Our History


A Hundred Years Young

According to the Official Catholic Directory, the parish of Holy Rosary Church established in 1913 as “Italian” is the only “national Italian parish” in Washington, D.C. Thus this year of 2013 is especially significant for members and friends of Holy Rosary as it celebrates the centennial of its existence in the nation’s capital, where Italian immigrants have made numerous contributions at least since Constantino Brumidi painted the frescoes under the Capitol’s dome. By the 1890s Italians had formed a community within the Irish neighborhood known as Swampoodle, situated in the northwest/northeast corridors of Washington near the Capitol. At this time they received their Italian-language pastoral care from the apostolic delegate, the highest-ranking Vatican diplomat in Washington. Short HistoryWashington was then part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, so it was Archbishop of Baltimore James Cardinal Gibbons whom Apostolic Delegate Archbishop Diomede Falconio had approached regarding establishing an Italian parish. In 1913 Cardinal Gibbons found the priest for the job, Rev. Nicola DeCarlo. Born in Avigliano in the province of Potenza in the region of Basilicata in 1879, Father DeCarlo joined the Order of Saint Augustine. He was ordained in 1901, and in 1907 he was sent to the Augustinian parish in Philadelphia. DeCarlo later asked to be released from his vows and then went to Washington to study with the Paulist Fathers, who maintained an institution on the grounds of Catholic University. Upon graduation, he undertook the mission of organizing a parish to look after the spiritual needs of the area’s Italian Catholics. Father DeCarlo rented a residence at 83 H Street NW and turned the front parlor into a chapel that he named Holy Rosary, honoring a pledge he had made to the Blessed Mother after recovering from a serious illness. He said Holy Rosary’s first Mass on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 14, 1913, at 10:30 A.M. The next year, while raising money for a church, he rented a larger residence at 902 Third Street NW. He soon received help from the wealthy and devout friends of Apostolic Delegate Giovanni Bonzano (1912 to 1922), Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Brady. The Bradys made a substantial donation that remained anonymous until Father DeCarlo’s death. On September 7, 1919, James Cardinal Gibbons blessed the cornerstone for Holy Rosary’s third and present home at 595 Third Street NW. Dedication of the upper church occurred on April 29, 1923, with Short History_2most of the church furnishings added in the following years up to Holy Rosary’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1938. Plans for a parish hall and bell tower were under way at the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary, but World War II intervened. The tower went up, but without bells for the military had commandeered every bit of available metal. Sometime after the war the bells were cast. Auxiliary Bishop Michael Keyes of Baltimore blessed the bells on March 30, 1947, which were then hoisted inside the tower. This was the last time officials from the Archdiocese of Baltimore participated in a service at Holy Rosary, for Washington, D.C., became an archdiocese in 1948. Concerned about the care of his elderly parishioners, Father DeCarlo purchased a farm in Mitchellville, Maryland, for a rest home, which he called Villa Rosa after his own mother. He was unable to organize the work satisfactorily, but would not relinquish his pastorate unless his successors committed to his vision. Groundbreaking for the present Villa Rosa building took place September 15, 1963, with an addition made in 1977. In the late 1950s the federal government began redrawing the map of Holy Rosary’s neighborhood, running Interstate Highway 395 along the Second Street corridor. Initial plans called for Holy Rosary’s church to be sacrificed to 395, and only a vigorous and multifaceted parish protest saved the church. Instead, the highway cost Holy Rosary its rectory; a new building opened in 1967. Short History_3As federal buildings replaced parishioners’ residences, Holy Rosary needed more space to attract its parishioners and to maintain its community. Ambitious plans for the construction of a parish sociocultural center—a Casa Italiana in Washington—forged ahead. In the next decades fundraising efforts and the largesse of many donors brought a vision into reality. The original two-story building was dedicated on March 22, 1981; a marble façade was installed in 1989; and a school annex was completed on September 17, 1992. That same year the Lido Civic Club facilitated the installation of Carlo Nicoli’s statue of Christopher Columbus in the space between the church and the rectory. As the construction of buildings expanded Holy Rosary’s parish, the concomitant growth of strong parochial groups allowed parishioners to practice their faith on a more personal level. The first longstanding organization was the Holy Name Society, established under the leadership of Giuseppe Balducci in 1915. As the sons of the Italian immigrants in the original Holy Name Society grew up, they organized a Junior Holy Name Society that over time became the Holy Name society. The most enduring women’s group has been the Sodality of Our Lady established in 1914, when the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur came to Holy Rosary to teach religious education classes and to organize the unmarried women of the parish into the Children of Mary to help with the teaching. The sisters remained at least until 1938, but the organization faded as members married. In 1953 Rev. Aldo Petrini, an assistant to Father DeCarlo, reorganized the young married women as the Sodality of Our Lady. Italian migrants who arrived in Washington after World War II formed men’s and women’s Catholic Action groups, which lasted from 1960 to the mid-1970s; the women’s group was responsible for initiating Holy Rosary’s newspaper Voce Italiana in 1961 and its Festa Italiana held annually on the grounds of Villa Rosa since 1963. Organizations composed of people from specific regions of Italy have been longer-lasting, and their feasts still appear in the annual church calendar. Holy Rosary as a whole gathers for events throughout the year. Advent means setting up the presepio. Christmas means Midnight Mass, a procession to venerate the Christ Child; the singing of “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle”; and a visit from the Befana. Short History4Early spring brings the annual Father DeCarlo breakfast of the Holy Name Society, honoring the pastor who went to his eternal reward in 1961. The Sodality is the force behind the next major annual event, the Lasagna Dinner, also held in the spring. May brings the celebrations of First Communion, Confirmation, and the crowning of the Blessed Mother. June is a busy month— Festa della Repubblica Italiana, the national holiday; the Feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, whose society was organized at the parish in 1934; and the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, brought to the parish by immigrants. Summer is also the time of the year for the Italian-American Golf Tournament, established to fund Casa Italiana and now held in conjunction with the Lido Civic Club. Summer comes to an end with the August feast of Saint Gabriel Possenti, first organized in 1925 among immigrants from Abruzzi where Gabriel was a patron saint. Fall begins with the annual Polenta Dinner, and November pays tribute in a Mass for those who died in military service to Italy. Holy Rosary’s spiritual life is enriched by other devotional activities. People working in nearby offices make time for their faith and attend weekday Mass. Every month devotees of Padre Pio of Pietralcina meet for prayers, and there is an annual Mass. In May and again in October Holy Rosary prays the supplica, prayers to Mary under her title Our Lady of the Rosary. Every year Holy Rosary joins the universal Church in observance of Divine Mercy Sunday. WShort History_5hen Father DeCarlo contemplated retirement, he recruited the Society of Saint Charles Scalabrinians to supply Italian-speaking priests to the community. The Scalabrinians were organized in 1887 specifically to minister to migrants, and they began their work among the Italian Diaspora. In 1963 the Scalabrinian priests were joined by the Missionary Sisters of Saint Charles, who staffed Villa Rosa. That same year Holy Rosary’s first Scalabrinian pastor, Rev. Giulivo Tessarolo, was elected superior general of the Scalabrini Fathers. His assistant, Rev. Joseph Spigolon, served as pastor from 1963 to 1970, when he became the provincial of the order; it was under him that Holy Rosary successfully fought off the threat of 395. Rev. Mario Bordignon served as pastor briefly from 1970 to 1972. Then came Rev. Caesar Donanzan, who presided over the construction of Casa Italiana and the establishment of its school to teach the Italian language. Father Donanzan served from 1972 to his reassignment in 1992; he passed away the following year. Rev. Terry Bagatin served as pastor from 1992 to 1996 and Rev. Charles Zanoni from 1996 to 2006. During Father Charles’s tenure Holy Rosary built its storage space for Casa Italiana and a ramp entrance as an alternative to the front steps; produced a comprehensive parish history; and branched out to assist with the pastoral care of other immigrant groups, such as the Portuguese-speaking community now at Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Short History6Since 2006 pastoral duties at Holy Rosary passed to Rev. Lydio Tomasi, under whose leadership many parish works have been revitalized and parish facilities renovated. The Casa Italiana School expanded its curriculum from language to include ceramics, winetasting, and other aspects of Italian culture; Voce Italiana, while covering news of Italy for Italians abroad, resumed a focus on community events enjoyed during the 1980s tenure of parishioner-journalist Gino Simi; and, with much foresight, Holy Rosary implemented major renovations in the church and a total reconstruction of the lower hall—a precursor of things to come with the planned closing of 395 along the Second Street corridor and the shifting of the traffic pattern that will once again cost Holy Rosary its rectory. In 2012 and 2013, with foresight and planning, Father Tomasi organized Holy Rosary’s 100th Anniversary celebration as the Centennial Committee chair. Mid-year 2013 he became pastor emeritus with the arrival of Rev. Ezio Marchetto, whose diverse pastoral experience ensures a new energy and vision for overseeing Holy Rosary’s ever-expanding functions and its vibrant parish community. So the ongoing ebb and flow of societal change adds to the challenging pastoral mission Holy Rosary faces to meet modern pluralistic needs and to remain of service to the new waves of Italians and Italophiles moving into the nation’s capital every few years. In looking to the next hundred years Holy Rosary must deliver both a spiritual and cultural rejuvenation for inclusion of all persons as they are, with their own culture and patrimony, and thus remain open to communication and dialogue that builds bridges between ethnic groups—“stone by stone, with patience”—while remaining faithful to one’s own roots and finding unity in the Gospel and the one apostolic Church.

Archdiocese of Washington Missionaries of St. Charles/Scalabrinians Casa Italiana Sociocultural Center The Lido Civic Club Order of the Sons of Italy in AmericaNational Italian American Foundation