Walk in the Footsteps of the Holy Family at Christmas

Holy Land USA brings faith to life in the nation's capital.


Can’t travel to the Holy Land as a pilgrim? Not to worry: You can visit closer to home at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in the nation’s capital, which has been named an official pilgrimage site for the Year of Faith.

More than 100 years old, Holy Land USA has replicas of holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem — built and administered by the same Franciscans who care for the shrines in the Holy Land. For 800 years, since 1219, the Franciscans have been entrusted with guardianship of the Holy Land.

"We want people to experience how Jesus has saved us and be reminded of all those sites in Jerusalem," said Franciscan Father Jeremy Harrington, the commissary and guardian of the Washington shrine. "We call it an oasis of peace and prayer that people can come to."

Indeed, the 42 acres of this monastery and shrine are filled with both peace and prayer.

When Franciscan Father Godfrey Schilling, the second head of the Commissariat of the Holy Land, and Italian Architect Aristede Leonori began this project in 1899, they wanted the replicas to be as exact as possible. Consequently, Leonori traveled to the Holy Land to measure the Holy Sepulcher and other sites to get the exact dimensions, make drawings and taking pictures.

Leonori and Father Schilling laid out the plans for the main monastery church in the form of the Jerusalem Cross. Also called the Crusaders Cross because knights wore it, the large cross represents the body of Christ and is surrounded by four smaller crosses, which represent the Gospels and the directions they spread from Jerusalem. The five crosses together symbolize Christ’s wounds.


Magnificent Grounds

The grounds are painted with a profuse and colorful palette of various flowers when in season.

The Rosary Portico is a colonnade that lets visitors recall all the events of Jesus’ life in the mysteries of the Rosary. Brilliant mosaics mark each of the 15 mysteries. (The Luminous Mysteries are not present because the portico was created long before Blessed John Paul II instituted the new mysteries in 2002.)

Each column along the cloister-like walk acts as a bead of the rosary. Ceramic tiles along the portico repeat the angelic salutation — "Ave Maria" — in 150-plus ancient and modern languages. The Rosary is prayed every day at 11:30am.

On Christmas Eve and every following evening through New Year’s, luminaria are placed between the columns along the portico for a wondrous lighting of the walk.


Holy Land Replicas

The Byzantine and Italian Romanesque church, dedicated in 1899, is a wonder of architectural and artistic beauty. It has been added to and renovated over the years.

The main altar is in the center of the church under a magnificent bronze baldachino, which in turn is under a Byzantine dome. Statues of the apostles, three on each pillar of the baldachino, face the altar.

Among the paintings on the baldachino’s ceiling are those depicting Mary, Mediatrix of All Graces, and the four Marys who were at Christ’s tomb: the Blessed Mother carrying the shroud, Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Mary, the wife of Clopas.

Past the altar is the replica of the Anointing Stone outside the Holy Sepulcher. In the church in Jerusalem, the stone is inside the main door.


Here, Calvary depicts the Crucifixion in a panoramic wall scene. The marble altar is an exact replica of the one over the site of the Crucifixion in Jerusalem. Because the architect made careful measurements, the distance inside the church from Calvary to the Holy Sepulcher where Christ was buried appears to be the same distance as the actual distance in Jerusalem.

The Holy Sepulcher here includes the low door that requires visitors to bend over to enter the inner part of the tomb. The only difference is that in Jerusalem it is freestanding, without steps on either side. The replica contains a stone from the tomb in Jerusalem.

During Holy Week, the moving ceremony of the burial of Jesus is carried out just as it is at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

The Grotto of Bethlehem is also present here, showcasing the star underneath the altar, replicating the holy place where Our Lord was born and over which St. Helena built a basilica in 315. The mosaic of the Nativity over the altar is an exact copy of the Byzantine one in Bethlehem.

And, off to the side, a little chapel contains the manger and adoration of the Three Kings, as in Jerusalem.

Leading into the Grotto of Nazareth, there are paintings of St. Anne teaching Mary as a child and St. Joseph teaching the Child Jesus, moving reminders of the Holy Family.

There are so many shrines and altars within the church and around the grounds where visitors and pilgrims can pray, meditate and marvel at the liturgical art and architecture. The catacombs have altars honoring a variety of saints.

The profusion of stained glass is a wonder. A great portion was installed in 1931 by the Royal Bavarian Art Institute in Munich; the decorative and colorful style is a hallmark of the legendary German glassmakers.

All the main Franciscan saints appear in windows around the church, plus many not-so-well-known secular Franciscans like St. Isabella of Spain, who helped finance the Crusades, and Louis IX of France, known as the "Crusader King." Others had a particular devotion to Our Lord and our Blessed Mother.

Around the main church there are altars dedicated to the Transfiguration, Holy Spirit, St. Joseph and Our Lady. There are also shrines to Sts. Francis and Anthony.

The altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart on the second level has a huge bas relief showing Christ enthroned as the King of all hearts as Sts. Francis and Clare adore him.


Grand Gardens and Grottos

There’s even more to ponder around the outdoor gardens surrounding the Grotto of Gethsemane, which replicates the original on the Mount of Olives. The Chapel of the Ascension is also an authentic reproduction of the original. It was blessed in 1926 on Ascension Thursday.

The Grotto of Lourdes reproduces the original in France closely. Naturally, because of the Franciscans’ centuries-long custody of Holy Land shrines, there is also a reproduction of the Portiuncula Chapel (Our Lady of the Angels) of St. Francis.

Everywhere, the seasonal flowers make the grounds into a heavenly botanical garden, from the profusion of roses — more than 1,000 rose bushes — to the herb garden.

It’s a heavenly place for families to bring their children to teach them about the faith and the beauty of God’s creation, particularly around Christmas.

Joseph Pronechen is the

Register’s staff writer.



 Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America

1400 Quincy St. NE

Washington, DC 20017


(202) 526-6800


Christmas Masses

Christmas Eve Mass will be at 5pm and midnight. Christmas Day Masses will be celebrated at 8 and 10am and noon.


Year of Faith Pilgrimage Site

For the Year of Faith, people can receive a plenary indulgence by making a pilgrimage here and fulfilling the usual conditions. Special events for the Year of Faith include the "Friars & Friends" speaker series on Vatican II each third Monday of the month, when participants also can gain a plenary indulgence. Confessions are available seven times a day, along with several daily Masses.