Architecture Moments™ 10: Franciscan Monastery of The Holy Land

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The Central Altar of the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher

If you haven't been to Israel yet, this more than a century-old religious sanctuary in Washington D.C., USA offers you fascinating architectural encounters of American replicas of The Holy Land and more.

Ever since I began traveling to the North American continent, investing time for architectural tours has always been my top priority. And while the United States is blessed with plenty of fabulous built environments of various genres, the country's overwhelming number of sacred monuments is likewise a must-visit for architecture and design enthusiasts. On this particular trip, I was destined for the nation's capital city and was simply eager to discover for myself what this sacred sanctuary was all about.

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Entrance Signage with Facade of the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Perched on top of a hill named Mount Saint Sepulcher and situated at the intersection of the 14th and Quincy Streets in the Brookland community of Northeast Washington D.C., the Franciscan Monastery of The Holy Land is our special feature for the 10th Edition of Architecture Moments™. Walk with me as I gladly present to you virtual glimpses of this one-of-a-kind landmark.

Did you know that the Franciscans are a group of Catholic religious practitioners that was founded by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1209?

This particular order consists of the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of Saint Clare, and the Third Order of Saint Francis. They conform to the spiritual doctrines and educational practices of the original founder, including their core affiliates namely Anthony of Padua, Clare of Assisi, and Elizabeth of Hungary.

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Main Entry Gates of the Franciscan Monastery of The Holy Land

During my high school days, my undivided attention was glued to their remarkable stories as narrated by our academic institution's priests, clergy, and catechism teachers. Fast forward to today's pilgrimage, it further unfolded an excellent opportunity for me to study their current advocacies, programs, services, and most importantly, the spectacular architecture embodying the Franciscan Monastery of The Holy Land. The entire complex highlights a church, a secluded Franciscan monastery, and related spaces encompassing a communal environment of statuaries, chapels, shrines, gardens, and burial grounds.

Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Exterior)

Upon entering the gates of this religious landmark, I was greeted by its iconic centerpiece, a Neo-Byzantine-styled church.

This prestigious building was constructed in 1899, sporting a buff tone (medium to dark tan color) as designed by its Italian architect Aristides Leonori, born in Rome and who was a recognized specialist building churches and other religious structures.

The commission required him to travel to The Holy Land in Israel to record actual measurements, document details, and capture photographs of the mentioned sites to be replicated in the D.C. sanctuary. Regardless of the hot weather, I endured the scorching heat outside on purpose merely to marvel at the built creation in front of me. It definitely took a while to grasp the reality of my presence there.

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Exterior of the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher

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Exterior of the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher

"Isn't that an amazing piece of architecture!? It may not completely resemble the original church in Israel, but it surely gives you the feeling of being there!" I pondered while continuously gazing at its exterior splendor.

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The Original Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, Israel | Source

To confirm my thoughts, I did a bit of research by asking around and discovered that the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher in D.C. is actually an inspired architectural model of its primary edifice in Israel's city of Jerusalem.

This holy ground in Jerusalem is said to be the actual site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion, a significant global location for Christianity, thus becoming a highly visited destination for pilgrims and faithful around the world.

It's probably the reason why they added the word "Memorial" to its D.C, replica as part of its official name. With its floor plan mimicking the fivefold Jerusalem cross, this building embodies the Neo-Byzantine character, with references to the majestic Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, now known as the city of Istanbul in Turkey. Some interesting Romanesque details were eventually merged with the overall design.

Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Interior)

Approaching the entrance doors of the church, it was now time to be more intimate with this renowned shrine. After stepping inside, my head and eyebrows raised while my eyes widely opened to an incredible smorgasbord of religious paintings, sculptures, mosaics, imagery, stained glass windows, symbolisms of Catholicism, plus distinctive ecclesiastical elements.

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Floor Layout of the Five-Fold Jerusalem Cross

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Central Interior of the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher

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Neo-Byzantine Architecture of the Main Interior

"Because of the presence of relics here, pilgrims find this holy place immensely spiritual compared to other religious sites, intensifying their close feelings to the pain and suffering Jesus Christ have undergone on the Cross," our assigned church guide explained.

Our honorable tour master was a friendly Black fellow, who with his amazing narrations, transported us back in time to the ancient streets of Israel. During this occasion, my companions and I were the only ones there, feasting on the entire venue to ourselves. The heartwarming stories shared with us opened our hearts and minds to several incredible revelations covering this historic milestone.

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The Elevated Altar of Calvary behind me

Moving on to the other interior spaces within the church, I've noticed that elevated platforms were specially created on each side of the cross floor plan to represent significant events in Christ's life. Some of these included sculptural depictions and paintings of the Acts of Jesus and his Apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the miraculous works of the Saints, most especially Saint Francis of Assisi.

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Jesus Christ with his Disciples and his Glorious Resurrection

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Altar of the Holy Spirit with Jesus Christ, the Apostles, and the Franciscans

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The Transfiguration showing Jesus and the Prophets Moses and Elijah

We had to ascend some steps towards these raised levels to have a sense of these narrative altars, each celebrating a crucial chapter in the historic pages of Christianity. These beautiful murals were typically divided by a lower area exhibiting marvelous frescos together with magnificent stained glass artworks above them. In my opinion, this desired arrangement portrayed the symbolism of Earth at the bottom segment while magnifying the heavenly kingdom on top.

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The Altar of Calvary

The Altar of Calvary, for instance, as similar to the other elevated spaces, has been set in that high elevation to mimic the actual height of Mount Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion of Jesus.

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Saint Francis of Assisi with his Divine Works

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The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

After being shown the different aspects on the ground level, our tour guide then brought us to a staircase leading to the basement section. This special area houses replicas from Nazareth, situated in the Lower Galilee region of Israel, and recognized as the humble home of the young child Jesus.

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Staircase leading to Nazareth at the Lower Levels

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View of the Church's Main Dome from the Nazareth grounds

Located in these lower chambers were also replicas of catacombs in Rome holding the important remains of St. Benignus, a religious martyr from the second century executed to death by the Roman Emperor, plus that of St. Innocent, a child martyr clearly exhibiting the persecution suffered by ancient Christians.

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The Annunciation of Mary by the angel Gabriel

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Sculptural Presentation of Heaven and Hell

I couldn't help but shed tears as we journeyed through the different phases of Jesus Christ's life, from his birth to his early childhood until the day of his sorrowful Crucifixion.

The architectural elements in these spaces were extremely realistic that it was simply impossible for me not to be moved by their emotional impact. Would you feel the same way if you were here?

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The Burial Tomb of Jesus Christ

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One of the Burial Chambers in Nazareth

Our tour guide narrated that Jesus' body was transferred to a burial chamber following the exact distance from the church, replicating the same tomb in its current location. What was even more interesting was that stone fragments from the real tomb in Jerusalem were also used as part of the D.C. replica's construction.

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The Holy Child Jesus

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Replica of the Birthplace of Jesus with Mary, Joseph, and 3 Kings

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The Manger where Jesus Christ was born

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One of the Auxiliary Altars of the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher

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Sculpture depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ

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Various Memorabilia of the City of Jerusalem in Israel

The elaborate details within the church's interior spaces were definitely products of fine craftsmanship. The marvelous intricacies displayed by these ecclesiastical projects are undoubtedly profound labors of love, signifying the firm foundation of the faithful who contributed to these religious endeavors. After the extensive tour of its interior architecture, we expressed our big thanks and bid farewell to our kind tour guide while proceeding to the exterior environments on our own.

Other Landmarks in the Religious Complex

Aside from this complex's main attraction: the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher, there was still more to see at the sacred grounds. Because this community was located in a hilly neighborhood, I expected to breathe unpolluted air as well as experience a tranquil atmosphere which were all realized afterward.

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The Rosary Portico surrounding the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Rosary Portico was designed by John Joseph Earley, a well-known architect, artisan, and innovator in the creative use of concrete. This gorgeous enclosure was surrounded by 15 chapels, representing the mysteries of the Holy Rosary.

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One of the Chapels within the Rosary Portico

Interestingly, each of these chapels consisted of plaques commemorating the Hail Mary translated in approximately 200 ancient and modern languages. This enlarged porch was aesthetically inspired by the Cloister of St. John Lateran in Rome including Saint Paul's Outside the Walls. Marks of Christian symbolism from Roman catacombs were also adorning its exterior facade.

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Lush Gardens of the Franciscan Monastery of The Holy Land

On the outside, the monastery was tremendously decorated with vast gardens cultivated with exotic flowers, plant species, and a variety of trees. Here, we also discovered fabulous replicas of the Garden of Gethsemane, the tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Portiuncula Chapel as revived by St. Francis.

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One of the massive Flower Gardens at the Outdoors

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Panorama of the Grotto of our Lady of Lourdes

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A replica of the Grotto of our Lady of Lourdes

I've heard from other visitors that the Franciscan Monastery was planning a massive expansion of its outdoor facilities incorporating more private and solitary estates allowing ideal places for meditation, reflection, and prayer.

Perhaps on my next visit to this religious site, this welcoming news would be verified. Until then, I might as well just enjoy the serenity of the nature surrounding me during those moments.

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One of the Chapel at the Exterior Gardens

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Sacred Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary

We had no access to the existing Neo-Romanesque monastery of the Franciscans attached to the main church because visitors were not allowed to disturb the private quarters of this religious order.

A Remarkable Pilgrimage to Remember

Because this distinguished monastery is the headquarters of the Commissariat of the Holy Land for the United States of America, it mirrors a fundamental aspect of the historical significance of the Order of Friars Minor. Their core duty was geared towards the actual preservation of this national shrine for the valuable benefit of the American people as well as pilgrims from around the world.

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Interior of the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Besides its religious purpose, my memorable visit to the Franciscan Monastery of The Holy Land was surely a sensual feast of architecture, with a particular focus on the outstanding characteristics of an ecclesiastical design. And while the original landmarks in Israel have heavily influenced the American replicas in its physical, visual, and functional manifestations, there's a much deeper connection involved - a spiritual attachment linking us to our Divine Creator who is the Master Architect of humanity's story of eternal salvation since time immemorial.

#Hive, what are your thoughts about the architecture and design of the Franciscan Monastery of The Holy Land? Do you also participate in religious pilgrimages to sacred sites across the globe? Share your conversations in the comments.


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