At Holy Rosary Catholic Church, in a deserted section of downtown Washington, dozens of Italians and Italian-Americans lined up outside the church yesterday for the traditional kissing of the infant Jesus.

First they kissed the plastic doll in the manager. Then they kissed each other on both cheeks, Italian-style, and greeted each other with shouts of "Buon Natale."

It was a double celebration. Next spring, construction will start on Casa Italiana, the Italian community center. Funds for the project -- $560,000 -- were raised over the last two years by the parishioners of Holy Rosary.

In the church basement, decorated with colorful posters from Alitalia, the parishioners gathered for doughnuts and espresso. They also talked about the many young people who attended the Christmas Eve midnight mass in Latin and yesterday morning's mass in Italian.

Members of the parish formed a youth club this year to interest young Italian-Americans in their heritage and in the Catholic Church.

Carmela Ventresca, who formed the church choir in 1950, recalled the Christmas Day 16 years ago, when she sang in the choir two days before giving birth to her second daughter.

"When Father Caesar [Donanzan, the pastor] saw me, he said, 'My God, Carmela, you gonna have the baby right here in church!"

Mrs. Ventresca, a tiny, dark-haired, vibrant woman, met her husband Ponfilio 19 years ago. He was living in the United States. She was in Italy. Mrs. Ventresca's aunt sent the young Ponfilio a picture of her niece. The two began a correspondence, and Ponfilio soon returned to Italy and married Carmela.

Today, their two daughters sing in the choir.

"Here in the United States," Mrs. Ventresca said yesterday, "people go out together for months and months. They get married and the marriage is over in two days."