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Q&A with the Late Father Roberto Balducelli, Pastor in Wilmington

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The Rev. Roberto Balducelli, longtime pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Wilmington, passed away Friday, just hours before his 100th birthday.

Last December, we visited with Father Roberto at his beloved St. Anthony in the Hills, just over the state line in Avondale, Pa. Even at the age of 99, Father Roberto ventured to the camp almost daily to oversee the completion of the longtime project.

During our conversation, the retired priest described in great detail everything from the arrival of Italians in Wilmington to construction of the church, a grade school, Padua Academy and many other structures and programs.

Father Roberto stressed that the interview not be about him, but that it focus on the parish, its people and all of their accomplishments. He was most excited about the future use of St. Anthony in the Hills as a means to keep families of all races and religions as a strong unit.

—Drew Ostroski

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.” I said, “I know.” Before the war I was in Paris for three years. They had a camp there. 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 and give it to you because you have no money. But 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 for kids.” He said, “What a great idea.” I said, “We have a place but it’s a forest.” He said, “Well, can you cut it down? The kids don’t want to play under the same tree for three months. Go ahead.” I expected to have difficulty. But he was pushing me. I said, “Bishop, it’s in Pennsylvania.” He said, “No problem.” So eventually we bought the place.

DT: I understand you were also involved with building a school around the same time.
RB: In the meantime we announced that we were opening Padua Academy, a high school for girls. We only had 12 girls. But when we made the announcement, we had demand from every parish. We had 70 girls right away. The grade school became too small. So we got permission to build Padua Academy.
One important point: When we built the church, then the grade school and the rectory, I realized that our men came from small villages in south Italy. They have a need of beauty. So we wanted to build a big, beautiful building. We had that in the grade school and we had that in the high school, too. It took seven years to build Padua Academy. We went to such a degree to build it beautifully, that at the end we wanted to have a really good decoration above the main entrance. We had bronze statues depicting the great women of Christianity. That thing cost $74,000. It was given by Ernie Delle Donne. We have a great interest in beauty. At Padua Academy in the floor, we have decorated the floors with all this.

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 that year 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. They did nothing at all. 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, etcetera. And at the end, we build a building for teenagers. That was the idea of what we wanted at the camp. We had no money, of course. No money whatsoever. 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 of the camp was done with volunteer labor, machinery. The volunteer labor was done by companies like DiSabatino, John Julian building roads and things like that.

DT: Do you still have peacocks here?
RB: I do. Before I let them loose. I cannot anymore because the cars go by and the peacocks stand in the middle of the road and they don’t want to move. (He laughs.) But I built a place for them. We also have 40 rabbits. But they were disappearing. I said, “My god, who is taking my rabbits?” One day I was there and a big bird came down, grabbed a rabbit and flew away. So I said, “You cannot have them.” I built an immense cage. And I mean immense. It’s 100 feet long and 18 feet high. Inside I have goats and chickens and that’s where we have the peacocks. They are protected. The foxes cannot get in.

DT: How did you get the materials to build all of these buildings?
RB: Every building is done with recycled material. For instance, even the roads. The bottom of the road was dirt. At that time, they were rebuilding Route 7 and breaking the old concrete. I got all that concrete, mountains of it, and built the bottom of the roads. At that time, when they were paving Route 7, they didn’t know what to do with the leftover blacktop. I was getting them. People were saying, “You’re crazy.” People were saying, “Father Robert is getting all this junk. He’s ruining the camp.” But now you can’t get the concrete anymore. The state wants it. Same with the blacktop. They want it. I was doing it before them. And I was condemned for it. (He laughs.)

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. 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. That is the idea. And if we do that, then building the camp will have been worthwhile.