WILMINGTON — The site of a former Episcopal cathedral bustled with new life on Sept. 12 when the Village of St. John was dedicated. Fifty-three one- and two-bedroom apartments for seniors have been completed on the grounds of the old St. John Cathedral in the Brandywine Village neighborhood of Wilmington; the first residents will begin moving in next month.
It is the latest endeavor of the Ministry of Caring, the social services organization founded in 1977 by Capuchin Franciscan priest Brother Ronald Giannone. The ministry offers a wide-ranging network of housing, food, medical and other services for the disadvantaged in Wilmington and its surrounding areas.
Brother Ronald, of course, was on hand for the dedication, but he largely stayed in the background as others who had key roles in the village’s construction addressed a standing-room only crowd in what was formerly the worship space at the cathedral. Bishop Malooly offered a blessing. City, county and state politicians were on hand, as was the former dean of St. John Cathedral, located at the intersection of Concord Avenue and Market Street.
The cathedral was built in 1857 on the site of tavern that served the men who worked in nearby mills. Alexis I. duPont, the son of E.I. duPont, founder of the family business, wanted a sanctuary to replace the rowdy bar, according to written accounts. St. John’s closed in 2012, and Brother Ronald came to an agreement with the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware to purchase the church and its campus three years later. Four years later, the Village of St. John was dedicated.
Speakers at the dedication noted that it would not have been possible without support from government at every level and from various private foundations and individuals.
“It certainly took a village to build the Village of St. John,” said Chaz Enerio, the deputy director of administration for the Ministry of Caring.
Enerio said Brother Ronald had a vision of what the cathedral campus could be and heard people tell him why it could not be done. The priest’s response was simple.
“To each of us skeptics, Brother said, ‘It will be beautiful,’” Enerio said, drawing a laugh with his imitation of Brother Ronald’s distinct Bronx accent.
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, who helped steer federal funds to the project, said the village will be a cornerstone for that corner of the city.
“It’s flowing into something so magnificent. We can feel so optimistic about the future,” he said.
State Sen. Harris McDowell said the opening of the Village of St. John sends a positive message. When people see boarded-up windows, “it says this is not a viable neighborhood.” Some people, he added, believed Brandywine Village was not a suitable location.
“If Brother Ronald didn’t develop a project because there were ‘bad guys’ in the neighborhood, he’d never do a thing,” McDowell said. “You can’t tell Brother Ronald ‘no.’ You get on board, and get on board fast.”
The former dean of the cathedral, Very Rev. William Lane, recalled the “bittersweet” day in 2012 when he stood in the pulpit as the church celebrated its final service. “Today I stand here to give the invocation. It is a very sweet moment.”
He called the village “a place of hospitality for those who will call it home.”
The village includes a plaque honoring the late James P. Collins, a decades-long friend of Brother Ronald and former attorney for the Ministry of Caring (and of the Diocese of Wilmington). Brother Ronald’s only public comments were about Collins, who, he said, refused to take any payment for his work for the ministry.
Brother Ronald said that without Collins’ involvement, there would be no Ministry of Caring. Dedicating the Village of St. John to him was an easy call.
“Jim’s help went far beyond setting up the ministry,” he said.
In addition to the apartments – some of which include stained-glass windows from the church complex – the village will include the cathedral hall, a café, library, chapel, community rooms and a commercial-grade kitchen. There is also a small dining area, which includes a mural covering one wall of people instrumental in the village’s creation.