Forty Years of Service to the Poor

Led by the indefatigable Brother Ronald Giannone, the Ministry of Caring has spearheaded dozens of charitable projects aimed at the under-served. This month, it launches another: The $22 million Village of St. John.

Brother Ronald Giannone established the Ministry of Caring in Wilmington in 1977 with a house, purchased for $5,000, that became a shelter for homeless women.

But that was just a start. Giannone has always been a big thinker, and over the intervening 40 years, he has grown the ministry into a charity that runs 20 programs in 29 buildings throughout Wilmington, with an annual budget of about $11 million.

Childcare, dining rooms, emergency shelters, long-term and transitional housing for the homeless, for senior citizens, for men and women suffering from AIDS and HIV: If there’s a need, the Ministry of Caring is there to fill it. Throughout those four decades, Giannone has been guided by the ministry’s basic principle: “The poor should not be treated poorly.”

This month, the charity will launch another massive project—the transformation of the former Cathedral Church of St. John, a landmark in Wilmington’s Brandywine Village for more than 150 years, into a residential complex designed to serve moderate and low-income seniors and the working poor, age 62 and older.

Early in December, the ministry will go to settlement and close the deal to purchase the cathedral complex from the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware for $651,800—a steep discount from the original asking price of $1.7 million. A grant from the Longwood Foundation will cover the purchase price.
Following a groundbreaking ceremony Dec. 15, construction will begin, says Priscilla Rakestraw, the ministry’s director of development. The project, dubbed the Village of St. John, now carries a $22 million price tag, and all but $2 million has been raised, primarily through a combination of grants from foundations and businesses, the state, Wilmington and New Castle County governments, and a variety of tax credits available for developing low-income housing and restoring historic sites.

Ready by 2019

Repurposing the former Cathedral Church of St. John, which is more than 150 years old, will be key to the new project. Photo by Moonloop Photography

The goal, Rakestraw says, is to have 53 apartments—a combination of efficiencies and 1- and 2-bedroom units—ready for occupancy by about 80 residents by December 2019. Seventeen units will be created within the church and the adjoining dean’s house. The other 36 will be in a new three-story building on the southwest side of the 2.6-acre property.

The project represents not only a repurposing of a 19th-century structure to meet 21st-century needs, but also an opportunity to spur a revitalization of Brandywine Village, which has battled a steady decline over the past 40 years.

“I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be part of this project,” says Kevin Wilson, a principal of Architectural Alliance, which has handled all the design work. “We’re preserving history and we’re anchoring the neighborhood.”

Brandywine Village had a history as a bustling neighborhood dating to the Revolutionary era, when the Green Tree Tavern occupied the corner of Market Street and Concord Avenue. In 1856 Alexis I. du Pont, son of the founder of the DuPont Co., chose the corner as the site for a new Episcopal church. A year later, as construction was beginning, du Pont suffered fatal burns while trying to rescue workers from an explosion at his family’s powder mill on the Brandywine. While on his death bed, Rakestraw says, he changed his will to ensure that there would be sufficient funds to complete the church.

Construction projects in 1885, 1919 and 1952 added a parish hall, a parsonage and a spacious kitchen as the congregation grew and the complex became the headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware.

A Neighborhood in Decline

More recently, the neighborhood, once home to trendy restaurants and hardware and paint stores, fell into decline. Its most prominent businesses now are a Dollar General, a couple of fast food outlets and some liquor stores. Meanwhile, the church’s membership declined, and the shrinking congregation didn’t have the resources to maintain the aging buildings. Church members eventually joined other congregations, the diocese moved its offices to Brandywine Hundred and the complex was put up for sale.

Eighty-five-year-old Edie Menser, a longtime parishioner who remembers first visiting the church when she was 4, recalls “Christmas Eve services with trumpets blowing” and choir members heading across the street to Hearn’s Restaurant for breakfast between the two services on Easter morning.
“I was married here, my children were married here, my great-grandchildren were baptized here. Those memories are precious,” she says. “I would have loved for the church to have stayed open, but it’s going to be used, and that’s important.”

With the apartments bringing new residents into the area, existing businesses in Brandywine Village should benefit, and others should be encouraged to locate there, Giannone says. “If you put $22 million toward a project, you’re going to change the neighborhood for the better.”

The restoration and renovation project will preserve both existing buildings’ exterior, including the stained glass windows in the cathedral and chapel. The new building, Wilson says, “has been designed to be harmonious with the church,” using the same stone and the same finishes, “but its massing will be simpler” so it won’t diminish the prominence of the church.

While matching the church’s early Gothic style, the new building will incorporate contemporary features to maximize its energy efficiency, including rooftop solar panels for heating hot water.

Since the granite for the church was quarried in nearby Alapocas, finding matching stone proved somewhat of a challenge, Wilson says. A local supplier, the Delaware Brick Co., located not only a dark gray granite that matches most of the existing church but also some oxidized stone that looks much like portions of the church exterior that have acquired a reddish tint over the years.

Changes on the Inside

“We met with both the state and the city historic preservation folks, and they all agreed it was a good match,” Wilson says.

Also being preserved are two engraved marble plaques, honoring Alexis I. du Pont and his wife, Joanna, for their roles in the church’s construction.

But there will be significant changes to the interior.

While the small chapel will be maintained for interdenominational worship, the cathedral’s sanctuary will be transformed into a common area, a wide-open gathering space for residents to meet, relax, play cards and enjoy group activities. The hand-carved pews in the cathedral are in excellent condition, and the ministry hopes to find a church in the area that could use them, Rakestraw says.

The large kitchen on the main floor will be ripped out and replaced by a combination kitchen/café.
The greatest challenge will be in repurposing the numerous classrooms and offices that line the hallways on the west side of the cathedral.

Some of the rooms are large enough to be envisioned as two-bedroom units with an open design. “I’d want this one for myself,” Rakestraw says as she guides visitors into a bright and airy second-floor space that once was used for choir rehearsals.

But the size and placement of many of the offices and classrooms can lead to design challenges or surprising results. “We have to carefully design spaces to keep their unique architectural features, like the ornate woodwork in the ceilings and walls,” Wilson says. In several places, stone fireplaces surrounded by wood panels will become the focal point of a new resident’s living room.

In addition to the changes inherent in transforming offices into apartments, structural improvements are also needed. For example, century-old leaded glass windows will be removed and replaced with energy-efficient frames and glass.

The construction of the new building will create a more or less triangular courtyard in the area between the structures, a place Rakestraw expects to become popular with residents as a picnic ground or for outdoor conversations.

24-hour Security

As part of the purchase, Rakestraw says, the ministry is acquiring a parking lot on the north side of

The altar area of the former Cathedral Church of St. John. Photo by Moonloop Photography

Concord Avenue that runs from the rear of businesses on Market Street west to Tatnall Street. Residents and visitors will be able to use the lot, and there also will be a group of handicap parking spaces along the semicircular driveway at the Tatnall Street entrance to the complex.

“The best part of this,” Rakestraw says, “will be the security—24 hours a day, on site. It’s not going to be a place that people can run in and out of.”

The construction marks a continuation of the ministry’s steady growth under Giannone, whose leadership has led to more than a score of projects aimed at housing, feeding and employing the poor.
It began in early 1977, when Giannone, recently assigned to the St. Francis Priory off Silverside Road in Brandywine Hundred, confessed his disappointment to his superior that work at the retreat house didn’t give him the opportunity to help the poor. “What’s stopping you?” his superior replied, and soon he was on the phone and knocking on the door of state social service agencies trying to find out where help was most needed.

He learned of homeless women sleeping under bridges in Wilmington and grandparents caring for infants and toddlers because their parents were in prison.

“That was my baptism by fire to conditions on the East Side of Wilmington,” he says.

He found a home for sale for $7,500 on North Van Buren Street, talked the price down to $5,000, rounded up donations to pay for it, enlisted the support of volunteers and other religious orders, and opened the Mary Mother of Hope House for homeless women. Since then the Capuchin Franciscan friar has built an operation that, among other things, serves 170,000 meals a year at its three dining rooms and provides care for 153 at-risk children at three centers in the city.

The Mary Mother of Hope House was followed by the first Emmanuel Dining Room in 1979 and the second three years later. In 1983, the ministry opened the Mary Mother of Hope transitional residence for single women and Mary Mother of Hope House II, an emergency shelter for homeless women with children.

Two years later came a job placement center and House of Joseph I, an emergency shelter for homeless employable men. The third Emmanuel Dining Room opened in 1987, followed in 1989 by a distribution center, which provides free clothing, home supplies and furniture for people in need.

The St. Clare Van, a health services outreach collaboration with St. Francis Hospital, was launched in 1992, the year the first childcare center opened.

In 1995, three more programs were launched: St. Francis Transitional Residence, providing housing for homeless women and their children; a dental clinic and a Samaritan Center, which helps the poor and homeless with housing referrals, case management, hygienic services and other supports.

From 1997 to 2000, four more housing initiatives were created: House of Joseph II, a permanent residence for homeless people living with AIDS; Nazareth House I and II, transitional housing for families; and Sacred Heart Village I, 78 one-bedroom apartments for the elderly.

Next came Bethany House I, in 2002, providing long-term housing for women with disabilities, and Il Bambino, in 2003, an infant care program for the poor, working poor and homeless.

In 2007, the ministry opened Maria Lorenza Longo House, a long-term residence for single women, followed in 2010 by Padre Pio House, a long-term residence for men with disabilities.

The Mother Teresa House, providing affordable independent housing with supportive services to low-income men and women disabled by HIV/AIDS, opened in 2011, along with the Josephine Bakhita House, a residence for recent college graduates dedicating a year to service of the poor and hungry.
Bethany House II, also serving women with disabilities, opened in 2014.

The ministry’s most recent venture, Sacred Heart Village II, opened earlier this year to provide housing for low-income seniors on Wilmington’s East Side.

Many of those projects, Giannone says, had significant support from MBNA, one of the first banks to prosper in Delaware after passage of the Financial Center Development Act in 1981, and the generosity of the late Charles M. Cawley, who started the credit-card bank in 1982.

Cawley “wanted the bank to have a social conscience,” and one of his early moves was to hire Francis X. Norton, a former leader of social programs in the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, and then “assigned him to work with me,” Giannone says.

“Charlie became very hands-on. I would tell him how much money we would need, and he would support us,” Giannone says.

That relationship led to, among other things, construction of the Guardian Angel Child Care on Wilmington’s East Side and the development of Sacred Heart Village I on the grounds of a former Catholic Church in the Trinity Vicinity neighborhood.

In addition to funding multiple projects, Cawley instilled a culture of community service at MBNA that generated a stream of dependable volunteers for the ministry, Giannone says.

Now 67, the Bronx native shows no signs of slowing down—and neither does his ministry.

“I’ll be here as long as God gives me life and my superiors allow,” he says.

And the Village of St. John, with its strong foundation and granite walls, will be around even longer.

Ongoing Needs

The Ministry of Caring has ongoing needs for volunteers, including assisting at its childcare centers, helping with food preparation and service at its dining rooms, helping with activities for senior citizens and sorting donated clothing or assembling hygiene kits at its Samaritan Outreach Center.
Details on volunteering are available at ministryofcaring.org.

The ministry is currently running a drive for food and necessities that are essential to serving the poor. The Emmanuel Dining Room needs large family-size containers of vegetables, pasta, spaghetti sauce, fruit, cereal, beans, pancake mix, syrup, oatmeal and tuna fish. DART prepaid passes enable the ministry’s shelter residents to seek employment, and gift cards from local grocery stores enable the dining room and shelters to purchase emergency provisions. The shelters for homeless men, women and women with small children need canned/packaged nonperishable foods and paper products, as well as new or gently used coats, towels, twin-size blankets and sheet sets. Monetary donations are also accepted.

To arrange donations, contact:
ReeNee at 652-3228
(mlafate@sacredheartvillage2.org) or Priscilla at 652-5523
(prakestraw@ministryofcaring.org).

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