Inside the basement chapel in the dark underbelly of the Franciscan monastery in Brookland, an older woman tugs at my elbow. She’s well-dressed, in a black beret, long wool coat, and bright white shirt. For the past half-hour—during the course of a mass for the dead, which the monastery perfoms each day of November—she has been sitting still with a rosary of bright red beads in her hand.

“That’s purgatory,” she says, pointing to the altar, where dozens of three-dimensional souls twist and writhe in red flames shaped like long tongues licking around their bare, twisted torsos. “Do you know somebody in there?”

I look into the tormenting sculpture and then back to her.

“Do you know somebody in there?!” she insists loudly, pointing again to the figurines roasting in the flames.

I am still too confused to say anything.

“You’ve got to know somebody who’s died and gone to purgatory!” she booms. In the dark room, there are no reflections on her bifocals—nor is there a speck of dust on either lens. She looks right into me.

“Yes,” I mumble, finally. “Sure.”

Florence Baxton winks and gives me a chummy punch on the arm, then heads out through the catacombs. She attends Mass daily in the main church 11 months of the year, but in November, and only in November, the small Purgatory Chapel in the basement opens as a place where a few hardy, living souls come to pray that the unfortunates trapped in purgatory will be given release. She asks lots of people if they know someone in the allegorical relief. “I do that all the time. Especially if I don’t recognize the person from before.”

Baxton and her sister, Harriet Parker, drive 15 minutes to the monastery together every morning. They always pray for the souls of their departed friends and relatives, but Mass in the Purgatory Chapel makes the task seem all the more close, the way of all flesh all the more powerful.

The two women pray a special devotion for Parker’s son. He died in Vietnam. “I think about him a lot. He died on the second of December,” Parker tells me softly when we are back in the main church upstairs. “I wonder if he’s still in purgatory.”

The Mass for All Souls, held every November day, goes by many names. “It’s for ‘the poor souls,’ or ‘the departed,’ or ‘the dead,’ or ‘the holy souls,’ or ‘the faithful souls,’” explains the monastery’s spokesman, Kevin Treston, O.F.M. (Order of Friars Minor, known as Franciscans). “However you want to call it.”

Last month, in fact, was the 100th November of Masses for the poor souls at the monastery, which was built in 1898. And it was the 1,000th November the church worldwide has remembered the inevitably growing ensemble of spirits in the nether world. Saint Odilo of the Abby of Cluny began the November prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day—by today’s calendar, Nov. 2—in the year 998.

Usually, manifestations of Saint Odilo’s liturgical innovation aren’t all that dramatic. The Rev. Daniel Maher, associate rector of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, says that November’s masses are ordinarily no more exciting than May’s masses for the Virgin Mary or June’s services for the Sacred Heart. “At some churches it’s done only a few times [during November], when the priest will remind the parishioners of the worship theme for the month.” At those churches the priest simply tells the parishioners at the beginning and end of a Mass that it is said in remembrance of the faithful departed.

Congregants at the Franciscan Monastery, on the other hand, are made of heartier stock. And November is the time to show it. To enter the chapel reserved for the 8 a.m. November Masses—with its eerie images of skeletons, the angel of death, and too-distant pearly gates—is itself an act of bravery.

Call the decor Spiritual Jolly Roger—a decorating death trip designed to let everyone who enters know that mortal business is at hand. Words are carved into the black marble next to the ceiling. “Ye Dry Bones, Hear the Word of the Lord,” is on the right, over Ezekiel preaching to a valley full of skeletons who smile in the way that all complete skulls have to smile, bony hands clutching white cloaks around their neck bones.

“Jesus Christ the First Begotten of the Dead,” is carved in all capitals on the left, and behind the altar is the Reaper. He’s all bone, in a white cape flowing with the swing of the scythe in his hands. The angel in the mosaic across the doorway from the Reaper is dull in comparison. She looks doughy and buttoned up to the neck in a puffy white robe.

The pièce de résistance of the Purgatory Chapel is the allegorical relief on the front of the altar. It is riveting. A portrait of the dead—faithful souls who have fled this mortal coil—faces all the chairs. Those who wait for the Mass to begin are more or less forced to stare at the consequences of a slip off the path of righteousness.

Behind the relief’s gold-framed glass cover, the wretched, hopeful souls reach to the Virgin Mary, who appears above them centered in a sky of puffy clouds the size and shape of white roses. Angels fly on either side of her and pour something to the thirsty souls from gold chalices. There is no real relief, save the eventual arrival in paradise, because it’s purgatory, after all.

“It’s a concrete way of seeing it,” Treston says. “It all sort of hits you. It’s dark, there are the flickering lights…the Grim Reaper is on one wall, as well as the New Jerusalem on the other….It is the symbol of life and death, the symbol of death and life being real.”

“A reading from the Book of Revelation,” begins the lesson of a November Mass. There are 15 congregants in the room, all gray-headed lay folk from around the city. The altar servant, James Waller, 68, reads from the thin Bible pages with the aid of a clip-on read-in-bed lamp. Its red plastic shade glows like a floating hot coal. It’s the brightest thing in the chapel. “I saw in heaven another sign, great and awe-inspiring; seven angels holding the seven final plagues which would bring God’s wrath to a climax.”

Hidden among the monastery’s basement “catacombs,” through doorways without doors, the Purgatory Chapel is deeply buried architectural splendor. It’s got gray-scale mosaics, dark gray terrazzo floors, black marble pillars around the walls and in the corners, and 12 electric torches—sconces jutting out of the walls, the arms holding elongated metal candles with light bulbs shaped like flames. Rings around the altar are checkered with 1-inch-thick white and blood-red marble rectangles. Twenty-five gray metal folding chairs serve as pews. Without the chairs, the room, with its muted colors and deadly motifs—would feel like the inside of an exceptionally appointed coffin.

“I then saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire,” Waller reads on. The Book of Revelations’ apocalyptic vision often comes up in November, when the liturgical calendar ends. “On the sea of glass were standing those who had won the victory over the beast and its image, and also the number that signified its name. They were holding the harps used in worshipping God…”

Given the pervasive presence of death in the chapel, the single mission of bringing someone back to life is both powerful and odd. The Franciscans’ November services are part of an effort by some Catholic traditionalists to “re-vivify” the doctrine of purgatory. It’s a notion that’s become unfamiliar even to many Catholics these days. “There’s such an emphasis on heaven and hell that you don’t hear about purgatory all that much anymore,” says Treston. “It’s still a doctrine, or a dogma of our church, but some people aren’t aware of it anymore.”

“When people die, they’re either saved or not saved,” explains Thomas King, S.J. (Society of Jesus, or Jesuits), a professor of theology at Georgetown University, who’s taught the subject there for 30 years. “Those that are saved don’t have all their sins removed when they die, but the split between heaven and hell is so black-and-white. Purgatory is like the gray area in between,” he adds. “Even if you’re not perfect, even if you’re not ready for heaven or hell—which most people don’t think will be exactly right for them—then there is still a place in God’s care, which will lead to heaven.”

The prayers of the living help speed souls’ paths through purgatory. “It’s a good way to cast out our own hearts and care for them in the way that the church is a community of saints and we all care for each other,” he says.

Dominic Monti, O.F.M., a medieval scholar at Washington Theological Union, has seen purgatory’s place in the cannon slipping away during his own lifetime. Four decades ago, he says, emphasis was “that God was tough and God was going to be a tough judge….Now, today, [popular theology] is very upbeat—God is good; God is forgiving and going to save you. Devotion to purgatory has lessened as a result.”

King suggests that people tend to look the other way when purgatory comes up because it brings the Grim Reaper a little close for comfort. “The lack of purgatory is kind of a denial of death,” says King. “A lack of dealing with dying, and greater emphasis on what you can do in this world rather than an emphasis on what heaven and hell might be like.” He thinks purgatory, which is a very Catholic phenomenon, is being dropped to give Catholicism “more ecumenical value,” to stress commonalities with other Christian faiths. Purgatory, he adds, “would rub [Protestants] the wrong way.”

Monti believes in the believers who show up during November in the basement of the monastery. “They’re almost trying to reclaim something that is dying other places. Reclaim a certain turf, although that probably isn’t the best phrase, and say that this is something that is valuable.”

“Then I saw an angel come down from heaven, holding the key to the abyss and a huge chain in his hand,” the reading from Revelation continues. “He seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil or Satan, and chained him up for a thousand years. The angel hurled him into the abyss…so that the dragon might not lead the nations astray until the thousand years are over. After this, the dragon is to be released for a short time.”

The worshipers, several with walking sticks, don’t take off their jackets for the Mass, although it is warm inside the black cube chapel. Several of them kneel on the floor.

The Mass is hopeful even in the murky light. The celebrant, Brian McTommoney, O.F.M., 73, is almost jovial. He speaks easily and calmly, remembering the poor souls to the parishioners at the beginning and end. He makes jokes about getting the read-in-bed light to work, and he smiles when he gives a concluding message. “From death,” he says, pointing an arm and open hand to the Grim Reaper on his right, “to life,” rotating to his left and the angel beside heaven. “The passage of our transformation to the gates of the holy heavenly city of Jerusalem,” he says, smiling. The alleluias of the 15 parishioners are fresh, high, and loud inside the small shiny room.

When it’s over, the 15 quickly make their way out through the charcoal-colored catacomb passageways only slightly wider than a shoulder’s width.

Monastery spokesman Treston has himself celebrated the Mass for the poor souls in the Purgatory Chapel. There’s a moment when the priest turns from the audience, to kneel and bow to the altar, and comes face to face with the flames in the purgatory relief. The relief’s aquarium-in-a-dark-room fluorescent light bleaches together his face, his bare, long neck, his vestments, and the backs of his hands. It reflects square on his glasses. Each time Treston kneels, one knee to the marble, the other lifted to his leaning chest, he says, the eyes of one of the writhing hopeful souls—a pair of brown pinhead-sized paintdrops on an upturned face retouched not long ago by a woman who lived to be 103 years old—catch his own.

He knows those weeping eyes. Purgatory’s most famous chronicler, the 14th-century Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, painted the realm as a mountain, with souls moving painfully up toward heaven. The flames and the pain are real, but as bad as they may seem, once you’re climbing Mount Purgatory, you’re going to make it all the way. “Now, some priest may explain this colloquially as, When you see purgatory that’s the last train,” explains Treston. “Once you’re on it…you know in faith you’re going to heaven. But not yet.”

And it’s only Catholics who go to purgatory. What about the unfaithfully departed? After death, Treston says, “All the souls go into a kind of treasury, and how God uses them is, well, up to him.” The non-Catholics? “God bless ’em.” CP