St. Anthony in the Hills founder was a 'priest of the people'
'Father Roberto' was instrumental in establishing St. Anthony in the Hills, in Avondale.
By Richard L. Gaw
Rev. Nicholas Waseline was assigned to be the pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Wilmington on Aug. 19 of last year, and for the next nine months, he would occasionally drive Rev. Roberto Balducelli from the church on DuPont Street to St. Anthony in the Hills in southern Chester County.
Prior to arriving in St. Anthony's, Waseline knew the legend of the quiet, humble man who sat next to him in the car. He'd known that Balducelli arrived in American from Italy after World War II to serve as assistant to Father J. Francis Tucker, and that over the next six decades, he dedicated his life as a servant to his parish. To Waseline, riding next to Balducelli was like sitting at the foot of a master, and he soaked up every nugget of wisdom he could. One day, as they were driving to Avondale, Balducelli looked over at Waseline.
"He told me that the most important thing I need to do as pastor is to be present to the people," Waseline recalled. "He told me that I have to find a way, that being present for them is the only thing I can really do as pastor. He told me to listen to them."
It is nearly inarguable that Balducelli, who died on Aug. 9, only 100 minutes before his 100th birthday, had more impact on his parish and his community than any other member of the Wilmington clergy in the past 60 years.
In 1959, he was was appointed the pastor of St. Anthony's, and spent the next 50 years dedicating himself to the needs of his parish, not only through the spiritual but through bricks and mortar. He established St. Anthony's Community Center, that provides daycare for children, a senior activity center, and a social services program. He founded the Hilltop Renewal Association Program, began the St. Anthony's Grade School, the Padua Academy, three convents, rehabilitative housing. But for many who knew him, perhaps the second love of his life, outside of the parish, was St. Anthony in the Hills, a 140-acre enclave of nature and activity located on the edge of Avondale, where city children could live at least a small part of their lives surrounded by nature.
"He would tell me that he would see young people playing on the city streets near the church," Waseline said. "He wanted to create a place where inner-city children can be with nature with their families, to attend camp for social interaction."
St. Anthony in the Hills, it has been said, was not only conceived by Balducelli, it was partially built with his own hands. Along the way, he enlisted the help of volunteers and accepted donations of recycled materials. On any given Saturday, one day before he would deliver a sermon at Sunday Mass, Balducelli could be found repairing a broken faucet or laying concrete at St. Anthony in the Hills. Prior to being transferred to the retirement center of his religious community in Maryland in June, he visited St. Anthony in the Hills nearly every day.
"St. Anthony in the Hills got done because he knew how to get people to work for him," Waseline said. "He knew how to say, 'I need your help,' and they responded, because they knew if he was involved, it was for a good cause."
If the legacy of Balducelli's life was measured by his accomplishments in the United States, their beginnings were estabished in Italy, where he born in Bologna on Aug. 10, 1913. After graduating from Collegio Murialdo in Albano in 1928, he entered the Rome Minor Seminary and the Oblate Novitiate in Marin. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1936 in Switzerland, and for the next several years -- during the height of World War II -- he served at parishes in Rome, Paris and Albano. He came to the United States in 1946, at the request of Father Tucker, who was looking for a young, energetic priest of Italian heritage who would serve as a conduit between the church and the first- and second-generation Italian families who were settling into the Little Italy section of Wilmington.
As his 100th birthday approached this year, dozens of parishioners were suggesting events in Balducelli's honor -- huge celebrations with dinners and guest speakers and music. He rejected all of it; all he wanted to do on his 100th birthday was to say Mass at St. Anthony and thank the parishioners for all that they had done for him. He never got back; reluctantly, he accepted Waseline's suggestion that due to his failing health, making the trip to Wilmington on Aug. 10 would not be a good idea.
Finally agreeing that he would not attend Mass, Waseline asked Balducelli what he wanted to tell the parishioners if were able to attend. "He told me, 'I would tell them that I love them. I would tell them that I will always be with them. I would tell them to stay close to their family, and to treasure their faith and their church.'"
He died weeks later.
When Balducelli's funeral plans were opened, he stated that he wished to be buried in a simple casket, laid to rest in his work clothes, and receive no eulogy. At his Aug. 13 viewing, lines of those paying their respects to Father Roberto wrapped around the Wilmington church -- everyone from Vice President Joe Biden to life-long parishioners, to laborers dressed in work clothes on their lunch hour. His Aug. 14 service drew hundreds more.
In the wake of Balucelli's passing, Waseline is not certain what the future holds at St. Anthony in the Hills, but he has been speaking with its board of directors to determine what direction the Avondale location will take. He said that the governance model at St. Anthony in the Hills will need to restructured.
"There is an uncertainty, and many people are pondering what is going to happen now that he (Balducelli) is not among us," Waseline said. "We're on the verge of a mystery. I'm confident we're going to do well, abut it's going to a period of re-founding. We are a parish in mourning, but we are also a parish of prayer, and we can move on."
Moments before he was assigned at St. Anthony's, Waseline stood in quiet contemplation in a small room of the church. Very quietly, Balducelli walked up to him. "There is really only one thing you need to do," he told Waseline. "Just listen to what the people say to you."
"Without saying it, he taught me that humility is a very powerful message," Waseline said. "Because people saw him as a humble man, they were not afraid to approach him on anything. His humility made him available. He was the people's priest ... he was truly a man of the people."