The earlier tributes all had taken place far away.

First at sea, a few miles off Martha's Vineyard, then in New York and Greenwich, Conn., the last goodbyes to John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette, were mostly private with only glimpses conveyed through television and newspaper coverage.

But yesterday, it was Washington's turn for a public and prayerful farewell.

By noon, 4,500 people had packed the pews for a special Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Infants, gray-haired women in wheelchairs, teenagers in blue hair and cutoff jeans and men in Sunday-best suits filled the Roman Catholic cathedral to pray for the three plane crash victims and their families.

"We do an injustice . . . if we regard these young people merely as cultural icons, as symbols of a fantastic life," said Washington's Auxiliary Bishop William E. Lori, who celebrated the Mass with eight other priests. "They were more than images. They were human beings . . . endowed with immortal souls."

The service was infused with the ceremonial uplift of Catholic liturgy: the congregation's robustly sung "Alleluias" before the gospel, the thick haze of incense, the lilting voices of the Choir of the Basilica, the flowing, bright green vestments of the priests.

The mood was solemn and subdued but hopeful.

"We gather in sorrow and yet with the hope of our Christian faith . . . to express our sympathy and love to the Kennedy and Bessette families," Lori told the standing-room-only crowd, which included D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

But there were hundreds of others--area residents and tourists--who attended simply because they wanted to do something to mark the July 16 deaths of the three young people.

"I'm going for the Kennedys," said red-haired Margaret Gilhooly, as she entered the Northeast Washington church with her son Kevin, a member of the Christian Brothers, a religious order of men.

"I'll pray they're happy in heaven," Gilhooly added in the brogue of Roscommon, Ireland, where she was born 90 years ago. "But I know they are."

"John F. Kennedy is just like he's our son. He's the nation's son," said Joyce Banks, a nursing technician from Silver Spring. "I've been mourning all week, and I just need to lay it to rest. There needs to be closure to it."

Banks, who is not Catholic and who usually attends a Pentecostal church, said she would pray "that they will find eternal peace. There is life after this one. I know that."

"I showed respect for [Princess] Diana, so I feel I should do the same for John because he seemed like he was a nice guy," said Elaine Pitts, 62, explaining why she drove from Charles Town, W.Va., to attend the Mass.

Natividad Ortiz and Juan Rodero, who are visiting from Spain, said they heard about the noon service during the 10:30 a.m. Mass and decided to stay because they feel a connection to the Kennedy tragedy.

"We were very sorry this happened," said Ortiz, an English teacher. "There's something very touching, very moving about it. We heard a lot about the Kennedy family."

After Mass, Lori said that "judging by the phone calls we'd received, there was a great longing" by the local community for a chance to express its sympathy for Kennedy and the Bessette sisters.

Washington's Archbishop, Cardinal James A. Hickey, who is out of the city, asked Lori to preside at the Mass.

Although the Basilica often gets large crowds--it is a major draw for Catholic visitors to Washington--Lori said that yesterday's attendance "was extraordinary for a Sunday in the midst of July."

Many people are affected by Kennedy's death, the bishop added, "because he spoke to a generation."

Norton said that "the District, in many ways, is Kennedy's home town."

And Williams, a Catholic, said he attended the Mass because the Kennedy family "had always been a friend of the District."

Coming to terms with the recent tragedy will take time, the mayor added. "All of us will find closure," he said, "in once again glorifying and magnifying God in service to our community."