We visited with Father Roberto Balducelli at his beloved St. Anthony in the Hills in Avondale. Father Roberto, who turned 99 last August, still ventures to the camp almost daily. The retired priest from St. Anthony’s of Padua Church in Wilmington stressed that the interview not be about him, but focus on the parish, its people and their accomplishments. He is especially excited about the future use of St. Anthony in the Hills as a means to keep the family unit strong.
DT: How did St. Anthony in the Hills come about?
RB: In 1959 I was named pastor at St. Anthony of Padua. And one day, about a year later, there were many kids playing inside and outside the church. It was summer. I said to one of my assistants, We need a place for the kids to play. He said, You need a camp. So, in the evening, I met with one of our parishioners who was building new houses. I asked him if he could find a place to build a camp for kids. He said tomorrow I will take you to see the place. He picked me up and we traveled, traveled, traveled. I said, Where are you going? He said Pennsylvania. I said, Pennsylvania? I don’t want a camp in Pennsylvania. He said it’s a nice place. He said the only problem was I thought it was only 10 acres. I was going to buy it andgive it to you because you have no money. He said, It’s 140 acres. They want $100,000. I said, Frank, let’s go home. He said, I want you to see it. I went there and I see the place, all the trees … my God, I fell in love with it. But we had no money. So we didn’t talk about it for a year. I thought that if I talked to the bishop, he would say no. A year later I went to see the bishop. I said, Bishop, we need a camp forkids. I expected to have difficulty. I said Bishop, it’s in Pennsylvania. He said, No problem. So eventually we bought the place.
DT: What was your vision for St. Anthony in the Hills?
RB: In 1974 we finished building Padua Academy. My question was now, What are we going to do with the camp? We hadn’t done anything at the camp because we were building Padua Academy. I remember during the presidential election before that that candidates from both parties said that if they were elected they would make a tremendous effort to strengthen the family unit because there was a sense of disintegration of the family at that time. The election was held and nothing happened. What is needed in society is more church. And family is the center of everything. So we wanted to build a camp and youth and family center. A place where the family can develop itself. We want facilities for everything. For instance, to have a playground for children from 1 to 5. The family can come there and have everything needed for small children. We would also have a place for older children: mini-golf, soccer fields, a swimming pool, etc. And we would build a building for teenagers. That was the idea of what we wanted at the camp. We had no money, of course. So we could not even think that the church could pay for it.
DT: How did it become reality?
RB: Two people came up with the idea of having a fundraiser every year. Phil DiFebo of Feby’s came up with a crab feast. We did it and it made about $20,000 every time. Then another man, Harry Simeone, had the idea of having a golf tournament. We’ve had that for about 18 years now. So that raised about $60,000. It costs $40,000 a year just for insurance. All the construction was done with volunteer labor, machinery. The volunteer labor was done by companies like DiSabatino, John Julian building roads and things like that.
DT: How close are you to finishing the project?
RB: At this moment, the construction is more or less over. We have to finish the children’s playground and maybe one building. The idea is now to take care of the families. My idea that we’ve not done yet is to create an association of families—a membership. Because now people think they are a stranger. They say, “Can we come in?” We use the camp now from Monday to Friday for children. Saturday and Sunday, nothing. We do have some people come to swim. So during that time we could have a family festival. This is important to me. To me, the family is the greatest necessity for the future both for the church and the states. We want a place with something that goes for father, mother and children. A place where they can go and be together and share with one another. A place to celebrate the family. That would be the interest in the future. And if we do that, then building the camp will have been worthwhile.