Encounter "Little Rome"


Who knew that Rome and the Holy Land were both within 25 minutes of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More? Our journey will take you to the Brookland neighborhood in Washington, D.C., sometimes referred to as “Little Rome” due to the Catholic universities (Catholic University of America and Trinity University), the Dominican House of Study, monasteries, shrines, and other religious sites. Among the unique institutions you'll encounter there: The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and Saint John Paul II National Shrine. Click on the photo to the left to download a handy summary of this page to take with you on your pilgrimage.


"We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians."
-Pope Francis

Little-Rome-MapWho knew that Rome and the Holy Land were both within 25 minutes of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More? Our journey will take you to the Brookland neighborhood in Washington, D.C., sometimes referred to as Little Rome due to the Catholic universities (Catholic University of America and Trinity University), the Dominican House of Study, monasteries, shrines, and other religious sites. Among the unique institutions you'll encounter there:

Even though COVID-19 limits some of the indoor opportunities, our focus will be on the outstanding outdoor sites, a couple of indoor options, and some teasers for additional add-ons to your excursion when the pandemic abates. Please note that bathrooms may NOT be available in some locations.
Our encounter will primarily focus on the outdoor areas and replicas of Holy Land sites at the Franciscan monastery and its gardens. While the visit to the gardens is free please consider generously supporting the work of these Franciscans who are charged with the custody of many sites in the Holy Land and performing corporal works of mercy. As Pope Francis's quote above warns, the status of Christians in the Holy Land is somewhat precarious--a fact worth contemplating on your encounter.

Franciscan-MonasteryCatholic Background

Unfortunately, most families cannot or will not visit the Holy Land in their lifetimes despite it being a place of pilgrimage for Christians-and other Abrahamic faiths. So perhaps the Franciscan's Holy Land in America can either whet our appetites for the longer visit or become a place of regular pilgrimage in our own back yard. And so, our first stop is this enclave in Washington, a national shrine with replicas of many of the sites important to world history and to Our Lord who went to Jerusalem each year during his life at least for Passover. “His public ministry itself was patterned by his pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great Jewish feasts. (CCC 583). This enclave and its programs help sustain the 800-year mission of the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Its 42 acres, century-old gardens and full-size replicas of shrines from the Holy Land, daily Masses, confessions and retreats, lure more than 50,000 visitors each year. In keeping with Franciscan ministry, the Monastery gardens also provide more than 5,000 pounds of produce each year for the city's poor.

There are many ways to make this encounter. Two immediately come to mind: as a tourist or as a pilgrim. It's important that you consider which type of experience you would like your teens/family to have. Both can be meaningful. “Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer.” (CCC 2691) For our purposes we'll focus on a fun, meaningful, pilgrimage experience-one where the journey is as important as the destination and where you can search for new meaning for yourself, your family, and your relationship with Christ.  For 8 tips to turn a family trip into a pilgrimage click here. The 8 tips center around: sacred place, penance, community, prayer, ritual, votive offering, celebration, and making the experience last through reflection. Each of those is available to you in this enclave. 

Packing List/Before You Go

  • Directions: Map out your route using your favorite mapping app. To visualize the locations, you can use this Google Map.
  • Parking: Free parking lot across the street from the Franciscan Monastery, 1400 Quincy Street. There is also free parking at the Basilica and JPII Shrine.
  • Food Options: You can pack a lunch with your favorite treats or check out one of the many food options in Little Rome!
    • Picnic at Angel Park near the Monastery! While you should not picnic on the grounds of the Gardens, the Franciscans recommend Angel Park which is just across the street from the Monastery and adjacent to the visitor parking lot. Picnic tables are available, with seating up to 42 people.
    • The Monastery recommends several local restaurants in the FAQs here.
    • The cafeteria at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (if open).
    • Monroe Street Farmers Market is located at Arts Walk and Plaza. It hosts local farmers and specialty food producers, music and local artists and studios.
    • If you're ready to head home for dinner, grab the daily catch at the Maine Avenue Fish Market (which, according to historians, has been there since George Washington walked the earth).
  • Plan your Day: Draft a schedule of activities based on seasonal/current hours of operation, etc. A sample of options are available below. Make sure you check websites or call for the most up-to date info on Hours of Operation!

  • Test your Knowledge before you go: Download and Print this quiz to take together as a group to check your knowledge about the Holy Land! 

The Experience

Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America(1400 Quincy St. NE, Washington DC 20017). When you first enter the Upper Gardens at the Monastery, you can choose to explore the upper gardens to view the Rosary Portico, beautiful landscape, and the Portiuncula Chapel. Then explore the lower gardens, where you can pray the Stations of the Cross, visit replicas of the Grotto of Gethsemane, the Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lourdes Grotto, and more! Below is some helpful information, trivia, and challenges to accompany your pilgrimage through the gardens. Please Note: The lower gardens have some relatively steep areas and may not be appropriate for those with less mobility. There is good shade in most spots. During the pandemic, there are no bathrooms available to the public.

St.-FrancisReflect on the Life of St. Francis: When you first walk through the gates, in the rose gardens, you will see a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans. To learn more about St. Francis you can read about him here or watch this video for a quick overview of St. Francis' life by Catholic News Agency.

In St. Francis' early life, he was often described as the “Life of the Party”. He enjoyed a lavish, wild, and sinful lifestyle and desired greatly to be a noble knight. His story is one of the most powerful experiences of conversion, but it did not happen overnight. St. Francis found himself at a dead end: not satisfied by the worldly pleasures he sought out in his youth. (Photo Source:  2 Source: “Saint Francis of Assisi Church, Coyoacan, Federal District, Mexico019” by Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca is licensed with CC BY 2.0. The image can be found here)

Ask:Have you ever experienced a time when you were not satisfied by the things the world told you would bring you happiness (social media, parties, money, etc.)?

St. Francis only found fulfillment when he turned to Christ and gave himself to God. He lived a radical lifestyle: he chose to give up all his possessions for the simple life; showed honor, respect, and love to all people no matter their circumstance; and desired to spread the Gospel to every corner of the earth. It was this radical lifestyle that attracted thousands of people to travel to hear him speak and learn from his message. He placed absolute trust in the Lord to provide for his needs and those of his companions and through that trust, the Order of the Franciscans was born.

Ask: In what area(s) of your life do you need to allow yourself to have greater trust in the Lord?

Let us embrace the example of St. Francis as we journey on this encounter to radiate joy, embrace simplicity, and trust in the Lord.

Did you know? Our current Pope, Pope Francis, chose his name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi!

Jerusalem-CrossJerusalem Cross
Near St. Francis' statue, you may notice a flag with a cross on it. This type of cross is called the “Jerusalem Cross” (also known as the “Crusaders' Cross”), which is thought by some to represent the four Gospels being carried to every corner of the earth while others believe it represents the wounds of Christ. The floor plan of the Main Church at the Franciscan Monastery is in the shape of a Jerusalem Cross. How many Jerusalem Crosses can you find during your tour?

Rosary Challenge
The upper gardens at the Franciscan Monastery has a Rosary Portico (covered walkway) with the Hail Mary written in 150 different languages. This display of prayer in various tongues shows the breadth and beauty of the universal Church. As you pray along the Rosary Portico and appreciate the beautiful imagery of Mary, can you identify 5 of the languages on display? Note: there are 15 small chapels along the route to represent 15 mysteries of the Rosary.

Stations-of-the-CrossStations of the Cross
When visiting the Holy Land, a common practice is for pilgrims to participate in the “Via Dolorosa” (“Way of the Cross”) that follows a route of 14 stations throughout the Old City of Jerusalem. Each Friday the Franciscan Order leads a large procession throughout the city to pray through the path that Jesus took to his Crucifixion. At the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, in the lower gardens, there are 14 station markers to observe this journey. There are many ways to pray through the stations. On this encounter, as you walk in Christ's footsteps, take the time to unite with Jesus' suffering by reflecting at each Station.

Together as a group or family, consider praying using one of these options to guide your Stations of the Cross experience:

Lower-GardenLower Gardens
While you are in the gardens here are just some of the replicas that you can visit:

Grotto of Gethsemane...while at the Grotto, read Matthew 26: 36-46, the Agony in the Garden. It was at the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus spoke with his Father while in the nearby Grotto the disciples had fallen asleep despite Jesus telling them to remain alert. He returned to find them asleep... “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?... Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Perhaps you can ask those with you to reflect: What do you think the meaning of this passage is? How is it possible that the disciples could have fallen asleep? Would you have stayed awake for the Son of God...or would you have been tempted to say “oh, I can do that in the morning, I'm exhausted?” Are there any resolutions you can make to be vigilant in your own life?

Lourdes-GrottoTomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary...before the Blessed Mother's assumption into heaven, tradition says that upon her death she was kept in a tomb in a church at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The tomb on the grounds here is a replica of the one in Jerusalem. This is an excellent place to consider the sacrifices Mary made and the pain she must have endured seeing Jesus on the cross. After reflecting for a while, pray one or all of the following and consider what it means to say “yes” as Mary did: Hail Mary, Angelus, Hail Holy Queen, Magnificat, Memorare, Loving Mother of the Redeemer, Miraculous Medal Prayer (all may be found here: http://www.beginningcatholic.com/prayers-to-virgin-mary)

Lourdes Grotto...This replica of the site of a Marian apparition is also in the gardens.

Other points of interest include St. Anne's Chapel, St. Anthony and St. Jude, Ascension Chapel, Portiuncula Chapel (St. Francis' first church) and more!

If you wish to go on a deeper dive into the Monastery and the gardens please visit this link: https://wdchumanities.org/dcdm/files/original/2f86a7ce2f584ab1ac8cbb506d107b15.pdf

Trivia to Ask During Your Visit

  1. Who was the first pope since Saint Peter to visit the Holy Land? Pope Paul VI
  2. Who are the official guardians of the Holy Places? The Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor). It's critical to note that not only are they guardians of the sites but they also share Christ's message of hope and charity in word and deed through schools and service to those in need of all faiths and creeds.
  3. How far can a ten cent fundraiser go? Well, if you were creative, once upon a day, you could build an entire church! That's right, to fund the construction of the church at the Monastery, 2.5 x .5 inches paper bricks containing a medal of St. Anthony of Padua were sold for ten cents each! When the church was completed a year later the monastery was nearly debt free!
  4. What does bread have to do with St. Anthony? St. Anthony's Bread is the term used for offerings made in thanksgiving to God for blessings received through the prayers of St. Anthony. The practice of giving alms in honor of St. Anthony originated in the 13th century. For many devoted to the saint of Padua, St. Anthony's Bread is a means of ministering to the poor and disadvantaged. You may decide to make an offering to Franciscans of the Holy Land to feed the poor and, at the same time, to pay special tribute to St. Anthony, who dedicated so much of his life to the poorest and neediest.
  5. How is the retreat center for the Diocese of Arlington related to St. Francis of Assisi? The San Damiano Spiritual Life Center is named after the church that St. Francis helped to rebuild after his vision of the crucified Christ. St. Francis at first believed that in his encounter that Christ was calling him to “rebuild my house” his nearby church-literally to rebuild the church building at San Damiano that was in shambles. Later Francis saw it as a call to transform himself and the Church as a whole. For more information visit this link.

Ministry of the Franciscans
While on this pilgrimage, consider supporting the Franciscans who preserve the holy places and make it possible for Christians to remain in the land of Jesus. Below are some highlights of their ministry efforts:

  • Working to stabilize the declining population of Christian families in the Holy Land who are threatened by national strife, terrorism, and the lack of employment and educational opportunities
  • Preserving 74 sanctuaries and shrines from the life of Jesus and the prophets
  • Operating 16 schools for more than 10,000 pre-K-12 students
  • Supporting 29 parishes, 4 homes for orphans and 3 academic institutions
  • Providing emergency support to refugees (Syrian, Iraqi, etc.)

The Franciscans also provide pilgrimage trips to the “real” Holy Land in Israel. If interested, visit https://holylandpilgrimages.org/.

Our Next Stops

National-ShrineBasilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
While in DC, you can take part in the Sacraments through Mass and Confessions offered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There is free parking, and it is open daily from 7:30am-5pm with restrictions implemented due to COVID. While not everything in the Basilica is open for visitors, you may visit for private prayer in the Crypt Church, attend Mass, go to Confession, visit the bookstore and gift shop and visit the outdoor Garden of Mary.

Mass is offered daily at 8am and 12:10pm. You must arrive more than 15 minutes in advance of Mass to be screened and seated. Sunday Mass is offered at 9am, 12 noon, 2:30pm (Spanish), and 4:30 pm. Sunday Mass requires a 30-minute early arrival.

Confessions are available Monday through Saturday 9am - 11am in the Transept Chapels of the Great Upper Church (Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady Help of Christians, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, and Mary, Queen of All Hearts).Mary's Garden

Until further notice, the Basilica is operating under adjusted operations, scheduled, and protocols. For a list of procedures, visit here!

Behind the Basilica is Mary's Garden, which is a great place to reflect, pray, and enjoy some time outdoors! 

What's in a Name?
As you prepare to visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception-an edifice built by generations of American Catholics to honor the patroness of our nation-it would be helpful to understand all the terms in the name. What's a basilica? A shrine? Why isn't it a cathedral? Does the Immaculate Conception refer to Jesus' virgin birth? (No!)

For a quick primer on the functional terms regarding basilica, cathedral and shrine visit the Catholic Straight Answers site here: https://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-is-the-difference-between-a-basilica-a-cathedral-and-a-shrine/

But how about the Immaculate Conception-one of the many titles bestowed on the Blessed Virgin Mary? Many people-including some Catholics-believe that the Immaculate Conception refers to the virgin conception and birth of Jesus. In fact, the Immaculate Conception references that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin…” (Pope Pius IX Ineffabilis Deus). Significance: Since original sin is inherited through our parents and Jesus took on our human nature in all things except sin, Mary had to be free of original sin.

JPII-ShrineSaint John Paul II National Shrine
Encounter the mission and legacy of a celebrated and cherished recent pontiff at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. As a fierce advocate for youth and their participation in the life of the Church and society, and as a vocal opponent of the dangers of communism, St. John Paul II was a leading light for evangelization in the 20th and 21st centuries. Visit the “Gift of love” exhibit to explore his life, venerate his relic in the Luminous Mysteries Chapel, or participate in Mass during your visit. (Shrine currently closed due to COVID, check the website for online activities www.jp2shrine.org.)


Unique Side Trips That You May Not Have Known About in D.C.

  • Get Active! Take part of your day in DC to be active with your family or group. Rock Creek Park offers hiking, cycling, or horseback riding. Beach Drive is closed to cars on the weekends so feel free to strap on those roller blades or pedal to your heart's content. Rent a kayak at the Key Bridge boathouse or Fletcher's boathouse or try stand up paddle boarding or do a spin in a paddle boat at the Tidal Basin. If you really want to make this a full weekend and more...bike the C&O Canal from Georgetown to Cumberland (184 miles).
  • President Lincoln's Cottage/Soldiers Home. Not far from the Shrine is the site where President Lincoln spent his summers and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. You can take tours ($) of the cottage and consider the struggle and sacrifice of slavery, of those who fought for freedom, and the importance of leadership and a moral compass in making change. In these unsettled times, consider conversations with your family around justice while visiting. https://www.lincolncottage.org/ 140 Rock Creek Church Road, NW, Washington D.C. 20011.
  • African American Civil War Memorial. Keeping with the Civil War and the themes of justice and freedom, did you know that more than 209,000 black troops fought in the Civil War to end the evil of slavery as part of the “United States Colored Troops”? Visit https://www.afroamcivilwar.org/  1925 Vermont Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20001.
  • Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial. A sculpture across from St. Matthew's Cathedral, honors the more than 600 nuns who cared for soldiers of both armies on the battlefields and in the hospitals during the Civil War. “They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried HOPE to the imprisoned, gave in HIS name a drink of water to the thirsty.” This would be the perfect place to read Matthew 25: 35-40 and discuss how these nuns did what we are all called to do and upon which we will all be judged. How can you as a family, as an individual, commit here and now to taking concrete action just as the nuns did? This may be a good time to go into the Cathedral to pray over this and to make firm resolutions.
  • Victims of Communism Memorial. This statue may be on your way out of DC, located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, and G Street, NW, two blocks from Union Station and within view of the U.S. Capitol. This newer memorial was dedicated in 2007, twenty years to the day that President Reagan famously said at the Brandenburg Gate, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The memorial is dedicated “to the more than one hundred million victims of communism and to those who love liberty.” It is a stark reminder of the evil that totalitarian and atheistic governments have brought and continue to bring upon the world. Consider discussing some of St. John Paul II's thoughts on communism and socialism and his role in the fight against communism.
  • The Extra Mile. Just blocks from the White House, the Extra Mile monument begins at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street, and continues north on 15th Street to G street, NW. Formed by a series of bronze medallions creating the one-mile historic walking path, the monument honors individuals whose actions and commitment to service have transformed our nation. it is the only monument in the nation that has been created to honor “regular citizens” for the work that they've done for their country. Walk along, discuss those you know about and their contributions and discuss whether you agree or disagree with the choice. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for members of your family-regular citizens-to aspire to what it would take for each of you to be listed on this walk.

What's next?

This encounter provided you with an opportunity to figuratively walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Certainly, you did not go to the places where Christ trod nearly 2,000 years ago. And yet, perhaps you are now inspired to learn more about each place, to visualize Christ's passion more concretely when you pray the stations, to study about the history and places you read about in the bible. Perhaps you have been inspired by the work of the Franciscans and want to find out more about their work to preserve the presence of Christians in the Holy Land. Perhaps now you can reflect on your take-aways from the day and make resolutions for your life related to charitable work, service, prayer and concrete actions you will take with friends and family. Perhaps now you are inspired to visit the Holy Land itself and walk in the footsteps of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Pilgrims speak of the power and awe of doing so. Just remember, Christ didn't require that pilgrimage of us, but He does want us to walk in his footsteps in word and deed!