By Gabby Bass and Shelbi McGee

Holy Rosary Catholic Church is a church with a deep history and a great love for its community. In expressing the parish’s life, its website quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia).” These three duties are held deeply by the parishioners and are easily visible in Holy Rosary’s liturgy and service.


The church was organized in 1889 as a mission of Saint Paul’s Church (now cathedral) in downtown Birmingham when a number of Catholics moved to the area to work in the newly opened rolling mill. At first priests offered mass in the parishioners’ homes. The neighborhood was initially known as Red Gap, for the adjacent passage through Red Mountain. Soon, however, it became know as Gate City, because it was the gateway to Birmingham’s industrialized heartland. Maclin Ross, who was the president of Gate City Land Company, bought three lots for just $1 for “church purposes” and this was the land on which Holy Rosary was built. The first parishioners were Belgian and Irish. Decades later, according to its website, the church became “one of the first truly [racially] integrated churches in the area.”


Unlike many other surviving church buildings in Birmingham, this building is one parishioners built themselves in wood. The carpenter Gothic church was built to seat about 80 worshipers. One of the parishioners, a cabinet-maker named Mr. A. Walker, built and hand carved the high altar. Since the reforms following the Second Vatican Council, it has served as the “altar of repose.”

Holy Rosary Catholic Church. Photo: David Bains (April 15, 2023).
On November 2, 2021, Fr. Doug Vu poses before the altar at Holy Rosary. The original altar is at the back.

The Church’s Growth

By 1916, eight families (35 souls) attended Holy Rosary and the typical Sunday collection was $3.50, according to the records left by Father Walter J. Tobin. In these years, Mass was only offered every-other week. On alternate Sundays, Catholics would have to go to Saint Clement’s Church in Woodlawn or Saint Paul’s downtown.

Holy Rosary did not become a parish until September 22, 1955, when Archbishop Thomas Joseph Toolen placed it under the leadership of the Salesians of Don Bosco. The first Salesian pastor was Father Aloysius Trifari. Before he died in 1968, he had overseen 120 conversions and erected Saint Bernadette Church further west on Georgia Road in 1959. This church for African Americans remained open until 1973 when the Salesians reopened the former Saint Clement’s Church in West Woodlawn under the name of their patron, Saint John Bosco. Because both St. Clement’s and Holy Rosary were now open to all regardless of race, St. Bernadette Church was no longer needed and it was closed.

In March 1976, Holy Rosary Church was entered into the Alabama State Registry of Landmarks and Heritage because of its architectural significance, its social service continued to grow. In 1986, Brother Charles Todel grew the oratory started by other Salesians in previous years. This oratory was for youth and grew into a summer day camp and after school program. After this Brother Charles Todel started implementing programs from the emergency food service program that was already in place that served Mark’s Village, a housing project in the community.


While the Salesians ended their Birmingham mission in 2014, Holy Rosary continues to display its love for its community. This can be seen through their many programs which are designed to serve the people of Gate City. The two most prominent, and recent, additions to their services are the Food Pantry and Clothes Closet. The congregation gathered on January 20, 2021, to bless the grounds before construction began on their new charity buildings. They gathered again on January 16, 2022, to celebrate and pronounce a blessing over the completion of the construction of the two buildings. The Food Pantry has been very successful at serving the community. The volunteer workers at the Food Pantry distribute nearly 3.5 tons of food weekly and assist almost 600 families every month. Its sister charity, the Clothes Closet, also provides essential items to needy families in the community, not only clothes but appliances and sometimes even vehicles.

Holy Rosary’s welcoming sign. Photo: David Bains (April 15, 2023).

An Enduring Presence

The history of Holy Rosary Catholic Church is deeply intertwined with the religious history of Woodlawn and Gate City. The nearly 140-year-old church is a wonderful representation of the hard work of its original parishioners and the modern charities and community programs testify to the current parishioners’ same commitment to reverent community service. Holy Rosary has been and still is devoted to fulfilling the needs of its community, both physical and spiritual.

Holy Rosary Catholic Church
Location: 7414 Georgia Road, Birmingham, AL 35212
Parish established: 1889
Building erected: 1889
Affiliation: Roman Catholic  


“History.” n.d. Holy Rosary. Accessed November 2, 2022.

Lody, Joseph. 2009. History of the Diocese of Birmingham. Strasbourg, France: Éditions du Signe.

Gabby Bass ‘22 and Shelbi McGee ‘23 were students in Race, Religion, and Ethnicity and America in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2022.

Published April 22, 2023.

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