Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is witness to many ceremonies and processions in the life of the Church in Los Angeles. Often participating in them are to be found a group of men and women in black floppy hats and white capes bearing red symbols of an unusual nature — in the center a large cross with equal-sized arms ending in cross bars, with four small unadorned crosses in each corner. Said symbol is called “the Cross of Jerusalem,” and goes all the way back to the First Crusade (1097-1099). The folk who wear this garb are the ladies and knights of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Cross used by the Order of the Holy Sepulchre

Apart from these sightings, and the appearance of the initials EOHSJ after the names of some of the most distinguished Catholic laymen and clerics in the Southland, there is little local evidence of their doings here, for all that Cardinal Mahony is “Grand Prior” — ranking clerical official in this area.. This is because, unlike their brethren in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (also often seen on these occasions), The Order of the Holy Sepulcher sponsors no local charities or clinics. Their considerable work (though invisible here) is concentrated on one small corner of the planet.

Crest of the Holy Sepulchre

As with the Knights of Malta, the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher emerged from the zeal and chivalry of the Crusades. But where the circumstances of history forced the Maltese Order out of the Holy Land and into other areas, the interest of the Holy Sepulcher Order remained focused on the place that gave birth to them and furnished their name. The attentions of the Order of Malta are world-wide (though they do not forget the land of their birth, and support a hospital in Bethlehem), and aided by the political independence they have managed to retain. But where, even during the Crusades, the Knights of Malta (of Knights Hospitaller as they were then called) were a power unto themselves, those of the Holy Sepulcher were an integral part of the lay structure of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem . If you seek the work of these knights today, you must travel to the Holy Land itself. In all the lands covered by the Latin Patriarchate — Israel, Palestine, and Jordan — western Catholic churches, schools, hospitals, and other institutions bear plaques commemorating donations by one or another branch — “Lieutenancies” they are called — of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher. The Western Lieutenancy, covering the southwestern United States, including Southern California, contributes primarily to the Catholic institutions around Zarqa, Jordan.

Taken together, the order as a whole (and it has lieutenancies in Europe, Canada, Australia, Latin America, and the United States) provides 70-80% of the operating budget of the Latin Patriarchate, as well as funding for some of the work of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the body which looks after the Catholic shrines there . It is not too much to say that without the Order’s ongoing support, the position of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land would be far graver than it already is. The importance of its work is underlined by the fact that the Pope appoints its Grand Master directly and its international headquarters in Rome is in a palace given it by Pius XII in sight of the Vatican.

As with any of the surviving orders of chivalry, the story of how it came to its present state is an intriguing one. In the 16th and 17th centuries, many fanciful stories were told of its origins, claiming Charlemagne, Constantine, or even the Apostle St. James the Less as its founder. But what can be sifted out of the conflicting tales is quite exciting on its own. The story begins with Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the Crusaders who liberated Jerusalem in 1099.

ANDREA DEL CASTAGNO, Christ in the Holy Sepulchre with Two Angels, 1447, Fresco, Sant'Apollonia, Florence

Even before he set out to free the Holy Land, Godfrey was known for his piety, morality, chivalry, and prowess in combat. When, in the years following his death, Medieval scholars drew up a list of the “Nine Worthies” — men who epitomized knighthood to contemporaries — he was listed. Three were pagans: Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar; three were Jews: Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus; and three were Christians: King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey. Seventh lord of Bouillon though he was, Godfrey sold his ancestral castle and lands to the Bishop of Liege to raise the money needed to outfit his men and himself for the Crusade (the bishops called themselves “Dukes of Bouillon” until 1678, when the French army snatched the castle). Having successfully freed the Holy City, the other Crusaders urged Godfrey to take the title “King of Jerusalem;” he refused, declaring that “I will not wear a crown of gold where Our Saviour wore a crown of thorns.” He took the title “Advocate (defender) of the Holy Sepulcher” instead. Although after Godfrey’s untimely death his brother Baldwin I did become King, he and his successors took Godfrey’s message to heart to the extent that their coronations took place at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem rather than in the Holy Sepulcher so long as that Kingdom lasted. It was in the Sepulcher that Godfrey was entombed, until the triumphant Muslims profaned his resting place. Even now, the sacristy there preserves his sword, spurs, and cross (in the “Jerusalem” pattern) and a block of stone from Bouillon Castle, upon which are inscribed the words, “From Bouillon to Jerusalem, a stone from the Castle of our Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre. May he rest in peace in these walls.”

Although documentation is lacking and scholars are in conflict over the issue, it appears that Godfrey appointed a troop of picked knights to serve as a sort of honor guard over the basilica. These remained as long as the Holy Sepulcher was in Christian hands. At some point, a chapter of canons was appointed to staff the church. What the relationship was between the two bodies is unclear, but the head of the chapter apparently exercised some sort of jurisdiction over the knights. These were certainly not an order, in the sense that the Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, and Knights of St. Lazarus were: but nevertheless they were a unit, whose head was the reigning King. In the latter days, the knights tended to be older men, who were as concerned with prayer and penance as with their military duties. As part of this, they accepted the head of the canons, the “Master of the Holy Sepulcher,” as their immediate superior.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre within the walled Old City of Jerusalem

All of this came to an end in 1187, when Jerusalem fell to Saladin. The Kings of Jerusalem henceforth would reign from Acre, until 1291 when that city fell. The dream of the Crusades had ended, and what was left of the institutions they had given birth to had to leave the Holy Land or fend for themselves. The Kings relocated to Cyprus, as did, initially the four knightly orders —three to find new areas to fight the enemy in, and the Templars to eventual dissolution and infamy. Driven from the mountain which gave them their name, the Carmelites found refuge in their houses in Europe, although they preserved the liturgical Rite of the Holy Sepulchre as their own Carmelite Rite (fallen into disuse after Vatican II, it has begun to make a comeback in the past few years, a development recently sanctioned by Benedict XVI).

The canons and canonesses of the Holy Sepulcher also left. Unfortunately, scattered as their houses were over Europe, they fragmented. Each of the canons’ superiors in Catalayud, Spain, Perugia, Italy, and Miechow, Poland, claimed the title “master of the Holy Sepulchre” — a claim denied to each by his two rivals and their adherents.

The Franciscans, who had begun coming to the Holy Land during the lifetime of their founder — who himself had accompanied St. Louis IX on Crusade — did not depart, but impressing the new rulers of the Holy Land by their bravery (and supported by the French and Neapolitan Kings) gradually began filling up where they could the vacuum left by the other orders. In 1342, Pope Clement VI confirmed them the as official guardians of the Holy Places.

The Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre (The Tomb of Christ) with the dome of the rotunda visible above

But the tradition of chivalry associated with the Holy Sepulcher had not departed, even though there was no regular body of knights living there any longer. Our first account of a knighting at the tomb of Our Lord dates to 1336; the ceremonial was rich and full, and the sword used in the accolade was that of Godfrey. It soon became a custom for the as yet unknighted of noble birth who made the difficult journey to Jerusalem to have the ceremony done there by a resident knight. In 1485, the Franciscan superior of the Custody of the Holy Land, the Custos, was given special permission by the Pope to knight candidates as well. As news of this development filtered back to Europe, each of the three rival heads of the Canons of the Holy Sepulcher claimed the right to do so as well on their own turf. But successive Popes ruled that if one wanted to be a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher, he had to have the ceremony there.

Gradually, as the Crusades receded into the past, regulations concerning knighthood tightened up. Outside the surviving religious orders of chivalry, the rulers of Europe gathered their closest associates into such Royal Orders as the Golden Fleece of Burgundy (later Austria and Spain), the Garter (England), and St. Michael (France). Ever more, the Sovereigns claimed to be the sole makers of knights — the fons honorem — of their realms; this claim became the matter of enforced law, for all that the Roman Pontificale retained until 1962 a ritual for the making of knights by bishop.

But the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher continued in the more primitive traditions of chivalry. Not members of an organized order as such (there was no hierarchy awaiting them when they returned home from their pilgrimage), each individual knight who had received the accolade at the tomb of Christ with Godfrey’s sword felt united with all the others. While there were no knightly superiors to ensure that they would continue to obey their vows to support the Church in the Holy Land and fight to free Jerusalem from the Muslims, many undoubtedly did so. Moreover, on an individual basis they often did maintain connections with local houses of the Canons of the Holy Sepulcher.

It was doubtless this knightly connection, as well as the need for economic reinforcement of the Knights of St. John, now fighting pirates and the Turkish navy from their base on Rhodes (and whom he desired to spearhead a new crusade), that led Pope Innocent VIII to order the Canons of the Holy Sepulcher and the Order of St. Lazarus  to merge with the Knights. The Grand Master on Rhodes was given the Superior in Perugia’s claim to the title of “Master of the Holy Sepulcher,” as well as his church of St. Luke, both of which remain in the hands of the Order of Malta to this day.

Wall above the main entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Old Jerusalem

But the merger was not popular among many of the canons; outside of Italy the Knights were unable enforce it. In 1497, Alexander VI ended it for Italy, and in 1510 Leo X did the same for Spain. The Polish houses of the Order had never accepted it in any case, and many of those in France were able to do the same, thanks to royal patronage.

Meanwhile, the Custos of the Holy Sepulchre continued to dub knights — many of whom had been knighted by kings already, but looked upon this second accolade as a sort of completion of their knighthood. Successive Popes showed their concern for the institution by issuing regulations for it in connection with their legislation for the Custody of the Holy Land. But Knighthood of the Holy Sepulcher was not as yet membership in an organization, although Phillip II of Spain attempted unsuccessfully  to create one (with himself as Grand Master) in his Spanish and Netherlands possessions, and there was an abortive attempt to organize one by French knights in the 17th century. In 1731, however, Louis XV recognized one such group, taking it under his protection as the “Royal Archconfraternity of Knights and Pilgrims of the Religious Military Hospitaller Order of the Holy Sepulcher.” This lasted in various forms until the French Revolution. In 1746, Benedict XIV promulgated a new set of standards for the making of knights at the Holy Sepulcher — this ended the obligation to fight the Turks.

So affairs went along for the next century, although the horrors of the French and succeeding revolutions and other unpleasantries eventually snuffed out the canons of the Holy Sepulcher (although houses of Canonesses survive today). But in 1847, Bl. Pius IX, having revived the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, placed the Custody of the Holy Land under the new prelate’s authority. He then took thought to the Knighthoods of the Holy Sepulcher, giving the Patriarch the right to bestow them. The Pope constituted the group as a regular order under the Patriarch’s authority, and further decreed that all fees collected from them was to go to the needs of the Church in the Holy Land. Moreover, he removed the requirement that members of the Order be knighted at the Holy Sepulchre, so as to facilitate creation of local groups throughout the world.

But Bl. Pius IX had more plans for the growth of the Order. In 1868, the Pontiff, hang named it the “Sacred Military Order of the Holy Sepulcher,” instituted several reforms. In keeping with other orders of chivalry, he introduced the ranks of knight, knight commander, and knight grand cross, as well as a collard called the grand cordon. This latter was suitable for awarding to heads of state, regardless of whether they were Catholic — in time it would be granted to Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria;  Archduke Eugen, head of the Teutonic Knights; Wilhelm II of Germany; Leopold II and Albert I of Belgium;  Menelik II of Ethiopia; the King of Portugal; and Archduke Franz Ferdinand . Moreover, by this measure Pius put the Order directly under Papal control, with the Patriarch of Jerusalem acting as agent for the Holy See; he would take over the role of dealing with the knights formerly exercised by the Franciscan Custos. In 1880, Leo XIII required that all knighthoods given be approved by Rome, and eight years later admitted ladies to the order on terms of complete equality with men.

St. Pius X was also much concerned with the Order’s governance and discipline. In 1906, he made it a Papal Order, under his direct authority — although the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem would hold the title of Grand Master. The following year, the Pope united the Grand Mastery with the Papacy, allowed the Patriarch to continue creating knights as “Lieutenant of the Grand Magistery,” and conceded to King Alfonso XIII of Spain (where there were already several home-grown chapters) the title of “Grand Bailiff and Protector of the Order in Spain.”  The Order was growing, as shown by the formation of the Province (later Lieutenancy) of Belgium in 1926.

Papal interest in the order was further demonstrated by Pius XI, who in 1928 gave up the Grand Mastership and made the Patriarch of Jerusalem “Perpetual Chief and Administrator.” Furthermore, the Pontiff changed that status of the Order from Papal to “Under Papal Protection” — removing it from the Papal honors system and granting it a certain amount of autonomy. A number of the lay knights began petitioned the Holy See to change the Order’s title from “Sacred Military” to “Sovereign” after the fashion of the Order of Malta. But Malta’s sovereignty was as a result of its past history, and was recognized in innumerable international treaties — it was a status impossible for Pius to grant in the conditions of the 20th century. But in 1931, Pius did alter the title from “Sacred Military” to “Equestrian,” gave the Patriarch the title of “Administrator and Rector” of the Order, and required that all admission be officially approved by the Holy See, so that knights of the Order could be recognized by their own governments as having received an order under a foreign head of state. The Patriarch’s representatives in various countries were given the title of “Lieutenant” and the style of “Excellency” for diplomatic reasons. It was reorganized into four grades at the same time.

Ceremonial Dress Cape for Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem

As a further development along these lines, in 1949 Pius XII restored the title of “Grand Master,” to be given to a Cardinal appointed by the Pope. The Order became a legal entity under international law; to augment its new status, Pius gave it the ancient church of Sant’ Onofrio on the Janiculum Hill, and the della Rovere Palace near the Vatican as its headquarters (in 1960, the Order would turn part of the premises into the Hotel Columbus, both for visiting members and to raise revenue for its efforts in the Holy Land).

The new status of the Order was reflected in its growth. In 1951, the Lieutenancy of Austria was revived (after its original foundation in 1933 had been rendered dormant by the horrors attendant upon the Anschluss and World War II). Three years later, the Lieutenancy of England and Wales was founded. Finland formed a delegation in 1970 (becoming a Lieutenancy in its own right in 1998).

Under the statutes granted the Order by Paul VI in 1977, several general missions were placed upon new knights: “…to reinforce the practice of Christian life by its members, in absolute fidelity to the Popes; to sustain and assist the religious, spiritual, charitable and social works of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land; and to conserve and propagate the faith in the Holy Land and the rights of the Catholic Church there.”  All grades are honorific, unlike the Order of Malta, whose two top ranks are members of a religious order. Those wishing to enter must be proposed by several existing knights, and the devout Catholic character of the candidate approved by his bishop. A generous initial donation is expected, as well as annual monetary “oblations” for the work of the Church in the Holy Land.

There are now three classes: knights of the collar, of whom they may only be twelve; knights, who have four ranks — Grand Cross, Grand Officer, Commander, and Knight; and Dames, whose grades correspond to the knights. An Order of Merit of the Holy Sepulcher exists in three classes which the Grand Master may award to Catholic non-members and non-Catholics who have aided the work of the Order.

Beret of Black Velvet with a soft draping crown worn by each Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem

Alongside the Grand Master, administration of the Order is in the hands of the Grand Magistery, consisting of the Governor-General, nominated from among the lay knights (and usually an Italian nobleman); lay vice-governors-general; a chancellor who may be either clerical or lay, and an ecclesiastical master of ceremonies. There is also a Council comprising the Grand Prior, second only to the Grand Master and always the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem; the Grand Magistery; an assessor; and the national lieutenants and delegates of the Magistery.

A decade after these statutes were granted, there was an unusual development — a whole fraternity of Catholic laymen was offered membership in the Order without coming under its command. This was the body based at the Washington D.C. Franciscan Monastery called Mount St. Sepulchre, famous for its replicas of the shrines of the Holy Land. The authorities of the shrine and their superior in the American Commissariat of the Holy Land (Commissariats of the Holy Land are the Franciscan districts around the World assigned to raise alms for the Custody of the Holy Land) decided that they needed the help of devoted laymen to both maintain and support the shrine and to attract pilgrims. Although it had been 68 years since the last candidate had been knighted by the Franciscan Custos in Jerusalem, the Franciscan reasoned that, since the 1485 bull granting them permission to create knights had never been rescinded, the Commissary could revive the practice, in order to bind pious laymen to the defense and support of the shrine.

Black Cape, which may be of velvet or silk, worn by the Ladies of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem

In 1916, the first 21 aspirants were knighted. At their initial meeting officers were elected, two chapters in New York and Washington constituted, and the U.S. Navy white uniform without insignia adopted (with express permission of the Secretary of the Navy). In the years that followed the Knights of Mount St. Sepulchre grew in strength and are responsible for the growth and standing the shrine has enjoyed ever since.  Impressed with their work in this regard, and the alms and support these Franciscan knights had given the Church in the Holy Land, in 1987 the Grand Magistery proposed membership in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre for these men, while retaining their independence. There were precedents for this action: several of the Spanish and Latin American Confraternities dedicated to Christ and the Holy Sepulchre whose processions are such a big part of Holy Week in those countries have become affiliated to a greater or lesser degree with the Order.

The different Lieutenancies of the Order world-wide contribute to the work of the Latin Patriarchate (as notice, providing the bulk of its budget), the Custody and its various commissariats, and such organizations as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Beyond funding the work of the Church in the Holy Land, the Order also works to educate its members — many of whom are influential in their civic capacities — in a nonpartisan manner as to the realities of life in the Near East, beyond what media and political figures offer them. This education can take many forms in addition to publications and seminars: in the Western Lieutenancy of the United States, for example, members have visited in turn the Los Angeles parishes of the five Churches that share the Holy Sepulchre with the Catholics: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox. The Order also organizes pilgrimages to the Holy Land and other programs for its members. There is also a specific spirituality for the Order, centered on the Mass and such devotions as to Our Lady, Queen of Palestine. A number of Lieutenancies have churches or chapels for their own use.

So, as with the other Orders one might see in Church processions, so too with the Holy Sepulcher the picturesque costumes are the tip of the iceberg.


The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem by Guy Stair Sainty

Order of the Holy Sepulchre

Order of the Holy Sepulchre on the Website of the Holy See

Official Site

Headquarters of the Order

Hotel Columbus

Association of Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre



Lieutenancy of Austria


Lieutenancy of Belgium

Church of Notre Dame au Sablon, Brussels

St. Catherine’s Church, Hoogstraten

Priory of Bilzen

St. Trudo Abbey, Male

Jerusalem Priory, Turnhout


Lieutenancy of England and Wales

Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre


Lieutenancy of Finland


Lieutenancy of France

Squires of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem

Church of St. Leu and St. Giles, Paris

Knights of the Holy Sepulchre at Notre Dame-de-Paris

Relics of the Passion, Notre Dame-de-Paris


Lieutenancy of Germany

St. Andrew’s Church, Cologne

Commandery of Bamberg

Commandery of Aachen


Diplomatic Representation of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre to Hungary

Lieutenancy of Hungary

Hermina Chapel


Lieutenancy of Ireland


Lieutenancy of Northern Italy

St. Augustine Church, Como

Lieutenancy of Central Italy – Section of Umbria

St. Severus Church, Perugia

Lieutenancy of Central Italy – Section of Marche

Lieutenancy of Southern Italy on the Tyrrhenic

Basilica of the Crowned Mother of Good Counsel, Naples

Lieutenancy of Southern Italy on the Adriatic – Section of Northern Apulia

Lieutenancy of Southern Italy on the Adriatic – Section of San Severo

Lieutenancy of Southern Italy on the Adriatic – Delegation of Molfetta

Lieutenancy of Southern Italy on the Adriatic – Delegation of Cerignola

Lieutenancy of Southern Italy on the Adriatic – Section of Brindisi-Ostuni

Lieutenancy of Sicily

Grand Priory of St. Andrew, Piazza Armerina

St. Cataldo Church, Palermo

Oratory of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Palermo

St. Julian Church, Catania

Church of the Immaculate Conception, Trapani

Lieutenancy of Sicily – Section of Messina


Lieutenancy of Malta

St. Lucia Steps


Lieutenancy of the Netherlands

Emmaus Priory, Maarsen


Magistral Delegation of Norway


Lieutenancy of Poland

Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, Miechow

Canons of the Holy Sepulchre in Miechow

St. John the Baptist Church, Gniezno

Basilica of the Holy Spirit, Przeworsk


Lieutenancy of Portugal

Church of the Incarnation, Lisbon


Tartan of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre


Lieutenancy of Western Spain

Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grande, Madrid

Pious Work of the Holy Places of Jerusalem

Lieutenancy of Eastern Spain

Monastery of the Resurrection, Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre, Zaragoza

Center of Studies of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre

Collegiate Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Calatayud

Architecture of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Eastern Spain

Chapter of Knights of the Holy Sepulcher of Toledo


Lieutenancy of Sweden


Lieutenancy of Switzerland

Monastery of St. Michael, Beronmuenster



Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre

Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in the Patriarchate

Custody of the Holy Land

Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land



Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Australia



Daughters of the Resurrection, Mirhi-Bukavu



Lieutenancy of Argentina


Lumen Christi Priory, Campinas


Magistral Delegation of Canada-Atlantic

Lieutenancy of Montreal

Lieutenancy of Montreal

Lieutenancy of Vancouver


Northeastern Lieutenancy

Northern Lieutenancy

Middle Atlantic Lieutenancy

Knights of Mount Saint Sepulchre

Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America

Southeastern Lieutenancy

Southwestern Lieutenancy

North Central Lieutenancy

Northwestern Lieutenancy

Western Lieutenancy

Catholic Near East Welfare Association


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