That’s Brookland, a neighborhood in Northeast Washington so chockablock with Catholic institutions that it has been called “Little Rome.”
From the gleaming blue dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to the dozens of single-family homes occupied by groups of friars or cloistered nuns, touches of Catholic culture appear nearly everywhere.
A short stroll from the modern classrooms and campus greens of Catholic University leads to the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, whose brick portico and tidy gardens offer a glimpse of the Old World that Spanish missionaries left behind. Some children in the neighborhood have learned to distinguish the various habits and frocks worn by different religious orders the way other children learn baseball cards.
On a recent evening, a young nun in a blue habit sat on her convent’s stoop visiting with out-of-town family members who had come to see her take her religious vows. Not far away, a parochial-school principal gushed about the neighborhood’s virtues while his children ran around in the front yard, dressed in costume versions of clergy vestments that a neighbor had sewn for them. They had a Holy Communion play set, too.
Among the Catholic landmarks, great and small, in the neighborhood are Trinity Washington University, Providence Hospital, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Missionary Fathers of La Salette House of Studies, and the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin Matará. Here, one can even find the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, which certifies Catholic chaplains in the armed forces.
“There’s so many homes on this street” that are convents but you wouldn’t know it, said Maurus Dolcic, 50, a Franciscan friar who is also a chaplain at Providence Hospital. “Back in the day, there were more than 40 religious houses for men and 30 religious houses for women in this neighborhood. Mother Teresa is just down the street,” he said, referring to the order founded by the renowned Catholic missionary to India. “There would be nuns on our street all the time. They would be playing baseball in their habits.”
Brookland — bounded roughly by Michigan Avenue, South Dakota Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue and Ninth Street NE — was once a village. It took its name from Col. Jehiel Brooks, a 19th-century lawyer and plantation owner who came to the nation’s capital looking for a political appointment.
Catholic University transformed the area with its founding in 1887. Faculty members built homes nearby. With the turn-of-the-century influx of European immigrants, the Catholic population grew faster. Some saw the enclave as a safe haven during a time when anti-papist bigotry was commonplace. Today, the area is still a settling spot for young urban families, many of whom are Catholic, but it’s also more diverse.
“You still see statues of Mary here and there,” said John J. Feeley Jr., a good-natured man who grew up in Brookland. “But you don’t see the big families that you saw in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Feeley, 61, is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Washington and a teacher at the Aidan Montessori School. In 2011, he co-authored a book about the neighborhood for the “Images of America” series, which highlighted the history of small towns. On a recent tour that gave his tasseled loafers a workout, Feeley was hailed more than once as “Mr. Brookland.”
One of the first neighbors he bumped into was Jack Hogan, a retired Peace Corps employee who has propped a sign in his home’s front window that reads, “Welcome, Pope Francis.” It turned out to be a pizza box with a drawing of the pontiff where a picture of the pie normally would be.
“I’m practicing because of Francis to some extent now,” said Hogan, 77.
At Petals, Ribbons & Beyond a few blocks from Hogan’s house, pope-themed T-shirts hung in the shop window.
“We’re all excited,” said Sara Lucas, 67, the flower shop’s owner. When Pope John Paul II visited years ago, she said, she took the day off, laced up her tennis shoes and found a spot among the masses waiting to see the popemobile pass. Lucas, who is black, isn’t Catholic. But she said this pope has touched her.
“He’s a pope with vision. I mean, he sees the big picture. He knows what it’s all about,” Lucas said. Plus, she said she thinks the crowds will be good for business. She already knows some people who have rented their homes through Airbnb or Craigslist.
Up the street from her shop is a house where cloistered nuns of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration reside. There is a statue of Jesus in the yard, and passersby can drop prayer requests into the mail slot.
Farther on is the Franciscan monastery, whose director, a cheerful man named Larry Dunham, exuded excitement for the pope’s visit.
“Oh, we like him a lot,” said Dunham, attired in the order’s brown robe. “He might be a Jesuit, but he has a real sense of Saint Francis, a real sense of him. I find him with a real Franciscan habit on his heart.”
Dunham, 67, who is the guardian, or head, of the monastery, said the 20 or so friars there hope to meet Francis not only because the Argentinian prelate took their patron saint’s name as pope, but also because his pronouncements appear to be in tune with the order’s philosophy of humility and service to the poor.
The friars plan to illuminate the monastery with luminarias and set up a live television feed so people in the area can view certain events. The friars also will host a delegation of their brethren from Majorca, Spain, the home of Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan friar whom the pope will canonize in a Mass at the Basilica.
“The house will be chock full of Franciscans,” Dunham said.
As Feeley’s sidewalk tour turned onto Newton Street NE, Dolcic, the Providence Hospital chaplain, spotted him and pulled his car to the curb. Dolcic was dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants, not the usual garb for a friar. Feeley razzed him about his get-up — “Do you have a habit in the trunk? Dear God, I’m embarrassed,” Feeley joked — but Dolcic has permission to live outside the monastery while he cares for his 90-year-old mother.
Dolcic, who was raised in Brookland, listed the names of prominent Catholics with neighborhood ties. There was the Rev. Edward A. Malloy — perhaps better known as “Monk” Malloy by the time he became the University of Notre Dame’s 16th president — who was born on Taylor Street NE. John Thompson Jr., Georgetown University’s legendary basketball coach, taught at St. Anthony’s High School.
Dolcic — who was told as a child that one of the K’s in Ku Klux Klan stood as a symbol of the group’s hatred of Catholics — said Brookland became a kind of sanctuary for Catholics, especially in the days when anti-Catholic prejudice was more widespread.
“And so the Catholics — in this very WASP area that D.C. was in the South — Catholics congregated in this neighborhood,” Dolcic said.
Things changed for the better when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, and so the diminished need for a Catholic enclave and the allure of the suburbs led some Catholics to move elsewhere, he said.
Michael Thomasian, who joined the conversation, agreed. Thomasian, whose home is often mistaken as that of a religious order because of the larger-than-life statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in his yard, said he finds great comfort raising his children in a world whose daily sights and sounds are still rich with his religion.
“For the kids, they think the world looks like this,” said Thomasian, who is principal of St. Anthony Catholic School.
As if to make his point, three of his four children — Michael, 8, Eamon, 5, and Meghan, 3 — darted into the house and returned dressed in costume versions of a priest’s vestments. They set up a toy-size Holy Communion table, too, replete with plastic chalice and cups.
But a costume change also gave Thomasian pause: Meghan had put on the priest’s robe, crossing a gender line still forbidden by the church.
“You want my friends to see that?” Thomasian said, laughing, and half-jokingly suggested that maybe she should change.
“You’re going to get called into the chancellery office,” Dolcic cracked.
“I don’t think she wants to be clergy,” Thomasian replied. “She had a tutu on before you came.”