As 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 created it.

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," Balducelli said.

"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 it required.

"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 means.

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 traditions.

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 Cambellotti.

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 hasn't.

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 many years.

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Posted on November 17, 2001

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