On a brisk winter afternoon, Mike Malatesta and Bill Mackey sit at the end of a long table at the Prince of Piedmont Lodge #475, smack in the middle of Wilmington’s Little Italy. The men sip beers—Malatesta a Peroni and Mackey a Heineken—and chat about the day’s events, something they’ve done many times within these brick walls. Mackey joined the lodge in the early ’90s, and Malatesta became a member about 12 years ago.
“It’s a place to go and relax,” Mackey says as Fox News hums in the background. “You can talk about anything you want—sports, politics, whatever.”
A special camaraderie also draws them to the lodge, something they may not experience when they step out onto North Lincoln Street.
“You come in here and everyone knows your name,” Malatesta says.
“It’s very egalitarian,” quickly adds Mackey of the membership. “You have your Ph.D.s, your millionaires, your people living paycheck to paycheck.”
Sure, the Prince of Piedmont is a social club, but as these two will attest, it’s much more than that. The lodge, steeped in a long, proud history, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and while the focus today has changed since its founding, the members still look to unite the Italian-American community of Wilmington.
Such a milestone is a reason to rejoice, but it’s also a time to reflect. Officers of the lodge acknowledge they have come to an important crossroads, and its path will determine the group’s future.
The roots of the lodge date to before its establishment. During the great Italian migration between 1880 and 1923, millions of people flocked to the United States for a better life.
Established by Dr. Vincenzo Sellaro and five other Italian immigrants in 1905, the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) sought to build a support system for Italians arriving in New York City. Members helped newcomers with becoming U.S. citizens, provided health and death benefits and educational opportunities, and offered assistance with assimilation into American life.
Local networks with similar goals sprouted up all over the country. Wilmington’s Prince of Piedmont Lodge was among them. It became chartered on Feb. 7, 1916, making it an early lodge to join OSIA and the first in Delaware. (The state has three other OSIA-affiliated lodges: Giuseppe Verdi, also in Wilmington, St. Gabriel in New Castle and Caesar Rodney in Dover.)
Members assembled in the old West End Neighborhood House on Lincoln Street, a hub of community activity at the time, especially for the city’s rapidly growly—but ill-prepared—Italian population.
“When they got here, they didn’t have what we have today,” says 77-year-old Phil Modesto Jr., lodge orator. “There was no relief for them, so we formed to help one another.”
Lawyers in the lodge provided legal assistance, and the organization’s members would point them to Italian doctors who could best understand and treat them, he says.
“Everyone spoke English, so it was hard for them to communicate,” says lodge recording secretary Anthony Gentile, 65. “They needed a place to meet and talk to other Italians. They asked each other, ‘What are we going to do now? How are we going to progress? How are we going to find jobs?’ The lodge helped to establish their livelihood and keep people here.”
Jim Lemmon has served as lodge president since 1991. During his tenure, the lodge has regained past
Wilmington’s Little Italy differs from decades ago. The many neighborhood staples have faded away, as places like DiFonzo’s Bakery, Katie’s Italian Restaurant, Pete’s 5 & 10, Marconi’s Clothing Store and Andrisani’s Market now are just warm memories.
A smile curls on Gentile’s face when he thinks back to growing up in this tight-knit community in the ’50s and ’60s.
“You couldn’t get away with doing one thing wrong,” he says. “The news made its way home before you did.”
Times changed, too, at the lodge. Bolstered by high membership numbers, it moved to a location at 1909 W. Sixth St. The lodge became a local fixture, working to preserve and disseminate Italy’s cultural heritage in the area.
The boom didn’t last, though. The lodge’s numbers dwindled in the 1980s, and with only about 100 members, it almost shuttered several times.
“The officers took it upon ourselves, and we would take turns tending bar at night,” says Modesto, a lodge member since 1968. “I brought in a bottle of VO just to keep the place open. It had reached that point.”
He then motions to the gray-haired man sitting across the table. “I give all the credit to Mr. Lemmon,” Modesto says.
Jim Lemmon has served as lodge president since 1991. (“No one else wants the job,” he jokes.) During his tenure, the lodge has regained past glory. It now boasts 800 members.
On Sixth Street, major renovations were made. A bocce court was installed in the backyard, and the membership stopped all the fighting and swearing that gave the lodge a negative reputation.
“We tried to make it a better place,” says Gentile, a member for 26 years. “We made it a place where you could come and meet your friends in the neighborhood, sit down and have a beer.”
The lodge outgrew its old location and had to stop accepting new members. As a result, in 2001 it moved to its current two-story spot on Lincoln Street, which stays open year-round, including holidays.
Much of this success comes from the executive board taking a more active role in the lodge, Lemmon believes. He spends roughly 80 hours a week here, and the other leaders often come by four or five days a week.
Yet Lemmon points to something else as the biggest difference-maker: the strength in membership. Like a century ago, the men and women of the lodge create similar job networking opportunities for one another. They also pour their hearts into a flurry of volunteer efforts.
“Any time we need anything—whether it’s maintenance, construction, a donation, help with affairs or cooking food—they come forward,” the 63-year-old says proudly.
Lodge vice president Joe Dellose, 61, notes people might be surprised by the lodge’s involvement in the community and the amount of money members raise. They’ve donated to places like St. Anthony’s Senior Center, Delaware Special Olympics, Emmanuel Dining Room for the Homeless, Little Sisters of the Poor and the American Cancer Society. They’ve also collected more than $75,000 in school scholarships for members’ families.
The lodge’s future seems to be a frequent source of worry and leads to many impromptu brainstorming sessions. However, the leadership believes that once more middle-aged men and women see the good they can do by celebrating their heritage, helping each other and performing community outreach, they will keep the heart of this Little Italy neighborhood beating for another century.
With a party open to the public, the Prince of Piedmont Lodge #475 will celebrate its 100th anniversary at the Chase Center on the Riverfront April 9 from 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. The event also will honor Jack P. Varsalona, Wilmington University president and a longtime lodge member, for his many contributions to the Italian community and the state. Another lodge member, Steve Silicato, and the City Rhythm Orchestra will provide the evening’s entertainment. Tickets cost $100 per person and include a cocktail reception, dinner and open bar. To purchase tickets or for more info, email the lodge at email@example.com.