LOOK, THERE IT IS in Flathead Indian, and in Gaddang, from the Philippines," says Chris Thompson, nine. He's looking at signs on a wall of the Rosary Portico surrounding the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast Washington, where the Hail Mary is translated on tablets into 150 languages.
"And in Egyptian whatdyacallits, those picture thingies," calls his friend Bryce Churchman, eight, from down the path.
Together, they tear around the portico, screaming out language types.
Their two older sisters stroll more sedately beneath the arches, squeezing their eyes shut and feeling the columns. "This is the round one," reports Vicki Thompson, 12, describing one of the several different patterns. "This is the one with the crosses," shouts Emma Churchman, 11.
This is not starting out as a religious experience. Nor is it particularly intended to be one: As non-Catholics, we've come to the monastery as members of Western Civilization looking for some of our roots.
What we are finding is a 40-acre refuge that offers a Byzantine church modeled on the marvelous St. Sophia's in Turkey and a tourist's- eye view of some highlights of Christian history -- plus easy walks, a shaded valley and plants and flowers everywhere, especially roses. (In one area alone -- sheltered between the portico and the church -- there are hundreds of rose bushes.)
It's all done with loving care by a Roman Catholic religious order, the Franciscans, who have tried to build a kind of Holy Land in miniature with replicas of shrines from Jordan, Israel, Syria and Egypt. There are also shrines of other Christian sites from Rome to Lourdes.
Tours of the church, which is shaped like a giant cross, start on the hour, and our guide, a brother dressed in the simple brown robe of the Franciscans, takes us first to alcoves with duplicates of the grottos of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and Bethlehem, his birthplace. "You see the crib?" the guide says, pointing to a creche with the Bethlehem display. "St. Francis started that."
Other points include the empty tomb of Christ, a life-sized depiction of the crucifixion, and a diorama of Christ's crucifixion and burial ground. "They buried the cross because the Romans didn't want anyone believing in Jesus," Bryce says. "I heard that on 'A.D.' " Studying a display of coins found in the Holy Land, Vicki pipes up, "Oh, the Crusades, we just studied them." Meanwhile, Emma is looking at some mosaics and wondering whether they're "Greek or something."
But the real draw proves to be the Catacombs -- what our guide calls a mini-version of the 900-mile network in Rome where the early Christians gathered to escape capture and persecution and to celebrate their faith.
A faithful copy, the tunnels are lined with "graves" and primitive drawings of scenes from the Old and New Testaments. There are also some statues ("Who's St. Cecilia, Mom, and what does it mean to be a saint?). The most graphic one is that of the martyred St. Sebastian, pierced with golden arrows. "Naw, it wasn't creepy," says Vicki, "because no one's really buried down there. It would have been creepy if it was full of dead guys, though."
After the formal tour, we head outside to see gardens surrounding the Tomb of Mary, the Grotto of Gethsemane and the Grotto of Lourdes -- places that Bryce declares fun to explore. The gardens -- brimming with roses, geraniums, trumpet lilies and hundreds of annuals -- are a great place for a game of chase, and a peaceful haven full of floral odors that can only be described as, well, heavenly.
THE FRANCISCAN MONASTERY -- Quincy and 14th streets NE. Open daily. Free tours hourly from 9 to 4, except noon, Monday through Saturday, and on Sunday from 1 to 4. Free parking available across the street. For more information, call 526-6800.