IT’S FUNNY to think that 40 years ago or so Washington’s National Arboretum was one of the least visited sights in the city. One could wander the 446-acre garden with its splendid roses, bonsai, hills blazing with azaleas, the dogwood grove, the lilac forest, peony beds and on and on, and rarely see another soul.
I was working nearby, for a book company’s warehouse around the corner from some of the seediest motels in town, the sort with rooms rented by the hour, if you know what I mean. The area was a bit off-putting to most of the town’s citizenry.
Some days at lunchtime I’d head over to the arboretum with Michael, a young guy who packed boxes while dreaming of becoming a boxer. Irony? He’d run the hills and straightaways backwards, to train his I-don’t-know-whats, while I trudged along in his wake, attempting to keep up.
Michael also dreamed of driving to England. When I asked how he proposed to do that, he looked at me like I was a fool and said, “I’ll take the bridge.” So much for DC public schools, but that is neither here nor there. He was a sweet kid.
The arboretum today is so mobbed on weekends that the lots are often full. A parade of cars winds along 9½ miles of roadway, ferrying those too lazy to hike. It is so popular, in fact, that it’s now closed during the coronavirus pandemic. How, one wonders, did we manage to not keep social distancing in a space this vast? But we did! That’s the American spirit for you. GO AWAY, the locked gates seem to say. Bad! Tsk! No more visits until you can behave.
The Prince and I sadly found this out a few days ago when we drove over, hoping to catch the azalea show—which is phenomenal—and nestle our noses in the peonies, which must be ripe. To not see the roses, which should be in full blaze in a few weeks, makes me limp with sadness.
Please stop reading now.
Instead, we went to another, relatively secret garden. The Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, which has been named “one of the Top 5 places most tourists miss when sightseeing in Washington, DC.” So sayeth its website. It probably ranks up there for residents as well.
Last Saturday there were maybe—and this is a generous count—20 people and a couple of dogs wandering the grounds. A couple of kids were irritating the koi in the small pond. A few people were sitting, sheltered amid hedges, quietly reading. The rest of us were meandering about. It was, you should pardon the expression, heavenly.
Do stay away.
The neighborhood of Brookland, where the monastery sits, might be called a Catholic hotbed. It’s also home to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America; and Catholic University. Brookland is, by the by, a delightful neighborhood, reminiscent of long-ago Cleveland Park. A village of rambling front porch houses, surrounded by gardens, and a charming little downtown with a smattering of restaurants and a cool arts scene.
Built at the turn of the last century, with gardens in cultivation since 1897, the US home of the Holy Land Franciscans sits on 42 acres, and appears to be buffered by many more acres of green. While the buildings, church and chapels are closed to the public, and many activities and events have been canceled because of the virus, the gardens are open and free to roam— but only until 3 pm, when visitors are tossed out. There’s plenty of parking across the street.
The upper garden, which fronts the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is surrounded by the Rosary Portico, a covered walkway with elaborately turned pillars and 15 chapels, as they’re called—really just pauses in the stroll—with plaques with the “Hail Mary” inscribed in 200 ancient and modern languages. Quite fun to attempt to read.
Eleven enormous rose beds front the church itself: The grandiflora and hybrid teas are currently bursting with buds and should be full open by Mother’s Day, which you should definitely avoid. (Because that’s when I want the place to myself!)
Tucked amid the trees and bushes and flowers that line the paths through the winding lower grounds are full-size replicas of various shrines in Israel and Rome, the idea being to bring the Holy Land to those who might never have the chance to visit.
Wander down the hillside past dogwoods and azaleas, intricate mosaics and flower beds. In one, a statue of a girl—perhaps a nun—stands in a sea of tulips near the Lourdes Grotto. A weeping cherry fairly smothers the Ascension Chapel. A welcome mat is set before a statue of what I assume is the Virgin Mary (signage is clearly hit or miss), draped with glittery rosary beads (an occasional lapse in refined taste always thrills me).
There are plenty of spots to stop and sit, contemplate, meditate, sketch.
But beware, the toilets are closed. So go before you go, if you go, which I sincerely hope you won’t. But if you do, keep your distance and preserve this patch of extraordinary peace and beauty for all of us.
Franciscan Monastery 1400 Quincy Street NE, Washington DC. Phone: 202-526-6800
There are several Monastery websites, none of which offers complete basic information; I suppose that is refreshing, in its way. This one is for Garden Guild: http://www.fmgg.org.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” is a nondenominational admirer of gardens.