"People say, ‘Wow!’ when they walk in," Father Walter Tonelotto enthused as we talked about the church he pastors, Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii Church in New York City.
That jaw-dropping response happens upon entering the beautiful shrine-like church, which celebrates by its name what the universal Church has for centuries: the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, which is Oct. 7.
The date is particularly memorable for this church because it was dedicated on the Oct. 7 feast day 85 years ago, in 1928.
Located between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Greenwich Village, the church is a lovely testament to Our Lady and the immigrants who have long worshipped here.
Since its founding in 1892, this parish has served New York immigrants, always reminding them of the importance of the Rosary.
It was founded by a missionary from the Scalabrini Fathers, the order that has administered the parish for all these years. For decades, the parish was the anchor for Italian immigrants who settled in this section of the city, as well as their descendants.
The new arrivals were greeted with a touch of home by the church’s Romanesque architecture and its campanile (bell tower), which looks like the campanile at the original Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii, near Naples, Italy.
Since the late 19th century, emigrants who sailed to America from Naples would visit their home shrine to ask Our Lady for a safe trip before their voyage, recounted Father Tonelotto. Once in New York, the new arrivals immediately came to their new church to thank our Blessed Mother for their safe journey — praying before a painting of Our Lady of the Rosary that resembles the image enshrined in Italy.
This iconic image shows the Child Jesus sitting on Mary’s lap, handing a rosary to St. Dominic, while Our Lady offers one to St. Catherine of Siena.
The image has migrated from the earlier church edifices; today, it remains resplendent in a Romanesque arch high above the main altar’s marble reredos — one part of the awe-inspiring beauty of this church. As my wife, Mary, and I walked up the main aisle toward the sanctuary and this image, we felt enfolded in Our Lady’s arms and mantle.
The image is a beautiful reminder of how the Blessed Mother has wrapped countless Catholics in her love and prayers.
The mysteries of the Rosary surround worshippers as well. High above the frieze, where the barrel-vaulted ceiling begins its arch, paintings of the Joyful Mysteries line one side of the nave, as the Sorrowful Mysteries line the other. The artful depictions help the faithful visualize the prayers. The Glorious Mysteries, depicted in round medallions, raise one’s sights higher still, as they line the center of the ceiling. Since these mysteries were painted before the mid-20th century, they predate the Luminous Mysteries, which were added by soon-to-be-canonized Blessed John Paul II.
Lovely decorations surround these masterful images of the Rosary, highlighting ornate architectural details.
An added help to prayer is also present high above: On the frieze around the entire nave, bright-gold letters encircle the congregation with the Hail Mary in Latin.
High in the sanctuary, above the altar, a colossal mural fills the apse’s half dome, telling several stories at once, beginning with another depiction of Our Lady of the Rosary. Mary and the Child Jesus appear in front of a sun and stand on clouds. Our Lady presents St. Dominic with a rosary. He holds and contemplates the crucifix, while St. Catherine of Siena gazes in awe.
One lower corner of the panoramic mural recalls the Oct. 7, 1571, Battle of Lepanto — the miraculous naval victory attributed to Our Lady of the Rosary. Pope St. Pius V asked Europeans to pray for Our Lady’s intercession for a favorable outcome. One angel among the many in the mural hands a military man the major "weapon" of the battle — a rosary, of course.
The frieze around the apse right below the mural proclaims the reason St. Pius V instituted this feast: Non Arma, Non Duces, Sed Virgo Maria Rosarii Fecit Nos Victories ("Neither Arms Nor Leaders, but the Virgin Mary of the Rosary Made Us Victors").
More stories appear on this extraordinary mural. In one part, against a background of sea and sky, rises the campanile from Pompeii, while religious tend to poor immigrants, and a friar gives a rosary to a woman gladly receiving it.
Holy people are also present: St. Charles Borromeo, patron of the Scalabrinians (also known as the Missionaries of St. Charles), and Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, bishop and founder of the congregation of priests and sisters. In 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed John, calling him the "Father of Migrants." Blessed John, who visited this parish at the turn of the 20th century, and St. Martin de Porres were added to the scene in 1985.
The original mural was done in 1937, along with other paintings and decoration by Italian immigrant Antonio D’Ambrosio, who founded D’Ambrosio Ecclesiastical Art Studios. The mural was removed in the 1970s, but it was recreated in 1985 by his son, Anthony, who used his father’s original drawings.
The church is radiant with stained-glass windows dating from the early 1940s yet glow with Old World beauty. They present catechism and Gospel lessons, as well as the lives of the saints.
Brilliant blues, greens, reds and roses shape scenes depicting the sacraments. Then the beatitudes are illustrated using saints. For example, St. Stephen is shown with "The meek shall inherit the earth"; St. Catherine of Siena’s mystical marriage is shown for "the pure in heart"; and St. John the Baptist is shown for "those persecuted for righteousness’ sake."
Windows honor Sts. Peter and Paul and the Four Evangelists, too. Another depicts Pope Leo XIII sending Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini to America, reminding the faithful that she was an immigrant, the first U.S. citizen canonized, as well as a visitor to this parish (but not this edifice). In fact, her sisters taught religious education here for a while.
More stained-glass windows, added in 1986 over the main doors, illustrate such scenes as the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. These windows help explain why this parish offers Masses not only in English, but also in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Tagalog. In many ways, this parish continues to care for new immigrants as it highlights and promotes devotion to Our Lady and her Rosary.
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.
Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii Church
25 Carmine St.
New York, NY 10014