The warm feelings at Holy Rosary Church hang as close to the heart as the plump fruit to the fig trees that once graced the row-house yards of blue-collar Italian immigrants who settled around Third and F streets NW.

Early in the century, hundreds of transplanted Italians poured into the capital city, taking jobs on the railroad and as carpenters, barbers and grocers. They arrived with little money, abundant hope and an unwavering Catholicism they could fully express only in their native tongue.

Traditions ran deep and proud.

Today, the Italian community is scattered to the far reaches of suburbia and the humble row houses around Third Street have vanished, replaced by gleaming office buildings and the bustling subway station at Judiciary Square. But the church remains on that same corner, stronger, busier and as Italian as that Sunday morning 71 years ago when the first Mass was celebrated there in Italian.

And every October, the sanctuary and cultural center next door serve as the centerpiece for the city's tribute to the explorer Christopher Columbus. At 11:30 a.m. Monday, the Knights of Columbus color guard will meet as usual at the church and march to Union Station for the noon wreath-laying ceremony at the statue of the Italian explorer.

The tradition is rooted back in 1913, when the District's Italian population numbered about 3,000. The group had no priests of its own, so James Mackin, a local pastor, invited a young Italian named Nicola DeCarlo, fresh out of Catholic University seminary, to organize Italian-speaking Catholics.

A man of superior faith, DeCarlo rented a small house on H Street NW, built a tiny altar in the parlor and slapped together a few crude benches. An old Italian peasant woman donated an organ, a religious order provided the vestments, and just before Christmas, DeCarlo said his first Mass.

News of the makeshift church spread fast. By the next Sunday it was filled to capacity. No longer was it necessary for new arrivals to make the long trip to Baltimore to hear the gospel in their language.

A few months later, DeCarlo found a larger house for the church, this one on Third Street NW. For six years he lived upstairs, and each day an Italian family in the neighborhood cooked him a meal. Before long the cramped quarters became the gathering point for Italians across the area.

By 1915, they had raised enough money to buy land to build a church at Third and F streets NW. By 1919 they laid the cornerstone with a parchment sealed inside that read, in part, "Dedicated to the blessed Virgin Mary . . . for the Exclusive Use of the Italian People of the City."

For Angelo Rinaldi, who grew up across the street from the church, it was geographically and culturally impossible not to be swept up in its love.

"I served 7:30 Mass every morning," as did his five brothers, bragged the former altar boy, 69. In fact, he said, he would rush home, go straight to the basement and "play priest," convinced that this was his calling. Instead, he became an account executive for Wonder Bread.

Rinaldi, the son of a coal merchant-turned-baker, remembered how the neighborhood streets came alive on patron saint feast days.

"My mother's home town, Rosetto, favored Saint Anthony," he said, but residents of nearby Abruzzi leaned toward St. Gabriel. Every June the St. Anthony Society faithful would lug a 12-foot pole and a colorful banner with a depiction of the saint through the streets. In August the St. Gabriel Society would always outdo them with a 14-foot pole.

"We had our feuds, but it was all just good competition," he laughed. "It was a good attraction because it brought all the Italians to an Italian church."

The unofficial extension of the church in those days was the Niosi Bros. Grocery Store in the alley on Seventh Street. Rinaldi said it was an honored tradition for Sunday churchgoers to visit the store, where they snapped up Italian sausage, pasta and cheese.

"I wish we could go back to those days," he sighed. "You had everything you wanted right in your own neighborhood."

Yet so strong was the draw that many parishioners would travel to Holy Rosary from other parts of town, noted Aldo Petrini, a priest at nearby St. Mary's and a former associate at Holy Rosary. "A streetcar line went out G Street," said Petrini, 64, who lived in Northeast. "You'd cross three parishes to get there."

But the trek was worth it to his parents, he said, because it represented "going back home" to Italy. After Sunday Mass and especially on feast days, folks would descend on the small church hall, munch on cold cuts and "just visit."

The son of a stonemason, Petrini said his parents stressed the importance of preserving ethnic identification. "They really knocked that into us. One of the lectures I got was, 'Don't ever bring shame to your family or nation,' " he said of his mother. "She didn't mean the United States."

The Rev. Caesar Donanzan is now the 19th priest to serve at the Washington area's only Catholic parish with an Italian accent.

"The church promotes both spiritual and cultural values," he explained, standing on the spot where more than 11,000 baptisms, weddings and funerals have been performed over the years. "This was {once} the hub of the Italian community."

Today, many of his flock aren't even Italian, "but they love things that are Italian," he said.

Upstairs is Casa Italiana, the church's social and cultural center, which offers, among other things, popular evening Italian language classes from native teachers for nearly 350 adults. Adorning its walls are breathtaking scenes of ancient Rome and mountain villages overlooking the blue Mediterranean.

The church and its activities draw the likes of Matilda Pometto, who knows something about continuity. Most of her 76 years have been spent at Holy Rosary "because it's our church," she said flatly. She met her husband, Joseph, there more than 50 years ago. Her childhood and the way it clung to her ethnic identity "was wonderful," she said. It was a time of unlocked front doors, an endless string of religious processions, lively bands and Italian men huddled at Niosi, swapping local conversation and memories of "patria," the motherland.

If she had to do it over again, she said, she would change only one thing: She would learn the language better. "I went to the English Mass because we didn't understand or speak Italian very well," she said. "I regret that very much."

But Dave Lovins, 38, a Jewish salesman from McLean whose wife, Ellen, is half Italian, contends that you don't have to be Italian to feel welcome at Holy Rosary. "I'm comfortable here," he said. "It's something that transcends culture."

But Nadia Burkhardt, the church secretary for 17 years, said the church fills an even larger role for Italians. "It's a place to meet friends and also to speak the mother tongue. To us, the Casa Italiana is really a little piece of Italy in this city . . . . Maybe it brings us back to our roots."