In the early years of the 20th Century, many Italians had immigrated to the United States. According to the 1910 Federal Census, around three thousand Italian natives resided in the city of Washington and others were widely scattered throughout the area with no church or priest to call of their own.
Occasionally, Archbishop Giovanni Bonzano, Apostolic Delegate to the United States, would tend to the needs of these Italian Washingtonians, hearing confessions and attending sick calls. But his duties limited his time. So Archbishop Bonzano urged Cardinal Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore, to provide an Italian-speaking priest to look after the spiritual needs of the Italian Catholics of the District of Columbia. During those days, the Archdiocese of Baltimore presided over the churches of Washington.
In June of 1913, Monsignor James Mackin, the Pastor of St. Paul’s Church, extended an invitation in the name of His Eminence, Cardinal Gibbons, to a young Italian priest, the Reverend Nicola De Carlo, who had just completed a course of study at Catholic University, to undertake the mission of organizing the Italian-speaking Catholics in the Washington area. Father De Carlo accepted the invitation.
It became a formidable mission but the young unknown priest undertook, in nomine Domine, the difficult task by placing full confidence in Almighty God. He repeated to himself the words of the Apostle: omnia possum in eo qui me confortat. Father De Carlo spent the summer and fall getting acquainted with the members of his future congregation. He borrowed discarded benches from another church and folding chairs. In December 1913, Father De Carlo rented a house at 83 H Street, Northwest. He built a small altar in the parlor and celebrated his first Mass on Sunday, December 14, 1913 at 10:30 am. A poor Italian countrywoman donated a small organ and the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration furnished the vestments. Word of the new Chapel had spread throughout and the two Masses celebrated that day were overflowing with people. The afternoon service took place at 4 o’clock. Thus, a little chapel was created to tend to the needs of the Italian immigrants of the Washington area.
The Chapel became known as the Chapel of the Holy Rosary and the parish was dedicated to the patronage of the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary. Father De Carlo selected this title of the Blessed Mother to fulfill a vow he had taken before his ordination when he was struck with an illness. Doctors had abandoned hope for his recovery but through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, his health was restored.
A Sunday school was organized in the care of Sister Winifred and Sister Rita of the Sisters of Notre Dame from Trinity College. The Sunday school was inaugurated on February 22, 1914, with the Daughters of Mary in charge of Catechism class. The two humble sisters assisted the pastor every Sunday with religious instruction. Within four months, there were sixty members in the Society of the Daughters of Mary. The Society of Christian Mothers also formed and for years was the chief source of support for the little Chapel.
The Chapel at 83 H Street became too small for the number wishing to attend Mass. In March 1914, Father De Carlo secured a larger residence at 902 Third Street, Northwest. The first Mass was celebrated on Passion Sunday, March 29, 1914. The two rooms above the Chapel were divided for Father De Carlo’s use, one as his bedroom and the other as his office. The humble Chapel became the center of Catholic activities among the Italian immigrants in Washington, especially the poor who were never turned away. Six months after the opening of the Chapel of Holy Rosary, Archbishop Bonzano, who had brought about the establishment of the mission, confirmed 83 children.
A committee was organized to raise funds and buy land so that a permanent church could be built. On February 23, 1915, a lot was purchased on the corner of Third and F Streets, Northwest. Actual construction was held back because of World War I but progress of the Parish was made slowly and steadily. The Holy Name Society held a public demonstration on October 15, 1915, with 300 members taking part in the Holy Name parade on Pennsylvania Avenue. Many were astonished to find so many men, especially young men, marching under the banner of the Holy Name of Jesus and making a public demonstration of their Catholic faith. A Mutual Benefit Society under the patronage of St. Joseph was established on September 11, 1917. The Society assisted members in distress and in illness and took care of bereaved children. The Union of Italian Catholic Women, under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, was found in 1918. It too carried on charitable work and donated the Stations of the Cross that were in the basement of the Church.
Additional grounds were purchased for the future Church in March and October 1917. The zeal of Archbishop Bonzano was never relaxed as he realized it would take a long time to secure funds to begin the building of the Church. He took it upon himself for the successful conclusion of the undertaking, wholly in accordance with the advice of the Auditor of the Delegation, Monsignor Aluigi Cossio.
Monsignor Cossi requested the service of architect Aristide Leonori of Rome, who had designed cathedrals in St. Louis and Buffalo and the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, to submit a design of the Church. His design was approved on March 19, 1918; the feast of St. Joseph under whose protection the Pastor and the congregation had been ever since the commencement of the Parish.
The design of Holy Rosary Church follows the early Italian Renaissance, along the lines of the Basilica. Access to the Church is by means of a stately system of granite steps and platforms the entire width of the building. Flanking columns, which support a semicircular canopy, mark the central entrance. The architectural lines within the Church are imposing and dignified. The nave rises into a semicircular-coffered vault supported on tall columns that are crowned by Corinthian capitols. The interior is finished in simple style, the surfaces being treated in stucco and scagliola. The exterior walls of the building are of Indiana limestone.
The War slowed down construction of the building, as materials were difficult to come by. It was not until September 17, 1919, that the cornerstone could be laid. That afternoon, His Eminence, the Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore, blessed the cornerstone of the Church. Civil and ecclesiastical authorities were in attendance and the entire congregation, along with the societies, headed by bands marched in procession from the old Chapel to the new building.
The congregation commenced worshipping in the basement and waited for the upper Church to be completed. The decorative work had to go on rather slowly but with careful attention to the standards of art and beauty. The parishioners raised funds steadily. The new Church was blessed and opened on April 29, 1923 by the new Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Fumasoni-Biondi. Assisting him that day were Monsignors Bernadini, Cossio, Leech and Marella along with Reverends Papi, Cappellion and Catania and the Pastor, Father De Carlo. Archbishop Fumasoni-Biondi preached the sermon during the Pontifical Mass and expressed his great satisfaction on seeing the completion of the Church, which fulfilled the aspirations of the parishioners and the wishes of the Holy Father.
In later years, Father De Carlo oversaw the building of an auditorium next to the Church, as more space was needed for the social and cultural activities of the parish. The Dramatic Club used it for the presentation of plays and it became a meeting place for the various groups of the parish
In 1947, construction of the bell tower was complete. Funds were collected to memorialize those parishioners who had served their country in World War II.
The 1950’s and 1960’s marked the arrival of a throng of Italian immigrants in the Washington area, many called by their relatives already living here. Holy Rosary became a home-away-from-home for them. In 1960, two Scalabrinian priests, Father Giulivo Tessarolo and Father Joseph Spigolon, came to Holy Rosary Church to replace the retiring Father De Carlo. The combination of young new immigrants and the two young priests brought an extra vigor to Holy Rosary. Groups formed like Azione Cattolica Italiana and theItalian Cadets soccer team, dinner-dances and picnics organized, the Dramatic Club revived, the Annual Italian Festival at the Villa Rosa grounds commenced and the monthly newsletter, Voce Italiana, published. The Italian Mass was filled to capacity on Sunday mornings. The Scalabrinian Fathers invigorated the liturgy and social activities of the English-speaking members of the Church while providing much valued leadership and services to the newly arrived Italian immigrants.
In 1954, Father De Carlo purchased a farm in Mitchellville, Maryland, about twenty miles from the Church. He had many ideas for use of the land: an orphanage, a bilingual school and a retirement center, mainly for Italian senior citizens. Father De Carlo never realized his dreams as he passed away on March 11, 1961. Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, fulfilled one of those dreams in 1965, forging ahead the construction of the Villa Rosa Home for the Aged. The Home was completed in 1967 and a Scalabrinian priest, Father Anthony DalBalcon, took over as administrator.
Father Caesar Donanzan became Pastor of Holy Rosary in 1972. He envisioned a center for Italian Americans in the Metropolitan Washington area, to be used for social and cultural activities for the parish. The proposed center was named Casa Italiana and construction was completed in 1981, with a hall on the main floor and classrooms on the second floor for parish group meetings and Italian classes. Over the years, Casa Italiana has been given several facelifts: a Renaissance style interior and a marble façade on the exterior in the late 1980’s and more recently a new terrazzo floor and additional storage area.
Currently, the parish is thriving under the guidance of its Pastor, Father Lidio Tomassi. Parishioners travel from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, some as long as an hour, to call Holy Rosary their home. Couples that marry in our beautiful Church return to become parishioners. Gone is the old, Italian neighborhood, replaced instead by Federal office buildings. No longer is there a steady stream of Italian immigrants that necessitated the creation of Holy Rosary or revived it years later. But Father De Carlo’s mission continues. Many of the former immigrants are still around. So too are the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of many old-time parishioners celebrating Sunday Masses, Baptisms, Holy Communion and Weddings at the Church that once began as a little chapel.