Church Is Home Away From Italian Home

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009

Most of the weekend, empty federal buildings and vacant streets make the Judiciary Square neighborhood feel like a ghost town. But not on Sunday mornings, when hundreds of Italian Americans are drawn to Holy Rosary Church and find a piece of the old country.

The 10:30 Mass is said in Italian and regulars greet each other with European-style kisses on each cheek. Last Sunday, celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, worshipers welcomed one another with new year wishes of "Buon anno."

The thriving Renaissance-style church is more than an oasis in blocks of offices. It is a long-established venue in an ongoing mission of the Catholic Church: serving Catholics in their native languages and customs wherever they are living, even as it struggles with a shortage of priests.

Seven of the 140 parishes in the Washington archdiocese are designated as ethnic, meaning their official purpose is to serve a particular ethnic group rather than a neighborhood. Holy Rosary is the oldest, dating to 1913. Others, established in the 1970s and 80s, serve Polish, French, Korean and Spanish communities. Newer parishes serving Vietnamese and Portuguese Catholics were created in the 1990s. The archdiocese also includes Chinese, Croatian, German, Nigerian and Haitian missions, which are less permanent than parishes but have their own pastors, said Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

"The challenge of the church is, how do we keep adapting to meet the pastoral and spiritual needs [of immigrants], growing with them as they assimilate, and how to be flexible enough to meet the challenges of the next community that comes in," Gibbs said.

The history of Washington's ethnic parishes helps tell the story of its immigrants. St. Patrick's, at 10th and G streets NW, for example, was founded in 1794 for the Irish stonemasons who helped build the Capitol and the White House, but shifted to a neighborhood church as the Irish assimilated into American life.

Among the newest ethnic communities in the archdiocese are the Haitians at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, near 16th and Irving streets NW, and Our Lady of Sorrows in Takoma Park, which were formed from 1998 to 2000.

But Holy Rosary, which serves a relatively small community of immigrants who arrived in the United States many years ago, raised children who may not speak Italian and gradually dispersed to the suburbs, is part of a "dying breed" of ethnic churches, said Chester Gillis, author of "Roman Catholicism in America" and theology professor at Georgetown University.

As members of these churches become more grounded in the United States, the parishes' roles also change. There are fewer Masses said in native languages, smaller numbers of priests who are immigrants and less cultural attachment through parish dinners and socials that celebrate ethnic customs.

Holy Rosary has hung on by remaining an anchor in the lives of many parishioners, even those who have lived here for decades.

Anthony Cascioli, 78, and Ernesto Davella, 80, left their homes in the southeastern Italian town of Roseto half a century ago. Today, they come to Holy Rosary from Montgomery County to visit with 10 other families from the same town -- their "paesani," or fellow villagers, as the two men call them.

Among the paesani is Phil Finelli, of Rockville, whose father was born in Roseto and immigrated to the United States in 1932, working with Cascioli as an ironworker. Finelli and his wife, Joanne, had their children baptized at Holy Rosary and recently celebrated their 25th anniversary there. They attend the Italian Mass at least once a month.

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