A Year to Celebrate

St. Anthony’s marks a trifecta of milestones in this year, including the 50th anniversary of the Italian Festival

By Catherine Kempista

Located in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood at the corner of Ninth and Dupont Streets, St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church is a landmark not only for its soaring Romanesque Revival-style architecture but also for the central role it has played in the lives of its community members for a century.

Remarkably, 2024 marks not just one but three significant milestones for the St. Anthony’s community: the 100th anniversary of the church’s founding and charter, the 70th anniversary of the founding of its grade school, and the 50th anniversary of the St. Anthony’s Italian Festival.

According to Pastor Rev. Mark Wrightson, OSFS, the key to the church’s longevity especially when other parishes have had to consolidate or close — boils down to “adaptation.”

“We’ve been able to allow ourselves to adapt to what the current need is, so that we can continue to serve,” says Wrightson.

St. Anthony of Padua Church grew out of a desire to provide a parish in the Diocese of Wilmington to serve the needs of the growing Italian immigrant population that started settling in the city in the late 1880s.

According to A Labor of Love by Cari DeSantis, “Primarily Catholic, these new Americans wanted a place to worship that understood their cultural and religious traditions. They wanted a church of their own.”

The groundswell of support led then-Bishop John J. Monaghan to appoint Father J. Francis Tucker, OSFS, the first American-born Oblate, to establish a parish for the community in 1924. Tucker, who spoke Italian, quickly got to work raising funds and forming committees for his new national parish, which would be defined by its Italian culture, not by neighborhood boundaries. The first mass was held in a temporary structure on Christmas Eve, 1924.

“Father Tucker was a tremendous fundraiser, marshalling amazing levels of support at the beginning of the parish’s life,” says Anthony Albence, parish trustee for St. Anthony’s and steering committee member for the Italian Festival. “He had a lot of connections in the community and just brought people together.”

A testament to the power of the strong ties of community: Descendants of many of the church’s founders and early community members are still involved with St. Anthony’s 100 years later.

Adam DiSabatino is a fifth-generation descendant of Ernesto DiSabatino, a St. Anthony’s founder and owner of Ernest DiSabatino and Sons, Inc., known today as EDiS. Ernesto and his company managed the structural work of building the church, alongside countless volunteers who donated their time and artisanal talent to the project.

 

An Evolving Legacy

“I take great pride in the legacy the family has left in the city of Wilmington and look forward to the future legacy we can also provide,” says DiSabatino, vice president of EDiS. “When I go into the church, see the stone masonry, and look at some of the stained-glass windows that have the names of my relatives, it creates an immense sense of pride that our family has been here for 115-plus years.”

DiSabatino’s story is commonplace in the St. Anthony’s community, as many can point to generations before them who were either involved in the early days of the church, the founding of the school, or the first years of the Italian Festival.

“I’ve been here since birth,” says Judy White, principal of St. Anthony of Padua Grade School. “So, all of my sacraments, all of my children’s sacraments, my wedding, everything [happened here].”

For more than 23 years, White has been an integral part of the grade school, serving as a counselor before becoming principal. For her, the key to both the parish’s longevity and the school’s success is its ability to evolve to meet the needs of the community, like when she implemented comprehensive special education services for students in 2016, becoming the first diocesan elementary school to do so.

“We saw the need as it was growing,” says White. “And so, for me with a counseling background, when I became an administrator and realized that every year we would have to ask for one or two children to leave because we didn’t have the means to help them — that bothered me immensely. And so, it became part of a Middle States goal.”

With dedicated funding and staff resources, the grade school, which serves between 180-200 students annually, provides some level of special education services for about 40 students with an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or accommodation plan.

For White, these innovations, along with a focus on connection to its Wilmington community and the loyal support of legacy families, have ensured a strong grade school for 70 years.

Although most Delawareans associate St. Anthony’s Italian Festival with its rides, games, and specialty food, many don’t realize it’s the parish’s largest fundraiser for the school.

“Without the festival, I don’t feel like I would have the school that I have, with all of the services we provide,” says White. “We are so grateful to the families that help us run the festival year after year.”

 

Gateway to Summer

Originally organized by parish families and run solely by volunteers, the Italian Festival has evolved from a volunteer-led event with a handful of rides and games and homemade Italian delicacies to an annual summer staple, attracting 60,000 people over eight days to festival grounds that encompass nine city square blocks. This year’s event will run from June 9-16.

Albence, a fourth-generation member of St. Anthony’s, has had a front-row seat to the growth of the festival.

“(My dad) used to do all the signs for the festival by hand in our garage,” he says. “So, it’s hard to believe we’re here 50 years later, and now, it has passed on to our generation.”

As the festival has evolved, so have some of its features, including advanced security measures, an admission fee, increased midway rides and games, and a greater use of vendors. Volunteers are still incredibly important to festival operations, and 60-70 are on hand each night of the eight-day run.

Despite the changes, a key feature of the event remains its family-friendly environment.

“For me, when my kids were little, all of the volunteers were parents and their families, and you feel comfortable letting your kids run,” says White. “It still holds true today.”

For the 50th anniversary, patrons can expect the same festival atmosphere they have come to expect with a few changes, including cashless transactions, an advanced ticket purchasing option through Eventbrite, and some food trucks on site. Local restaurants and food vendors, including Piccolina Toscana, La Casa Pasta, Luigi & Giovanni, Bella Cucina, and Il Pomodoro, alongside the ever-popular panzarotti stand, will serve up Italian meals and delicacies.

And for its 50th year, Majestic Midways will be back with their full slate of rides for all ages and midway games.

“It’s like coming home each year,” says Scott Inners, president of Majestic Midways. “St. Anthony’s works very hard to bring people together in a good, fun, safe atmosphere.”

 

Capital Campaign, More Milestones

As the St. Anthony’s community celebrates its trifecta of anniversaries this year, parish leaders have an eye to the future, embarking on a capital campaign to address parish needs.

Work on one of the identified needs, an enhanced audio-visual system for the church, was completed earlier this year in advance of Easter services. Additional projects include replacement of paving in front of the school, replacement of the floor in Fournier Hall, and repairs to the church’s original 1926 roof, among others.

St. Anthony’s will continue to celebrate milestones over the next two years, with the anniversary of the laid cornerstone of the current church in 1925 and the first mass in that building on Palm Sunday, 1926.

For many current parishioners, these anniversaries also celebrate the accomplishments of their family members in service to the church that provided a spiritual home for the Italian American community.

“Our focus in the centennial is stability and sustainability of the parish in the 21st century,” says Albence. “We’re looking at how we maintain and care for, how do we treasure and nurture these resources that have been gifted to us by our ancestors. And how we can be the stewards of them going forward.”

— For more information on St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Festival, visit sapde.org.