Holy Rosary church, a hub for Italian families, turns 100


Andrew Stepkovich, left, an altar boy, is seen followed by altar girls during a procession as the Holy Rosary Church of Washington celebrates its 100th anniversary with a High Mass on Dec. 8. (Evy Mages/For The Washington Post)
December 13, 2013

On a block filled with boxy government buildings, an FBI field office and parked armored trucks, Holy Rosary Church in downtown Washington serves as a retreat to the old country for many in the area’s Italian community.

Whether it’s Sunday Mass conducted in Italian or an exchange of pleasantries between parishioners in a fellowship hall named Casa Italiana, visiting the Roman Catholic church can remind you of walking the streets of Rome.

“For 100 years this has been the national church of the Italian American people,” Pastor Ezio Marchetto said in his heavy Italian accent. “We have people who were baptized here, received their sacraments here, were married here and got their children baptized here. There is a connection that goes back generations.”

On Sunday, the church celebrated its centennial with a special afternoon Mass and festive gala in the evening that attracted well-wishers and congregants from across the region.

The celebrations attracted a collection of luminaries. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, attended the Mass, while Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, attended the gala. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio to the United States, and the Rev. Alessandro Gazzola, general superior of the Scalabrinian Congregation, also attended.

Father Ezio Marchetto of Holy Rosary Church in Northwest Washington, D.C. reflects on the strong ties of the Italian-Catholic community in the District. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post)

“Since the turn of the last century when Italian immigrants seeking to make America their new home arrived in the metropolitan Washington area, Holy Rosary parish has made visible, audible and tangible that embrace of God that is our faith and Christ’s church in our nation’s capital,” Wuerl said. “This anniversary is not just a celebration of past accomplishments, but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the present moment and to the future as we are called to pass on the faith as our ancestors did a century ago.”

During the gala, about 700 well-wishers packed into the National Building Museum headquarters celebrated the church, which got its start in a humble structure at 83 H St. NW. There, in December 1913, the Rev. Nicola DeCarlo, a young Italian priest who had just graduated from Catholic University, obtained permission to minister to Catholics. That modest structure would mark the beginning of a parish of Italian families that today has grown to more than 2,000 people from across the region. The congregation moved to its current structure at 595 3rd St. NW in September 1919.

“Our celebration is an effort to keep the liturgy, the traditions and the roots alive to avoid any split between our faith and culture,” said the Rev. Lydio Tomasi, pastor emeritus of the church. Ironically, he and Marchetto are not only members of the same order, but they are also from the same city in Italy, just north of Venice.

The church has struggled to survive over the years. In the late 1950s, Holy Rosary faced a threat when the federal government built Interstate 395 along Second Street NW. Initial plans called for the church to be demolished. After a vigorous protest the building was saved, and today the back of the church overlooks the highway.

Even as concrete and steel buildings have replaced wood-frame homes around Holy Rosary’s site, the church has continued to grow. In March 1981, the Casa Italiana was built, and a school annex was completed in September 1992. Today, people can take classes at Casa Italiana that include Italian, ceramics, cooking, wine tasting and other aspects of Italian culture.

As part of the church’s centennial, officials published a special edition of its newsletter, “Voca Italiana,” with stories of parishioners young and old. Angelo Puglisi, whose parents immigrated from Sicily in 1901, was one of the contributors. Puglisi grew up in the church, met his future wife, Millie, in the sanctuary and was married at the church in 1924.

“I remember Father DeCarlo,” Puglisi said in the newsletter. “He was the guy, if you were in the Italian community and you had a problem, he would try to help however he could. He and my father were very good friends. My father was a very loyal parishioner.”

For many who worship there, Holy Rosary is a more than just a place to go to church. Joanna Brignolo, 68, a longtime member, paused as she walked into the sanctuary and looked up an image of Mary. “I carry the rosary with me every day. I pray for miracles. . . . I feel at home when I walk in here.”

“We are not just family in culture, but we are family spiritually,” said Brignolo, a retired federal worker from the District who has been a member of the church for more than two decades. “We are not just here because we are Italian families, but we are the family of God.”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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