It's not exactly a reversal of the Biblical story about the Bethlehem inn that turned away pilgrims, but an historic downtown Wilmington church which came near being lost has this Christmas given rise to new lodging ministry.

Surrounding Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a stately brick building at 10th and Madison Sts. which dates to the 1870s, is Sacred Heart Village, a 78-unit apartment complex for the low-income elderly. Six of the units now fill the preserved shell of what used to be the parochial school.

Thirty-four residents, who occupy 31 of the apartments, have moved in since the complex opened Oct. 1.

While the senior housing is a U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development-sponsored project and open to all qualified applicants without regard to religious faith, Sister Mary Ann 

Matarese, its director, said that providing dignified care in comfortable and secure surroundings is very much a spiritual mission.

"We don't require that anyone participate in services or anything like that, but there is definitely a Christian attitude here. That's what the residents themselves bring," she said.

Shirley, a resident who is about to turn 70, agrees. "I can feel the presence of God," she said. She explains that she comes from a Protestant, not Catholic, tradition, has been a Bible teacher and worships at

Residents are celebrating their first Christmas in Sacred Heart Village in downtown Wilmington.

the Temple of Truth. But she adds that her association with the Ministry of Caring has been nothing but a positive experience. 

"Those people are different. They help people without bothering about what they're going to get out of it," she said.

The Ministry of Caring is an interdenominational charitable organization established in Wilmington about 25 years ago by Franciscan Brother Ronald Giannone, who still serves as its executive director. Beginning with the establishment of a 'soup kitchen' in an abandoned city fire station, the ministry has grown to something of a human services conglomerate.

Sacred Heart Village, a $10 million project, is its most ambitious venture and, in many respects, is a good illustration of why the almost stereotypical Franciscan friar from The Bronx has a reputation around town as being unstoppable, despite the odds, once he identifies a need and sets out to address it.

The original parish was founded by Benedictine monks to serve Wilmington's German-speaking  population at a time when the U.S. Catholic establishment was predominantly Irish. It was actually the first of the city's ethnic parishes. When the original need passed, it went on to provide for a thriving, mostly blue collar, community in west center city. That lasted until the suburban migration and the construction of the Interstate 95 freeway changes the character of the neighborhood.

By the 1990s, the Benedictine order no longer could sustain the parish and the Diocese of Wilmington had no purpose in attempting to do so, according to James Van Alstine, Ministry of Caring's communications and projects director. It was widely supposed that the building, with its skyline-piercing steeple, would likely be imploded and the property, which occupies all of a city block except for a row of house along Ninth Street, turned into a parking lot until a developer came along to put a commercial building there.

Brother Ronald thought differently.

With a grant from M.B.N.A. Bank, his organization was able to purchase the entire property in April, 1997, nearly a year after Sacred Heart church was closed and its parish dropped from the diocesan register.

The need was for accommodations for people age 62 and older with limited incomes who were capable of living independently. However, the first two applications to build such a facility under the federal department's program were rejected on the grounds that there were vacancies in existing subsidized housing in the area. With the support of the Delaware congressional delegation, the project was approved on the third try.

Matarese said that may be so, but that "some of those who have come to us [include] some who were homeless or doubling up with relatives." Federal income guidelines are complex but, essentially, those eligible have incomes limited to Social Security and modest pensions.

Again in keeping with the Ministry of Caring approach, Sacred Heart Village has been designed to include features comparable to some in its more upscale counterparts. Although the living units are limited to 540 square feet, they have been designed to get the maximum from that space. The building has a state-of-the-art security system and includes such amenities as a small cafe-style and a hair salon operated by an outside concessionaire. 

Nor has the rest of the former parish property been neglected in the process.

The large church is again being used, albeit on a limited basis so far, for both Catholic and ecumenical services. The diocese has granted it what is known as oratory status -- which allows some of the activities associated with a parish. 

No sooner had work on the L-shaped apartment building which wraps around the church been completed when workers began gutting and rebuilding the church basement. It is to house the Francis X. Norton Center. Once a popular facility for dances, receptions and other activities Van Alstine said that it is intended to resume a community center roll. 

The immediate area is now known as Trinity Vicinity -- after an Episcopal church at Delaware Ave. and Adams St. -- and the broader neighborhood includes a population with a wide economic, social, ethnic and age mix.

Matarese said there is a need in the area for a senior feeding program, which would be different from what is offered at the two Emanuel Dining Rooms. A difficulty recruiting drivers willing to come into the area has limited the availability of delivered meals in that part of town.

At the opposite corner of the property, the convent which once housed the Benedictine sisters who taught in the parochial school and later was the site of an alcoholism program is about to be converted into Il Bambino, a daytime infant-care facility.

If Christmas is the feast of birth, it would seem appropriate that this one also be considered a feast of rebirth,  at least in so far as it applies to what several generations of Wilmington-area residents once regarded as one of the signature houses of faith.

Posted on December 22, 2001

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