Transcripts

The Location: Touring NE D.C.'s Little-Known Catacombs

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week, we're bringing you our annual tour of haunted D.C. Coming up, we'll check out a bone chilling new play, inspired by a beloved children's fairy tale, and we'll meet a local horror author, who's nabbed more than four Bram Stoker Awards. That's Bram Stoker, as in the author of the 1897 gothic novel, "Dracula." But, we'll kick off this part of the show with "The Location."

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:37
Our ongoing segment in which Kim Bender, author of "The Blog, The Location," tells us the intriguing stories behind locations around the region. Some legendary, some little known. Now, before we get to today's location, I want you to think back, back to the 1980s and 90s. If you, by any chance, subscribed to HBO, between say 1989 and 1996, you may very well remember this.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:01:10
It's the theme you'd hear at the beginning of the horror series, "Tales From the Crypt." And if you ever saw it, you'd probably remember, it was kind of spooky. You had this cackling crypt keeper who introduced each episode, and many of which were pretty darn graphic in the violence department. But that obviously was just television. Here in D.C., you can find crypts that are the real deal. Or, more accurately, they at least look an awful lot like the real deal.

MR. FERNANDO PEREIRO

00:01:36
When I do the tours here, I tell the people, well, from now, from the Holy Land, we are going to go straight to Rome because we're going to see the catacombs.

SHEIR

00:01:46
We're in the Brookland neighborhood of northeast Washington with Fernando Pereiro, one of two full time tour guides at the Franciscan Monastery.

PEREIRO

00:01:54
I've been working at the Monastery, as a tour guide, since August, 2011. I'm originally from Argentina.

SHEIR

00:02:01
Hundreds of friars have lived at The Monastery since 1899, often as preparation for serving in Israel, or The Holy Land, as they call it, where the Catholic church cast the Franciscans as its chief custodians of Christianity's holiest sites. And you can find replicas of many of these sites right here at the Monastery, including the shrine of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where the Virgin Mary learned she would bear the child of God. The nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, and as Kim Bender and I see, as Fernando leads us out of the holy land, so to speak.

PEREIRO

00:02:31
All right, so we can now walk inside the catacombs.

SHEIR

00:02:35
The catacombs and crypts of Rome.

MS. KIM BENDER

00:02:38
So this is the replica of the catacombs from Rome, where Christians were buried.

PEREIRO

00:02:44
Yes, and the catacombs in Rome are almost endless, because there are more than 900 miles of catacombs inside the city, and they were buried there about nine million Christians.

SHEIR

00:02:55
D.C.'s Franciscan Monastery only covers about 46 acres, so obviously, its catacombs aren't nearly as extensive as Rome's, but if you wander around the narrow, echoing corridors, as we're doing with Fernando, you'll see they contain quite a lot, including the actual remains of two saints. The first is Saint Benignus.

PEREIRO

00:03:14
A Roman soldier from the second century who was killed for his faith. And he was buried in the catacombs and on top of the alter, we can see his actual bones, his relics. And we know that he died beheaded, and from what I know here, we have most of his bones, but his skull is in a church in Italy.

SHEIR

00:03:32
The bones atop the altar are encased in a glass container, or reliquary. And inside the altar is a replica of a Renaissance sculpture of Saint Benignus. In his hand is a palm frond.

PEREIRO

00:03:42
The palm branch is a symbol of martyr. So, if you see a saint holding a palm branch in a holy statue or stained glass in the church, you can be sure that that saint is a martyr, right? And now we are going to go this way and see Saint Innocent.

SHEIR

00:03:58
Saint Innocent also holds a palm frond, which rests against his elaborately trimmed and beaded dress.

PEREIRO

00:04:03
We don't know his real name, but he's known as Saint Innocent because he was found buried in the catacombs and there was an inscription in his tomb outside that in Latin, translated to English was saying "innocent resting in peace." So, he was renamed as St. Innocent.

SHEIR

00:04:17
As with Saint Benignus, Innocent's remains are actually here at the Monastery.

PEREIRO

00:04:21
Clearly, we can see the bones of his hands, and also the bones of his feet.

SHEIR

00:04:26
But while Saint Benignus is represented by a sculpture...

PEREIRO

00:04:28
What we can see inside the altar is the actual body of St. Innocent. The rest of the bones, or the relics, are hidden inside the dress. And also there is a wax mask and a wig, which is hiding and protecting the skull.

SHEIR

00:04:41
And while St. Benignus is clearly a grown man, St. Innocent...

PEREIRO

00:04:44
He was about six or maybe seven years old.

SHEIR

00:04:47
Is clearly just a kid.

PEREIRO

00:04:49
He was very young when he was killed for being a Christian. That happened during the Roman persecutions of the second century. He was found buried in the catacombs of Rome together with two adults. We believe that they were his parents.

SHEIR

00:05:03
Innocent's remains have been moved several times. Most recently, they were housed at a Franciscan seminary in Illinois.

PEREIRO

00:05:09
And when that seminary closed in the 1990s, these relics finally were donated here to the Monastery.

SHEIR

00:05:16
And accompanying them back then was a bottle, or as Fernando calls it, a vase of blood.

MS. JEMIL GADEA

00:05:21
There was a custom of burying the martyr with a vase containing the blood of the martyr. In the case of Saint Innocent, we also have that vase, which is here at the end of the reliquary, yeah? That's from the second century. These relics are over 1800 years old, and this is authentic. This is not a replica.

SHEIR

00:05:39
As for all the things that are replicas in the catacombs and in the Monastery itself, to create them, the Monastery's architect, Aristide Leonori, visited Bethlehem, Nazareth and other sacred spots where he took careful measurements and notes. And although construction on the Monastery ended in 1899, it would take nearly 30 more years before all of its replicas and reproductions were complete. But with 25,000 people visiting the Monastery each year, Fernando Pereiro says all that hard work was well worth it. How do visitors tend to respond when they take the tour of the catacombs, in particular?

PEREIRO

00:06:12
Well, the comment that I get more often is that our tours are very informative. And I can see the expression on their face, when they're going back upstairs, that they feel that they got something new in their life.

SHEIR

00:06:24
The Franciscan Monastery offers tours in both English and Spanish. To see photographs of some of its replicas, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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