Our Lady of the Rosary Church: ‘Garland of Roses’ in San Diego
A visit to a blessed edifice of the Italian-American community.
Today, Our Lady of the Rosary Church of San Diego — popularly known as “The Jewel of Little Italy” — shines even brighter after undergoing a major, award-winning restoration in 2021 to highlight its original liturgical art and beauty.
The church was built by its first pastor, Father Sylvester Rabagliati, a native of Italy and student of St. John Bosco, who arrived in San Diego fresh from major assignments in New York and was assigned to shepherd San Diego’s growing Italian community, which had no church of their own.
Father Rabagliati quickly recruited two of the finest Italian artists he could find to decorate the church in the artistic traditions of Italian churches. He wanted his faithful to feel “at home” in their new country while at the same time inspire them to grow in the faith and the love of God and Our Lady.
A building in the Vatican Gardens became the inspiration for the church’s Italian “paper white” façade in Genoese style. The arch over the main doors proclaims the church’s name “Our Lady of the Rosary,” while above it a prominent, colorful round bas relief pictures the Blessed Mother in a blue gown and a white veil. She is shown wearing a crown and holds the Child Jesus as angels look on. On either side, two tall pedestals held aloft by Ionic columns support statues of St. Peter, who was a fisherman by trade before becoming a fisher of men, and Christopher Columbus, who was born in Genoa, Italy. Many of the founding parishioners were fishermen who hailed from Genoa. Portuguese fishermen and their families who also joined the parish helped to build the church.
Our Lady of the Rosary was formally dedicated on Nov. 15, 1925, with Los Angeles Bishop John Cantwell presiding. Inside, the link between those early years and today remains. The restoration and renovation of the interior in 2021 relied upon a historic photo to keep as close as possible to the grandeur of the early church. And today’s new flourishes and additions, such as the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, blend flawlessly with the existing art, thanks to the restoration work of Conrad Schmitt Studios. Religious paintings and decorative art, including historic stencils, fill the church literally from floor to ceiling. Above the sanctuary and on the rear choir wall, expansive murals span wall to wall.
Behind the altar, the reredos, wood finished to resemble marble, has three magnificent colorful statues in three arched shrines outlined by swirling columns. In the central shrine, the largest, a rendition of Our Lady of the Rosary in blue mantle and a white veil, appears holding the Child Jesus dressed in a light red tunic. (In 1951, together with a new altar, this statue replaced the original, which is now located in another area of the church.) In the arched shrines next to her, the Our Lady statue is joined by equally colorful images. In one there is an image of St. Joseph holding a lily in one hand and supporting the Child Jesus, who appears looking at him with love, in the other. On the opposite side, a statue of St. Anna (in Italian) portrays Mary’s mother looking upon her young daughter in a beautiful blue dress. In each shrine, the wall behind the statues is decorated with gold gilding applied in a mosaic pattern.
Following the reredos’ “roofline” are nine small shrines, each holding an angel kneeling in prayer. Three more angels are shown in adoration on the top of the reredos. These are only part of the heavenly host of angels beautifying this decorative church everywhere — 175 in all. In front on the reredos, the tabernacle is centered on the altar of repose that is embellished with a multicolored bas relief of the Last Supper. Alpha and Omega emblems are emblazoned to either side. The church’s major murals and many paintings are the work of distinguished Venetian painter Fausto Tasca, who had relocated to California. Sculptor Carlos Romanelli made the statues, and his friend Tasca painted them. Tasca’s main task was to complete all the paintings, including the two murals spanning the width of the church — the Crucifixion scene over the sanctuary and the portrayal of the Last Judgment spanning the entire rear wall of the church. Tasca completed all the paintings — masterpieces all — in slightly less than two years, finishing with the Last Judgment rendition.
The Crucifixion scene is considered his masterpiece. Against an ominous, dark sky and outline of Jerusalem, dozens of figures look upon and react to the moving scene. Our Lady is shown suffering as Mary Magdalene is depicted kneeling at the foot of the cross, as John is illustrated looking on, as women weep, soldiers stare, one thief looks upon Jesus suffering and the other looks away, and the many bystanders show various reactions. It is an exceptionally moving mural that inspires much contemplation.
Scores and scores of figures fill the Last Judgment tableau, beginning with renditions of Our Lord and our Blessed Mother. Seven angels are shown blowing trumpets over those saved and those condemned, while angels “point” to the Book of Life as other angels “separate” sheep from goats, and patriarchs, prophets and saints “watch” from above. In a lower corner, Tasca painted Father Rabagliati, shown with his hand over his heart and pointing to a model of the church.
In addition to these monumental murals, the artist completed several more scenes that inspire and encourage people to contemplate their faith, such as the 12 Apostles that line the nave’s ceiling.
Each is placed within an elaborately decorated trompe l’oeil “shrine.” Along the center of the nave, six richly colored murals called “Windows into Heaven” line the ceiling representing the following events: Presentation of Mary in the Temple, Nativity, Ascension, Resurrection, Assumption and Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven; the last scene shows the magnificence awaiting her, along with God the Father in majesty, Jesus our Savior holding his cross and motioning to her, and the Holy Spirit hovering above her head as an angel holds her crown.
A very moving painting of the Pietà is placed above the Immaculate Heart side shrine while over the Sacred Heart Shrine the painting portrays Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus. Both are in frames freshly gilded with 23kt gold leaf.
Nearby, another painting traditionally depicts Our Lady of the Rosary handing a rosary to St. Dominic, yet with a slight variation: Jesus appears on her lap and hands a ring to St. Catherine, a symbol of marriage. All the paintings are on canvas and now restored after the toll of the years. Only the artist’s 15 Mysteries of the Rosary painted on the windows did not last past 1951. So, that year, new stained-glass windows of all 15 mysteries of the Rosary were installed. Atop each window, more angels appear — this time with pairs of seraphim.
In 1968, two Barnabite priests were sent to San Diego. A year later, the diocesan bishop appointed the Barnabite Fathers to serve Our Lady of the Rosary. They have remained ever since.
For the 2021 restoration, the current pastor, Barnabite Father Joseph Tabigue, added the Luminous Mysteries to complete the Rosary inside the church. For the addition, the original wood floors under the pews were refurbished and the carpeted wood floor of the main aisle was replaced with rojo Alicante marble, red with white veining, all complemented by white marble borders.
The large medallions of the Luminous Mysteries made in mosaic Byzantine technique are the work of local prize-winning artist Carole Choucair Oueijan. Each large mystery depicted in a colorful, round, four-foot-in-diameter medallion is spaced along the marble main aisle. Original to the church, of course, are the Stations of the Cross, restored and now illuminated with up-lighting.
During the month of the Holy Rosary, this “jewel” sparkles with its traditional “Our Lady of the Rosary Festa” that hundreds upon hundreds attend. It is the largest such festival in the San Diego area and includes the Rosary, Mass, a procession to the embarcadero (waterfront) to bless the boats and adoration of the Eucharist, followed by a feast.
Quando le tempeste della vita minacciano la tua fragile barca, guarda la Stella — invoca Maria (“When the storms of life threaten your fragile bark, look to the Star — invoke Mary”).