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

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Visitors to the monastery’s catacombs can see actual bones from St. Innocent, who died in the 2nd century.
John M. Esparolini
Visitors to the monastery’s catacombs can see actual bones from St. Innocent, who died in the 2nd century.

In a leafy corner of northeast Washington, you're able to travel from the Holy Land to Rome, and back again, with just a few steps.

"When I do the tours here, I tell the people, 'Now from the Holy Land we are going to go straight to Rome because we're going to see the catacombs!'" says Fernando Pereiro, who's been leading tours at The Franciscan Monastery since August 2011.

Hundreds of friars have lived at The Monastery since 1899, often as preparation for serving in Israel, 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 Pereiro hinted, the catacombs and crypts of Rome.

"The catacombs in Rome are almost endless because there are more than 900 miles of catacombs inside the city," Pereiro explains. "And there were buried there about 9 million Christians."

D.C.'s Franciscan Monastery only covers about 45 acres, so its catacombs aren't nearly as extensive as Rome's. But if you wander around the narrow, echoing corridors, you'll see they contain quite a lot — including the actual remains of two saints.

The first is Saint Benignus, who Pereiro describes as "a Roman soldier from the second century, killed for his faith. He was buried in the catacombs, and on top of the altar we can see his actual bones, his relics. We know that he died beheaded, and from what I know here, we have most of his bones but his skull is in the church in Italy."

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.

"The palm branch is a symbol of [a] martyr," Pereiro says. "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."

Farther along the catacombs, you can see Saint Innocent. He also holds a palm frond, which rests against his elaborately-trimmed and beaded dress.

"We don't know his real name," Pereiro says. "But he's known as St. 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." As with Saint Benignus, Innocent's remains are actually here at the Monastery; "Clearly we can see the bones of his hands, and the bones of his feet," Pereiro says.

But while Saint Benignus is represented by a sculpture, as Pereiro points out, "what we can see inside the altar is the actual body of Saint Innocent. The rest of the bones, or the relics, are hidden inside the dress. And actually there is a wax mask and a wig, which is hiding and protecting the skull."

And while Saint Benignus is clearly a grown man, Saint Innocent is a mere child — just 6 or 7 years old.

"He was very young when he was killed for being a Christian," Pereiro says. "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."

Innocent's remains have been moved several times; most recently they were housed at a Franciscan seminary in Illinois.

"When that seminary closed in the 1990s, these relics were finally donated here to the monastery," Pereiro says. And accompanying them back then was a bottle of blood.

"There was a custom of burying the martyr with a vase containing the blood of the martyr," explains Pereiro. "In the case of Saint Innocent, we also have that vase, which is contained here at the end of the reliquary. That's from the second century. These relics are over 1,800 years old, and this is authentic. This is not a replica."

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.

He says the most common comment he gets from visitors "is that our tours are very informative. And I can see the expression on their face of when they are going back upstairs that they feel they got something new in their life."

[Music: "Turn Your Face" by John Davis from Title Tracks / "The Hills of Assisi" by Sarah Vaughn from Sarah Slightly Classical]

Photos: Catacombs

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