'A Very Meditative Place'

Article excerpt

Byline: Gabriella Boston, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Franciscan Monastery in Northeast is many miles from the Mall and other familiar tourist sites, but visitors interested in expansive gardens, Byzantine art and creepy crypts who venture to this off-the-beaten-path destination are in for a treat.

"We talk about being a hidden treasure, but people don't believe us until they visit," says Paula Glover, spokeswoman for the monastery, more fully Mount St. Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery. "This is a great place to just take a stroll in the gardens or enjoy architecture, art and history. ... You don't have to be Catholic to get something out of it"

Tours are given on the hour several times a day and include a look at the crypts and catacombs as well as the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was completed in 1899 and designed in the Byzantine style after the much larger Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The gardens, which are littered with replicas and shrines of holy structures in Jerusalem, can be visited without a tour guide.

The most popular feature of the site, however is what lies beneath.

"The catacombs are a great draw for kids," says Brother Thomas Courtney, who gives frequent tours.

"I guess they think they're creepy and mysterious," adds Brother Thomas, one of 20 Franciscan friars who live at the monastery.

Yes, the catacombs are creepy - at least a little. They feature real bones, a partly mummified child saint, damp stone walls, a purgatory chapel and a stretch of reproduction Roman catacombs, complete with several tiers of - empty - graves and early Christian symbolism and art.

"The catacombs [in Rome] were 900 miles long and up to five tiers deep," Brother Thomas says, adding that more than 9 million people are estimated to have been buried in them.

The crypts aren't all there is to see at the monastery, however. It can be a lesson-tour of beautiful art, too. Take the many stained-glass windows in the Memorial Church or the dozens of chapels, including the Lady Chapel, which features blue-and-white relief panels of Mary and her coronation in heaven, and the Altar of Calvary, which, according to church literature, is an exact replica of the altar that stands over the crucifixion site in Jerusalem.

Also a replica from Jerusalem is Christ's two-chamber tomb, which is adorned with stucco relief covered in silver and bronze.

"It has the same look and size as the one in the Holy Land," Brother Thomas says. "There are so many replicas and representations here that we say we're the second-best choice if you can't go to the Holy Land."

He is dressed in a friar's robe embroidered with a crusader's cross and a white rope belt with knots on it. …