There are a few elusive places in DC that you are only clued in to from some friend-of-a-friend. For me, these semi-hidden attractions often become favorite spots to slip away or to see another side of the city. This is the case with the publicly-accessible gardens of this proper Catholic monastery in the Brookland neighborhood.
Just beyond Catholic University and the Basilica, over a bridge and down a random street lies the "Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America." It can be a little intimidating to pass under the archways running along the edges of the property into the hushed, pious atmosphere, but the garden pathways readily welcome curious visitors.
The Rosary Portico encloses the upper gardens with an open, arched walkway looking over the orderly layout of roses, mini boxwood clusters, and curved rows of colorful seasonal plantings. The yellow colonnade with its red-tiled roof and detailed mosaic work serve as a handsome backdrop to the floral display. Blocking out the encroaching city beyond while allowing views of the taller trees against the sky, the walled garden offers a little break from the world outside. I often see someone pacing thoughtfully down the flower-lined paths around the church, which is seemingly designed for such meditative contemplation. The Monastery Garden's Guild says that the garden is "in keeping with the Franciscan tradition that God is revealed to us through his creations."
While the gardens within the cloister are very formal, the lower gardens offer a loose, naturalistic style that blends garden elements into the surrounding landscape. A winding pathway featuring Stations of the Cross among bushes of camellia, azalea, and rhododendron leads down a gradual sloping pathway. I appreciated how natural elements were used to accentuate the religious imagery, imbuing the garden with a spiritual levity. Two rows of boxwood form a natural aisle leading up to a depiction of St. Anthony and St. Jude to be prayed to.
The centerpiece of the lower area is a large replica of the grotto at Lourdes, complete with a statue of Mary gazing down at a stunned statue of St. Bernadette rising from a bed of white flowers. The adjacent Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary features an ornate stone facade coming out of the surrounding hillside. Tall pines stand watch outside the replica tomb, and wisteria drapes the entry to another grotto, adding to the drama of the scene. Apparently many people come to visit these replicas at various times during the year, and this constant pilgrimage has only made the gardens a more sacred space.
Final Rating: Within the walls of the Franciscan Monastery time seems to slow down and simple arrangements of flowers or the untouched beauty of nature take on a special significance. There is something moving about seeing familiar Christian iconography in a natural setting rather than within stuffy church walls. The various replicas and stations for devotion give a sense of purpose and structure to the garden. Placing the statues and replicas of holy sites in a garden setting opens up the whole world as a place of worship, and reminds us to remember our connection to the earth. THREE BLOOM RATING