school buildings go, Padua Academy is in a class by itself.
Unlike virtually all its counterparts, and especially those that
date back over the past 60 or so years, it does not present a
utilitarian institutional look.
Visitors arriving through the main
Ninth and Boom Streets entrance step onto an elaborate terrazzo
representation of St. Francis of Assisi surrounded by birds.
There is tendency to sidestep to avoid treading on the holy
brother -- a maneuver
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which draws a smile from the artist who
Rev. Roberto Balducelli, pastor
emeritus of St. Anthony of Pauda parish, with which the
parochial high school is affiliated, points out that 650 girls
in any given year have been walking across the floor mural for
almost 30 years and it is no worse for the wear.
They could hardly avoid
transgressing several murals even if they wanted to. St. Francis
is only the most elaborate of inlaid terrazzo displays
throughout the building -- all of them Balducelli's work. Every
corridor contains them.
What's more, they are
accompanied by several other artistic touches.
Padua Academy is a veritable art
gallery, but it is not intended to be a museum. With all the
accouterments found in any up-to-date school, its function is to
educate. If the setting is deferent from what is found in
comparable schools, both private and public, elsewhere, it, too,
has a purpose.
"It gives a soul to the building,"
"In any school, in any public
building, you can see walls and corridors. There are good
proportions, but that's all geometry. You need something more --
something that sends a message."
A Padua, he explains, the message to
the all-female student body is that the place belongs to
them. Pointing to the framed prints of classic paintings that
line the corridor walls, he recalls that a friend "told me I was
nuts" to expect the display
to remain intact. It has. Not only
has more than a generation of students passed by, but it is not
uncommon for a student to stop amid the bustle which goes with
changing classes to straighten a print hanging off center.
Balducelli delights in relating
another story when the personal tour he provides Delaforum
reaches the gymnasium. The glistening hardwood floor, he
explains, is not new. It was laid some 25 years ago in response
to some of the girls having come to him to complain that the gym
was not up to the standard of other schools. "I told them I
didn't have the money" to upgrade the playing surface. They
organized a fund-raising campaign and came up with the $10,000
"They paid for it, so it's theirs.
The girls really feel that it belongs to them. The whole school
is theirs, so that's why they want to take care of it," he said.
The present generation is no less imbued with that spirit than
their predecessors were, he adds.
That shows up throughout the
building. While other schools built in the 1970s are nearing or
have reached the point of requiring renovation and repair, Padua
Academy appears in many respects to be in virtually mint
condition. Balducelli points to lavatories, chemical laboratory
tables and the library as examples. "They've been used every day
for 30 years and they're as good as new," he said.
The school was built mostly by
volunteer labor. It took seven years .
Father Roberto in one
of the corridors of Padua Academy lined with floor murals
and framed prints of classical paintings.
Balducelli, then pastor, not only
was physically and artistically involved in the work, he was the
person primarily responsible for its being a financially viable
project. There were some major contributors, to be sure, but
much of the money came from parishioners and others of modest
Why not pare down to essentials to
hold costs in check?
The priest is quick to respond: "It
costs no more to build a beautiful school than it costs to build
an ugly one."
That tradition goes back to St.
Anthony's founding pastor, Rev. Francis Tucker. "I remember
Father Tucker used to say Christ was born in a stable, but he
didn't stay there," Balducelli recalls.
The Romanesque church, modeled
largely after San Zeno in Genoa, Italy, replaced a modest wooden
chapel and is widely regarded as one of the most significant
architectural statements in Delaware.
The parish's art tradition predates
his arrival from his native Italy in 1946, but Balducelli is the
person primarily responsible for bringing it to fruition. In a
sense, though, it goes back several centuries. It was in and for
churches and affiliated buildings that much of Europe's great
art originated. The same is true of other cultures and
Balducelli is the first to deny that
he is in any manner responsible for art.
"This isn't art, it's decoration,"
he said. "Art is Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. You can go
there today and Michelangelo's spirit it still there. It's there
in his art."
While it might be argued that future
parishioners and Wilmingtonians are likely to experience a
Roberto Balducelli spirit in and around St. Anthony's, he agrees
that there is some genuine art in the structures.
In particular, he said, there is the
work of the late Egidio Giaroli, a sculptor who worked in Rome.
He did the statue of Christopher Columbus on Pennsylvania Avenue
in Wilmington and the statuary in All Saints Catholic Cemetery
on Kirkwood Highway in Mill Creek Hundred. Giaroli died in 2000.
He did the figures of female saints
above the Padua Academy main entrance. That grouping,
incidentally, includes the late Teresa of Calcutta, who was
living at the time it was done but whose presence indicates an
anticipation even then of a formal declaration of sainthood.
Giaroli also did the bronze relief
on the doors of the church at Ninth and Du Pont Streets. Again,
there is a story. Balducelli said the artist insisted he was
entitled to a finders fee for arranging the commission to do the
cemetery work and agreed to do the doors gratis in lieu of cash.
Balducelli said his own penchant for
artistic expression was developed more or less out of necessity
to satisfy his religious vow of obedience.
His first such assignment came while
interning in a parish in France while studying for the
priesthood at the University of Freiberg in Switzerland. The
pastor asked him to paint the baptistery and he felt incapable
of doing so. Regretting having refused the assignment, he
arranged to take an art course along with theological studies
and returned the following summer to complete it.
Balducelli arrived in Wilmington at
about the time St. Anthony's was preparing for the 25th
anniversary of its founding by completing the church structure.
His contribution was to design the mosaic over the main altar
and to arrange to have it executed in Rome by artist Duilio
Balducelli and a volunteer helper then had the job of mounting
it -- a task made more difficult by the fact the mosaic's
backing was of substandard material because of shortages in
Europe at the time, just after the Second World War. In
particular, the dove representing the Holy Spirit presented a
problem. "It was the only time I prayed that the Holy Ghost
would not descend upon us," Balducelli recalls. To this day, it
He went on to be heavily involved in the construction of St.
Anthony's parochial grade school in the 1950s. It was there that
he first used the terrazzo medium. Terrazzo is material which
consists of marble chips imbedded in dyed cement and highly
polished after setting.
He said he learned that the traditional method of separating the
differently colored sections with bent bronze was especially
time consuming. Realizing when the time came that would make
extensive use of the medium in Padua Academy prohibitive,
Balducelli devised a method which uses molds carved into
conventional drywall to hold the cement. He said he doesn't know
if he invented that procedure, but it worked well.
"I'm Italian. For us, art is not a
luxury; it's a necessity. It nourishes your spirit," Balducelli
said in way of explanation for the effort he has put in over
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