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Life in “Little Rome,” in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Living in Brookland for the last year has been an incredible opportunity for me to grow in my faith because it is such a distinctly Catholic place.

Interior of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (commons.wikimedia.org)

When I talk about my book How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard, one of the most common questions people ask is: “What will your next book be? How I Stayed Catholic as a Young Professional?” I usually answer, “Perhaps, but let me do it first!” I have learned a lot about keeping my faith as a non-student since the book was published. So far this is my best advice: if at all possible, live somewhere that helps you to be Catholic. That is, live in a community that offers frequent access to the Sacraments and has a thriving group of young Catholics to plug into.

Brookland, the suburb in Northeast Washington D.C. by The Catholic University of America fits the bill. It is nicknamed “The Little Rome.” I was surprised when it escaped Rod Dreher’s notice in The Benedict Option, although a similar community of young Catholic families a few miles away (in Hyattsville, MD) was featured in the book. By my last count, there are twenty-six tabernacles in Brookland, and eleven daily Masses within walking distance of my apartment. There’s confession for six hours a day at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Living in Brookland for the last year has been an incredible opportunity for me to grow in my faith because it is such a distinctly Catholic place.

When I first came to Washington, I lived downtown, three blocks from Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center. There were great Catholic young professionals around, but they would usually come from work and then go home to Arlington or Hyattsville. With few Catholics to hang out with in the District after working hours, I found myself driving up to Brookland most nights to spend time with my dear friend Michael Novak. He was old and sick, and I cherished the time we spent together drinking wine and watching the news. I ended up moving into the same building that he was in, and sadly, he passed away a few weeks later. One of the kindest things he did for me was bring me to Brookland, which has provided me with such a rich community of Catholic friends.

Among the first friends I have made here in his absence are the brothers and priests next door at the Dominican House of Studies. Their Compline, or night prayers, are open to the public. A group of young lay people frequently attends and then goes out after. Among the regulars are three Christendom grads who live in my building and host a monthly “Stouts and Summa” (a group that discusses Thomas Aquinas over beer). There’s also a young painter who apprentices at the Byzantine icon shop on the Brookland Arts Walk, a canon law student, a teacher at a Catholic high school, and several aspiring religious. In fact, one of our friends entered a cloistered Dominican community earlier this month. There are students pursuing their doctorates at Catholic University and others working on the Hill. The youth of Brookland are from an incredible range of backgrounds and have wildly different trajectories. The only thing we have in common is the only thing that matters: we’re Catholic.

In some way, the dynamics of the group remind me of being at Harvard and meeting the students who attended morning Mass together. We came from different places and had different majors and extracurricular interests. Some of our personalities clashed. But it didn’t matter: we were a family. We would get up early, go to Mass together, and then have breakfast before starting our days. It was something we came to count on as a stabilizing force in those early days of college when we were away from our families for the first time. Brookland feels like that: a diverse group of people who are held together primarily by their faith.

If you walk down the street or visit the local—hipster—coffee shop in Brookland, you are likely to see priests, brothers, and sisters in traditional habits. The Dominican brothers are conspicuous because they wear white and generally travel in groups. There are also Dominican sisters: Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (the “Ann Arbor” Dominicans) who live in apartments on campus, and the Sisters of Saint Cecilia (the “Nashville” Dominicans) who have a convent nearby. The Ann Arbor sisters had a fairly well-known bluegrass band (“Force of Habit”) and play ultimate frisbee on the CU lawns. Walking through Brookland, you might also spot the Servidoras, an order founded during John Paul II’s papacy for the New Evangelization whose sisters all seem to exhibit hilarious extroversion, or some Little Sisters of the Poor, who fought the HHS Mandate’s contraception demands in the Supreme Court. New to town are the Sisters of Life, who defend the sanctity of life from conception until natural death. There are also Franciscan brothers, who host a monthly Capuchin Cafe with free pizza.

It is no accident that Catholic life has flourished here. The Catholic University of America, founded in 1887, serves as an anchor for all of these communities, including the USCCB, which is across the street. Many of the religious are currently enrolled in Catholic University’s academic programs. As the official university of the Catholic Church of the United States, it has a special relationship with the Church hierarchy. All American cardinals sit on the board; several are alumni. Students at Catholic University can receive training in subjects that one cannot otherwise study in North America, most conspicuously Canon Law.

Catholic University is serious about preserving its Catholic identity. On the first day of his presidency, John Garvey announced the separation of undergraduate residence halls by sex. Under his leadership, Catholic University was the first to file a lawsuit against the Obama Administration for the parts of the HHS Mandate that violated freedom of conscience with regard to contraception, abortifacients, and sterilizations. New programs are being founded all the time to better serve the Church, like the new Masters in Ecclesial Administration and Management, designed to help pastors more effectively run their parishes. The Institute for Human Ecology continues to do great work, like its recent launch of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

As a resident of Brookland, one of my favorite pastimes has been exploring the local churches. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is an obvious highlight. The Trinity Dome was just unveiled on December 8th with fanfare: a Mass with Cardinal Wuerl and a special message from Pope Francis for the occasion. The dome features modern saints, like Mother Teresa and John Paul II. The great pope has his own shrine a few minutes away, adorned with the mosaics of Marco Rupnik, which are stunning and richly theological. There’s an exhibit dedicated to the life of John Paul II in the basement. The shrine also has plenty of space for events like the World Youth Day concert featuring Audrey Assad last summer and a traveling exhibit on Thomas More, which was upstairs for much of last year. Those who are nostalgic for the more typical American parish experience might enjoy Saint Anthony’s. People there hug at the sign of peace and sing every verse to every hymn together. Finally, those up for a walk can make the pilgrimage to the Franciscan Monastery, which features replicas of the holy sites in Jerusalem and a grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in its hillside gardens. In typical Franciscan fashion, they are pet friendly. I took my dog there a few weeks ago for the annual blessing of pets.

Brookland is as rich a Catholic community as I’ve ever seen. Being in it has given me a lot of hope for the future of faith in our country and the opportunities graduates have for keeping their faith after college. In the nation’s capital, there is a community of young people who are devoted to God, fed by the Sacraments, inspired by religious communities, and committed to forming deep friendships with each other. So far, staying Catholic as a young professional has been as simple as finding it.

About Aurora C. Griffin 9 Articles
Aurora Catherine Griffin attended Harvard University, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in classics in 2014. There she served as president of the Catholic Student Association. She was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where she received a graduate degree in theology. She now lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the Catholic University of America. Visit her online at auroracgriffin.com.

3 Comments

  1. Delighted to see this article. My wife and I make frequent pilgrimages to the Basilica. While aware of Catholic U., the Dominican House, and the Franciscan monastery, I had no idea how vibrant and alive with a Catholic presence the entire neighborhood is. Great to know.

    • What happened to the splendid Ukrainian Catholic Church there? A wonderful place to fulfill your holy obligation enjoying the rich Byzantine Rite!

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