Rome, Paris, Palermo, and Vienna are all European cities built over ancient catacombs that have survived for centuries. Well, now you can add Washington D.C. to that honored list, except for the “ancient” part. Constructed in the mid-19th century, the catacombs beneath the capital may need another century or two before they reach that milestone.
Just like most catacombs, the ones lurking beneath Washington appear to be of religious nature. They were built beneath the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. During its heyday, the monastery served as a training ground for young friars preparing to serve in Israel. To share its link with the holy land, the monastery constructed replicas of their faith’s holiest sites. These included replicas of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where Mary learned she was pregnant, and the nativity in Bethlehem. The recreations make sense considering that the monks who left the monastery for Israel were to be caretakers for these ancient holy places, and as part of these recreations, the catacombs were built or at least embellished and expanded.
D.C.’s catacombs are not a sprawling expanse of tunnels stretching out for miles and miles like many other cities. They encompass roughly 42 acres. According to a 1927 article from a Frederick, Maryland paper, they were modeled after the catacombs of Rome, and were used for Christmas services. It was during these services that the Nativity was reenacted in a replica of the one located in Bethlehem. In one of the more gruesome portions of the catacombs, there is the temple of purgatory. The room features a painting of Death, carrying his scythe and hourglass, cheerfully reminding visitors of their impending doom.
The catacombs, like their predecessors also serve as the final resting place for saints. St. Benignus was a Roman solider, martyred when he was beheaded for his faith. He was brought over from the Roman catacombs where he was interred since the days of Nero. Well, at least part of him was; his head is still located in Rome.
Also located beneath the Capital is the final resting place of Saint Innocent. A child martyr, his remains are sealed behind glass lit under electric light. The exact cause of his martyrdom and the reason behind his sainthood remain a mystery. Originally found in the Roman catacombs, he was buried with an inscription reading “Innocent Resting in Peace”. Whatever the reason for the upgrade to sainthood, the church found cause to clad him in silk vestments, cover his face with a smiling wax mask complete with shoulder length hair, and place him comfortably on a tiny bed. Oh, and they left his mummified hands uncovered.
Most of the time, the tunnels beneath the capital are off limits to tourists for reasons of security. Doors to the government’s mass underground infrastructure are usually sealed and well-guarded. Except for the subway system and a few underground malls, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to journey under the streets of DC. For those of you planning a visit, the Friars do offer some guided tours of the shrines and catacombs located directly beneath the church. The grounds feature beautiful gardens and the replicas are great for anyone who can’t make it to Israel. Plus, you can see a part of DC not many people get to see.