Delaware Public Media

History Matters: Wilmington's Little Italy

May 30, 2014

History Matters digs into the Delaware Historical Society’s archives each month to explore connections between key people, places, and events in history and present-day news.

With the annual St. Anthony’s Italian Festival just over a week away, this month’s History Matters heads to the festival’s home: Wilmington’s Little Italy.

"A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots." - Marcus Garvey

History Matters: : Wilmington's Little Italy

Delaware Public Media examines the roots of Wilmington's Little Italy.  (Producer/Videographer/Editor: Ben Szmidt)

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many Italians began immigrating to America to find a better life. Of those who came to the Mid-Atlantic many settled in a section of West Wilmington between between Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourth Street in the north and south, and DuPont Street and Union Street in the east and west.

One of the major anchors of the Little Italy community is the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. Anthony Albence, a Trustee of St. Antony's, says their involvement with the community has grown and evolved over time.

"Whether it be the religious tradition, certainly our Italian Festival, Padua Academy, other institutions we have like the Antonian, the senior apartments, and the community center," said Albence.

In more recent years, the church has partnered with the Little Italy Neighborhood Association (LINA) to help bring improvements to the community. "Folks like Luigi Vitrone (President of LINA) and others have really invigorated that," said Albence. "We are happy to be an active part of that community; helping to revitalize and strengthen the Italian-American neighborhood around here."

However, the Catholic Church wasn't always viewed so favorably by Little Italy's community. Vitrone says that many of the area's first Italian residents were disillusioned with the Catholic Church, feeling that the Church should have helped them more with their struggles in "the old country."

"When they came to America, Christianity wasn't the first thing on their mind," said Vitrone. "They had actually thought about starting into another kind of religion." In fact, a group of Italians did build what is now the Praise Center Church next to the Woodlawn Library.

In response to this the Catholic Church sent Father Francis Tucker who eventually established St. Anthony's 1925. "He started to change the hearts and minds of the Italian immigrants," said Vitrone.

Throughout the early and mid-20th century, the Italian community grew and started to establish their own businesses in Little Italy, many of which centered around food and personal services like tailoring and photography.

By the early 1990s, however, business and government aid began to dwindle. This inspired Vitrone and several other Little Italy business owners to take action. The group established LIMA and were able to bring many improvements to the area including, street scaping, new light fixtures, and the Little Italy archway, one of the area's centerpieces that welcomes visitors to the historic district.

"It gives us a sense of community in terms of [that] it solidifies a border," said Vitrone. "We want people to recognize where they are and that we have a lot to offer here in terms of businesses, in terms of families to think about relocating here... and also have a lot to offer in entertainment venues."

The area's most iconic venue is St. Anthony's Italian Festival, which brings in about 300,000 people to Little Italy each year over an 8 day period in June. The festival stems from small Italian carnivals hosted by St. Anthony's as early as in the 1930s. It wasn't until the 1975 when Father Roberto Balducelli turned the carnival into what it is today.

"He had an idea for an Italian festival, a festival that would be more true to our cultural roots," said Albence.

The festival features 5 city blocks of cultural events, food, rides, and entertainment. "All the traditional fun of a summer fair... rooted in our Italian tradition," Albence added. "It's really a community anchor."

While the area has seen it's ups and downs, Vitrone says that the resolve of Little Italy's residents are as strong as ever due in part to the area's increasing diversification.

"We welcome everybody to come to our area, to live here, to work here, and to participate with us," said Vitrone. "This is truly a reflection of America's Melting Pot."

This piece is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency dedicated to nurturing and supporting the arts in Delaware, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.