrimage director who sets up pilgrimages to the Holy Land, said the lifestyle has changed to allow more freedom for the brothers. After the Vatican Council II, which heralded many major changes in the Roman Catholic Church, was established in 1962, life in the monastery became much less monastic for the friars.

Father Kevin notes that the site is actually a friary, a home for friars, not a monastery, which suggests it is a home for monks. In the Catholic Church, monks are tied to the particular location to which they are assigned, whereas friars are free to move from location to location. The name "monastery" is still used, both because of tradition and because it’s a landmark and it would be too difficult to change it to "friary."

"The friars may have more freedom, yet there is a greater responsibility to teach about Jesus and the church," he said. The monastery today is home to about 25 friars, Father Kevin said.

Originally, the monastery was going to be built on Staten Island in New York, but the founders decided the District was a more attractive location that would draw more visitors. On Nov, 2, 1897, the Rev. Godfrey Schilling, founder of the Franciscan Monastery, sent the first friars to take possession of the large estate owned by the McCeeny family in the Brookland area as headquarters for their work in America. They built the church and Monastery of Mount Sepulcher. Two years later, on Sept. 17, 1899, the Franciscan Monastery was built.

Schilling established the Franciscan Monastery to train American Franciscan missionaries for their work in the Holy Land, provide a place in the United States for people who do not have the means or time to see the shrines of the Holy Land and the catacombs of Rome, and to provide financial support through charitable contributions. A statue of Schilling holding a model of the monastery stands in front of the church’s entrance.

Despite its history and antiquated design, Father Kevin says the monastery has the necessary tools for communication in the new millennium.

"The work of evangelism continues — but with the help of modern means such as fax machines, computers, a web site, and communication with the public," Father Kevin said.

Throughout the years, thousands of parishioners, priests, and tourists have attended mass, made confession, heard lectures on the Holy Land, and toured the stretch of catacombs, tombs and gardens at 1400 Quincy St. NE.

The church and grounds of the monastery contain replicas of the principal shrines and chapels found in the Holy Land. The monastery has built a replica of the catacombs of Rome and has copies of early Christian art and inscriptions. The monastery itself, in simple architectural lines, is reminiscent of the monasteries of old Europe. It contains replicas of the holy shrines in Jordan, Egypt and Syria, which are reminders to Catholics of the sufferings and victory of Jesus Christ, and his followers.

When leading a pilgrimage through the monastery, Brother James gives tourists an overview and history of every chapel, altar and tomb.

On the tour, Brother James points out the Altar of Calvary, a lifelike depiction of the death of Christ. Also underneath the church’s main floor is the Altar of the Magi in memory of the three wise men who knelt in adoration of the newborn king.

"During Christmas, we stage a procession where we take the replica of the baby Jesus to the manger," Brother James said.

Before entering the monastery’s church, visitors pass the gift shop and the chapel of St. Joseph. The general architectural outlines of the church are Byzantine, with a slight nod to the Italian Renaissance. The church itself is laid out in the design of the Fivefold Cross, which formed the coat of arms of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The cross is the symbol of the order and appears throughout the monastery. The five crosses symbolize the wounds Jesus received at the time of his crucifixion. All the brothers wear the cross on their robes.

Structurally, the only renovations or additions Brother James has seen in his 12 years are the lights and the wooden benches that surround the gardens and shrines. Families donate the benches to honor loved ones who have died. Father Kevin also mentioned that the bronze and marble inside the church replaced the wood and plaster that existed before the 1940s.

"We are also renovating St. Francis Hall for weddings, meetings, etc.," he said.

Father Kevin said the monastery has increased its outreach efforts with the establishment of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The society donates money and other needed items to various groups and individuals.

"We’re continuing the work of St. Francis, " Father Kevin said. St. Francis of Assisi founded the Order of Friars Minor, who for nearly 800 years have fought for the conquest and preservation of the holy places in Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Syria. Today there are more than 22,000 members engaged in missionary and other religious work around the world.

A statue of St. Francis with a little boy and turtledoves stands among a bed of flowers in front of the church to the right of the statue of founder Schilling. On the left side of the church is the Portiuncula Chapel, which re-creates the shrine near Assisi in Umbrian Italy, where St. Francis established the order that bears his name today.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator