Father Larry Dunham embarked upon his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land of the Christian Religion in January 2012. Like many pilgrims across the centuries, he yearned to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and to experience the region’s revered shrines. He also made the journey to witness first-hand his Franciscan brothers’ tireless shrine preservation and charity work.
For Father Dunham, the pilgrimage was life-changing – both because his soul was profoundly moved by the experience and because very soon he would play a vital role in ensuring that those ancient shrines could endure for centuries to come. Soon after returning from his pilgrimage, Father Dunham was appointed Guardian and Commissary of the Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington D.C. This century-old Franciscan Monastery is the U.S. home of the Holy Land Franciscans, who for more than 800 years have taken responsibility for protecting and supporting the sacred shrines and the people of the Holy Land.
In the Province of the Holy Land, Franciscan brothers act as caretakers of such holy sites as the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the First Miracle in Cana and the Church of St. Lazarus in Bethany, among many other “stones of memory” in the region. Such shrines are always at risk due the flow of millions of pilgrims each year which, although welcome, steadily deteriorates these ancient sites. Additionally, the friars look after sites in Syria, which are always at risk from the bombings and strife that have plagued the country. Beyond preserving shrines, the Franciscan brothers also support the “living stones,” Christians living in the region, who represent only 2 percent of the population. The brothers assist with religious services at local churches, and administer social services – related to education, employment, housing and senior support – for the poorest of the poor.
The monastery in Washington D.C. plays several intertwined roles that support the vital work being done in the Holy Land. With its welcoming Franciscan community and full-size replicas of several Holy Land shrines, it is a pilgrimage destination in its own right, while also educating people about the Holy Land and organizing regular pilgrimage offers, in partnership with a travel agency. More than 50,000 people visit the monastery each year, drawn to this “Little Jerusalem” with its remarkable architecture and gardens, often spiritually enriched by witnessing the Franciscan brothers’ deep devotion to their mission.
In his role as Guardian and Commissary, Father Dunham is also responsible for administering the national Good Friday collection, which raises money to sustain the Holy Land mission work and the monastery. Each year, he and his brothers market to and connect with every parish across the country, encouraging them to hold a special Good Friday collection and to remind the faithful of the critical need to preserve the holiest places in Christendom. In 2019, the parishioners heeded the call, providing about $13 million in total donations.
Although this is a substantial sum, the needs in the Holy Land are great, so Father Dunham and the brothers take as little money as possible to run the U.S. monastery, optimizing their resources while exploring new ways to raise funds. They cultivate a large vegetable garden, which produces 8,000 pounds of food each year for their use and to share with local food banks and homeless shelters. They welcome short-term tenants, such as visiting clergy, pilgrims and students pursuing religious studies at universities in the city. They also renovated the little-used St. Francis Hall to create a beautiful new rental facility for special occasions, such as their annual November fundraising gala. The Hall has become a premier venue for wedding receptions, thanks to its pastoral setting, careful landscaping and colonnaded rose garden.
Father Dunham is committed to ensuring that the monastery is the best possible steward of the funds it receives from donations, fund-raising programs and other efforts. For years, the monastery’s investible assets were pooled with those of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., which offered both economies of scale and investments that reflected Catholic doctrine. When that pooled arrangement came to an end, Father Dunham and the monastery’s finance board initially considered a similar arrangement with a different nearby diocese. But, instead, they pursued a new path as a standalone investor, working with a firm that provides active investment management while adhering to the socially responsible investment guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The monastery’s rose garden is blessed with 1,300 rose bushes, making it a powerful tourist attraction. But it recently brought forth another surprising gift: the world’s most heavenly honey. This is because the monastery, which had been losing its bee population, built 20 beehives among the roses and other flora of its garden to enhance pollination. These bees, looked after by a local chapter of the Society of Beekeepers, produce a pure, delicate honey with a hint of rose – which itself has attracted many visitors eager for a taste.
Father Dunham believes that the roses, the bees and the remarkable honey comprise yet another sign that the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi – patron saint of ecology and the environment – is present at the monastery. That spirit, which has guided the Holy Land Franciscans for eight centuries, will continue to inspire those who protect the most holy Christian shrines for future generations of pilgrims from around the world.