Kathy Kirby had just dropped her kids off at school in Anne Arundel County and was en route to New York for a retreat when she stopped for an hour — as planned — to pray in the dimly lit basement chapel of the Baltimore Basilica.
The Pasadena native was the latest in a stream of worshippers who have been praying continuously at the Basilica this week in hopes of bringing peace to the streets of Baltimore.
In honor of the centennial of the “miracle of the sun” at Fatima, Portugal, on Oct. 13, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has been conducting its first-ever Rosary Congress — a schedule of around-the-clock prayer — at seven sites, most prominently the 196-year-old Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Cathedral Street.
Volunteers have held continuous vigil at the seven locations since Monday evening, with at least one designated “adorer” praying the rosary aloud every hour on the hour.
It was a century ago in May that the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three shepherd children in central Portugal, assuring them that if the world were to repent, follow Christ and pray the rosary every day, peace would follow.
The promise is believed to have been punctuated with a miracle 100 years ago Friday, when thousands of people reportedly saw the sun appear as an opaque, spinning disk in the sky above Fatima, then cast multicolored lights across the landscape.
Thirteen years later, as pilgrims continued streaming to the site, the Roman Catholic Church declared the miracle “worthy of belief.”
The Rev. James Boric, rector of the Basilica, said he helped organize the congress as a way of applying the message of the Fatima events — that prayer and penance can bring about miracles — to Baltimore, where the homicide rate is on pace to set an all-time record this year.
If enough people unite for adoration, the rosary and confession, Boric said, even a problem as seemingly intractable as violence in Baltimore can be solved.
“I can guarantee that if we do it, we are going to change the city,” he said.
The congress has included several other scheduled events, including Masses for children and families, and a talk on the Fatima story by the Rev. Andrew DeFusco, associate pastor of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
About 100 people attended DeFusco’s address Wednesday night at the Basilica.
Boric spoke immediately afterward.
“Those three kids showed us the way to holiness — it’s that simple,” he said, before urging worshippers to pray the rosary daily, attend Mass and observe some form of penance.
He asked the crowd to consider fasting for peace in Baltimore on Friday — and “then let’s see what happens.”
Catholics around the globe celebrated the centennial of the first Fatima events last spring.
It was on May 13, 1917, that the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to the three children, Lucia Santos, and her two cousins, Jacinto and Francisco Marco, in Fatima, a parish in Portugal.
They reported that Mary, whom they called Our Lady of Fatima, asked them to return to the same place, at the same time, on the 13th of the month for the next five months.
It was on the fifth of those days that the “miracle of the sun” is said to have taken place, making her prophecy a reality.
In the opening Mass for the Congress on Monday, Archbishop William E. Lori said Mary’s message was one of repentance and hope during what was then known as “the war to end all wars” — World War I.
He said that message should resonate at a time when violence seems an overwhelming problem, from the rash of homicides in Baltimore to mass shootings such as the one in Las Vegas that killed 58 people less than two weeks ago.
The Congress isn’t the first example of faith leaders praying for peace in Baltimore.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has regularly held peace walks through the streets, stopping to pray at crime sites, and pastors from various denominations marched through the streets of West Baltimore during the rioting that followed the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.
And Bishop Denis J. Madden, the urban vicar and auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Baltimore Archdiocese, regularly leads peace walks through the city, leading prayers at sites affected by violence.
Catholics held the first Rosary Congress in 1979, when Polish worshippers prayed continuous rosaries for a week that Pope John Paul II might be given the opportunity to return freely to his native land, Poland, which was then governed by a Communist regime that persecuted Catholics.
Making his return in June of that year, he was surrounded by ecstatic crowds — a spectacle many believe sparked a rejuvenation of the national spirit that led to the Solidarity movement and, ultimately, liberation from Communist rule.
The first American Rosary Congress was held in Washington, D.C., in 1988, at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, now a basilica.
The Baltimore congress is to end with a 7 o’clock Mass celebrated by Madden on Friday.
For her part, Kirby has no doubt that the week of prayer will have an effect.
“I think it was Solzhenitsyn who said the dividing line between good and evil runs right through the human heart,” she said. “If we let the Lord change our hearts, anything can happen.”