Prior to World War II, the enormous structure on the 400 block of S. Chester St. was the largest Polish parish in Baltimore, serving the Poles who lived in Fell’s Point, Upper Fell’s Point, and Canton.
At its peak, Holy Rosary counted 2,500 families—about 8,000 “souls,” according to a full history posted on the church’s website—within its widely-spaced walls, in a Romanesque building that, by virtue of its design, needs no interior columns or supports.
Today, 125 years after Father Peter Chowaniec celebrated the first Mass on Dec. 8, 1887, there are 500 families registered at the church, according to Father Andrzej Totzke, the pastor. Of those, about 70 percent are Polish to the degree of speaking the language.
“The biggest Mass right now is the Polish Mass,” said Totzke.
He noted that there are roughly 30,000 people of Polish descent in the metro-Baltimore area.
“For me, the goal is to get these people back to the Church,” he said. “This is my challenge.”
Though the Polish community has been Holy Rosary’s focus since its founding, Totzke stressed that all are welcome.
“We try to incorporate the two cultures together,” said Totzke of the Polish and American aspects of his parish, and in the city in general. “It works, much better than it used to.”
Holy Rosary Church formally celebrated its 125th Jubilee with a celebration Mass on Sunday, Dec. 9, celebrated by the Most Reverend Denis J. Madden, plus other priests from the Society of Christ for Polish Emigrants, a worldwide Catholic group that has been active at Holy Rosary since the 1970s.
The celebration also included priests from other Baltimore parishes, such as St. Leo’s in Little Italy, St. Casimir’s in Canton, St. Brigid’s in Canton, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, near Patterson Park.
Holy Rosary Church is unique among Catholic churches in Baltimore in that it is the Archdiocesan Shrine of Divine Mercy. The designation came in 1993 at the request of then-Pastor Ronald Pytel, who was devoted to the teachings of Sister Faustina Kowalska, a nun later named a Saint by the Catholic Church.
In 1995, then-Pastor Ron Pytel underwent heart surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Beyond a stenotic aorta with a calcium dome over the valve, doctors told Pytel he had a severely damaged left ventricle. Following surgery, he was to lead a life very limited by the weakness of his heart.
Pytel made it through the risky surgery and several scares during the next year. According to his personal testimony, also available on the Holy Rosary Parish website, he celebrated a vigil on Oct. 5 in preparation for the Pope’s visit to Baltimore. The theme of the reflections was mercy.
After a week, Pytel said that he ran back and forth from the stadium following the Pope’s visit, looking for people missing from his group. He was amazed that he had no trouble breathing.
On a subsequent visit to the hospital, Pytel reported that his doctor told him, “Someone has intervened for you… Your heart is normal.”
Pytel resumed a life of activity until his death, and the Catholic Church attributes his recovery to his prayer to Sister Faustina.
On April 7, 2013, Holy Rosary will have a Divine Mercy Celebration, which includes a visit from Archbishop William Lori, of the Baltimore Archdiocese, and formal recognition of a relic of Pope John Paul II.
According to Pastor Totzke, Holy Rosary tries to reach out to younger people throughout the year.
“If children want to come here, then the parents will want to come too,” he said.
Holy Rosary currently has about 60 children enrolled in its Polish school, learning the country’s language and history as well as religious teachings.
There are also youth groups for teenagers under 20, and young adults ages 20-25.
by Erik Zygmont