It has survived three fires, two world wars, the Depression and a changing neighborhood.
But if there’s one thing Holy Rosary Catholic Church has proved over the nearly 125 years that it’s been a fixture in Kansas City, it’s that it endures.
And the Catholic church hasn’t just endured, it continues to thrive, offering solace, faith and a sense of community to more than 450 families who are members. The large brick church near the River Market area serves as a cornerstone in its Kansas City neighborhood and is held dear to people from Leawood to Liberty who continue to return to the church for weddings, holidays or other special occasions.
“It’s home,” said parishioner Margie Valenti, whose family has been attending the church for six generations.
It’s this kind of rich history that caught the attention of the National Society Colonial Dames of the 17th Century, who recently honored the church with a special bronze plaque designating its historical significance in the community.
Leawood resident Norine Accurso, who is a member of the National Society Colonial Dames of the 17th Century, says the organization tries to honor buildings throughout the Kansas City area that have played an important role in the community’s history.
“In the Kansas City vicinity, it is, to us, very important to preserve those buildings that have been taken care of throughout the years, and far too many of our Kansas City buildings have been torn down,” she says.
Accurso helped raise some of the money to purchase the plaque, even donating some of her own money to help with the effort. She said six families joined together to pledge $850 to purchase the plaque.
The members of the organization hope that by marking buildings that have a long history in the community they are able to share its significance with others.
“It’s a way to educate the youth and to keep the memory of the church itself going,” said Cathy Little, former president of the Kansas City chapter of the organization.
The organization, which began its chapter in Kansas City in 1922, has also placed markers at other area historic buildings including Barry Christian Church at 1500 N.W. Barry Road in Kansas City.
The unique history of Holy Rosary Catholic Church, located at 911 E. Missouri Ave. in Kansas City, is what attracted the group to its latest endeavor.
Holy Rosary began as a religious home to Italian immigrants but also has welcomed Cubans, Mexicans and Vietnamese throughout its long history in the city. The parish started the Don Bosco Center, once ran a school and created a credit union to provide financial support for new immigrants arriving in the city.
Next year, the church will celebrate its 125th anniversary.
“It still continues to be such a big part of everyone’s lives,” Valenti said.
The story of Holy Rosary begins in October 1890 when Father Ferdinando Santipolo arrived in Kansas City to start a church that would serve Italian immigrants. According to “The History of Holy Rosary Church” written by Angelo Bongino, he was sent by the Scalabrini Fathers because many of the Italian immigrants did not have a place where they could attend church services in their native language.
With little money, the church began humbly in 1891, holding Mass in store fronts along Fifth Street and Forest Avenue.
By fall 1895, they had raised enough money to build and open their own church — but historical accounts describe the interior of this first building as sparse. Over the door, an inscription read “Church of the Most Holy Rosary, Built by the Poor.”
The building wasn’t standing for long before a fire broke out in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, April 12, 1903.
“Father Charles Delbecchi began making trips into the flaming foyer of the church to save religious objects inside. The ciborium was the first to be carried out, followed by a statue of St. Joseph,” Bongino wrote in his history.
A new brick church was built and opened that same year, but fire would plague the church two more times during its history, again in 1947 and a third time in 1955.
Just after the First World War, the church welcomed Italian war hero General Armando Diaz to attend Mass at the church, according to “This Far by Faith: A popular history of the Catholic people of west and northwest Missouri,” written by Charles M. Coleman.
The church played an even larger role in World War II, when Italian prisoners of war were brought in by truck from Riverside to attend Sunday Mass.
Around that same time, the credit union was created in 1943 to help immigrants and their families get the financial support they needed.
“It has loaned literally millions of dollars to individuals who had no credit ratings and who could get no loans from other lending institutions,” Coleman wrote in his history.
Another notable event was the creation of the Don Bosco Center, which the church started in 1939. Residents of the Columbus Park community volunteered their time to build the center for children in the area. (The center at 526 Campbell St. is still operating, although it’s no longer run by the parish.)
Kansas City resident Vivian Gentile still remembers seeing the men in her neighborhood build the new center. As a child, she lived right across the street from the church.
“It was a fun place for us kids when we were growing up,” she says of the center, which used to show Friday night movies and had a gym upstairs where kids could play.
Gentile also remembers the annual carnivals and spaghetti dinners the church used to hold each year to raise money for building improvements.
“Oh, I got so excited when all this happened,” the now 83-year-old said.
For much of its history, the church also operated a school as well.
Valenti was one of the students at the grade school and said one of her most vivid childhood memories is of attending Mass each school day before classroom instruction begun.
“Back then, the boys sat on one side and the girls sat on the other side,” she said.
In 1969, the parochial school was consolidated with the St. John School and one final consolidation changed the name to the St. John Tri-School. This school closed its doors for a final time in 1991.
Over the years, the church has been home to 21 different pastors. Its current pastor, the Rev. Ariel Durian, is the first non-Italian pastor in the church’s history.
Durian, who is Filipino and who served in Los Angeles for seven years before coming to Holy Rosary three years ago, says he’s been welcomed by the community.
“My first year here was full of story-telling from the parishioners because they wanted me to know how the history came to be and how the community evolved for many years,” he said.
Valenti said Durian is a wonderful priest and has been a great addition to Holy Rosary.
“He’ll end his sermons with a song and he’ll sing a capella,” she said. “It’s just wonderful.”
For many parishioners at Holy Rosary, the church has been a constant force in their lives.
Gentile was baptized, confirmed and married at the church and says her mother was married there too. She and her husband moved away from the neighborhood after they got married, settling closer to Ward Parkway for many years, but she never left the church and drove back each week for services.
After her husband died, she sold her house and returned to the neighborhood where she grew up.
“This was home,” she said.
Several years ago, during a walk around the neighborhood, Gentile said she knew she had made the right decision.
“The church bell was ringing and it sounded so good to hear that church bell ringing and all I could think about was all the good times we had around that church,” she said. “…With us kids, everything centered around the church and Don Bosco.”
The church bells also have held great meaning to Valenti, who lives just two blocks away from Holy Rosary and can hear the bells throughout her day even with her windows closed.
“I do love hearing them,” she says.
Valenti is one of six generations in her family to attend the church — starting with her great-grandparents. She now attends Mass with her daughters and grandchildren.
“It’s just wonderful,” she said.
Although the church may have started with strong Italian roots, the church has also been a spiritual home to members of Cuban, Mexican and Vietnamese decent.
This blending of cultures couldn’t be more evident than in the church sanctuary itself where a statue of the Lady of La Vang, a Vietnamese symbol, was installed in 2013 to sit among the Italian relics and statutes.
“It’s a privilege to have it installed in the Italian church,” Durian said.
Valenti said the congregation now is a mix of ethnicities, ages and backgrounds.
“It’s a mix of all walks of life,” she said.
When it was founded, the church interior was sparse, but over the years it has grown into a beautiful landmark. The building is now home to nearly 30 statues, colorful stained-glass windows, white marble altars and wood pews.
“Every now and then we have tour groups coming into this community and part of the program is to visit the church and to see the interior of the church because you can still see the Italian heritage of the church,” Durian said.
Accurso, who was never a member herself, said the church is unlike any other she’s seen in the United States and made her think instead of her visits to Europe.
“I have never seen a church that I walked in and thought, ‘I am definitely in Italy someplace,’” she said.
Little, who was never a member herself, remembers attending Holy Rosary several times with friends growing up.
“I went down there several times,” she said. “That church rivals any European cathedral that you’ll ever walk into. It’s gorgeous, I mean it’s absolutely gorgeous. They have beautiful Madonnas and stained-glass windows.”
The ornate interior creates an interesting challenge for the church as it faces a possibly growing congregation due to new apartments and townhouses being built nearby. Expansion isn’t an option due the stained-glass panels and windows that line the sanctuary.
Its age also makes it, as Durian describes it, a “high-maintenance church” due to an aging infrastructure.
“The community is very generous in supporting this church,” he said.
In 2016, Holy Rosary will celebrate its 125th year anniversary. Preparations for the celebration have already begun and the congregation is looking forward to more years ahead.
The church continues to serve families with long family histories at Holy Rosary, but new families are also finding a place inside its doors.
“It’s doing good, so we’ve seen a lot of new faces, younger families coming into our church, coming back into our church now. That one is very rewarding on my part because that is what we are called for,” Durian said.