The Franciscan Monastery
800 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church entrusted the guardianship of the Holy Land and other shrines of the Christian religion to the Order of St. Francis. This work has grown to include support of schools and missions in the Holy Land, as well as care for refugees and other needy people throughout the region.
As Holy Land Franciscans, we have the related task of informing Americans and others of the continued need for this custody and care.
In addition to promoting the care of the Holy Land, we look after the Franciscan Monastery, located in Washington, D.C. This unique Monastery, built in the late 1800’s, has replicas of shrines like those that you would find in the Holy Land. All are welcome.
History of the Monastery
Father Charles Vassani (1831–1896) in 1880 established the Commissariat of the Holy Land in New York at 143 West 95th St. (left). It was from this building that Fr. Vassani and Fr. Godfrey Schilling began plans to build a “Holy Land in America” and a Holy Sepulchre, which they envisioned crowning a high hill on Staten Island, overlooking the entrance to New York’s harbor. The Staten Island plan never materialized, but Fr. Vassani and Fr. Schilling did realize their dream on a wooded hilltop in Brookland, near Washington, D.C. In 1897, Fr. Schilling purchased the McCeeney Estate in Brookland in order to found a monastery and build his church.
Six pioneer Franciscans originally lived in the abandoned McCeeney house which had rotten floorboards and was overrun with rats. With the site purchased, Fr. Schilling soon engaged the well-known architect, Aristide Leonori (1856-1928), who would later design the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, to design and supervise the construction of the church and monastery. Leonori visited the Holy Land and took accurate measurements and photographs of the holy sites that were to be reproduced. A huge wooden cross was erected on the hilltop, which is today the site of the Friars’ Cemetery (directly behind the monastery). In February 1898, ground was broken for a new building, and the cornerstone was laid on the Feast of St. Joseph.
To fund the construction, Fr. Schilling sold paper bricks, called “building bricks,” which were 2.5 x .5 inches and contained a medal of St. Anthony of Padua. The building bricks were sold for 10 cents each. When the church was completed, a year later, it was nearly free of debt.
Left, Father Schilling and the original pioneer friars raising a cross on the hill where the Church and Monastery will be built, ca. 1897-98.