Wilmington religious leaders Brother Ronald Giannone, Father Roberto Balducelli, Sister Jean Cashman, and Reverend Maurice Moyer were powerful catalysts for social change. Each carved a sanctuary of moral guidance, activism, and community support in late 20th-century Delaware.
Brother Ronald Giannone’s Vision
Brother Ronald Giannone inaugurated Delmarva’s first emergency shelter in 1977 for homeless and destitute women. The Mary Mother of Hope House shelter, expanded to become the Ministry of Caring, has since served more than 7,000 women. The Franciscan friar introduced dining rooms (lead photo above), housing facilities, and employment services with the guiding vision that “the poor should never be treated poorly.” He also launched medical outreach and affordable infant care programs.
“I don’t believe anyone wants to stand in a bread line,” Brother Giannone said. Delaware’s State Chamber of Commerce awarded Giannone the Marvel Cup in 1999. The award recognized him both as a minister to the marginalized as well as a social entrepreneur. Brother Giannone’s efforts set a high standard for how faith-based organizations contribute to social justice.
Father Roberto Balducelli led Wilmington’s St. Anthony of Padua parish for four decades, starting in 1973. The native Italian, an Oblate of Saint Francis de Sales priest, found his ministry in building communities. Father Balducelli established the Padua Academy, founded The Antonian senior citizens’ home, and created a Pennsylvania countryside summer retreat named St. Anthony’s in the Hills. The priest furthermore revitalized St. Anthony’s Italian Festival, a signature Wilmington event celebrating family, food, and Italian culture.
Father Balducelli stated during a 2013 interview for his 100th birthday that the festivities unite Delawareans of all faiths and nationalities. Moreover, the pageant extends a welcome homecoming for those who have moved away.
“Every once in a while, someone comes along who literally transforms a community,” remarked Vice President Joe Biden in a heartfelt eulogy, “—and that’s exactly what Father Roberto Balducelli did.”
Sister Jean Cashman initially dedicated 18 years of her life to teaching before turning in 1987 to social welfare. The Ursuline nun founded Wilmington’s Sojourner’s Place, a center for skill development aimed at helping people climb out of poverty. “We have a lot of hopes for this program, and you always have fears when you start something new,” Sister Cashman noted at the project’s inception. “There is not a shelter like this in the state.” The Delaware Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Sister Jean Cashman in 2003, acknowledging her broad-reaching activism. The nun’s advocacy efforts touched on various arenas including women’s rights, racial equality, and affordable housing.
Chattanooga native Maurice Moyer earned his Masters of Divinity from Lincoln University Theological Seminary. He took up his pastoral role at Wilmington’s Community Presbyterian Church in 1955. Reverend Moyer served for 46 years and became the first black moderator of the New Castle Presbytery from 1963-64. The minister played a significant role in Delaware’s civil rights movement. In 1963, he led the charge to change the Delaware Innkeepers Law.
This legislation allowed hotel and restaurant proprietors to refuse service to anyone. Although the law was ostensibly neutral, in practice it often enabled racial discrimination.
Moyer’s successful advocacy had a significant impact on advancing racial equality. His push led to the repeal of the Innkeepers Law, and more broadly, the outlawing of discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in ‘places of public accommodation.’
Delaware Governor Jack Markell honored Moyer upon the reverend’s death in 2012. The governor ordered flags to fly at half-staff in Wilmington and New Castle County.
Uniting for a Common Goal
The common goal of uplifting the human condition united Giannone, Balducelli, Cashman, and Moyer. Giannone’s Ministry of Caring and Balducelli’s community initiatives provided immediate relief. Cashman’s focus at Sojourner’s Place and Moyer’s civil rights engagement aimed for longer-term impact.
The life work of these community leaders transcended denominational boundaries, inspiring local governments, congregations, and nonprofits to embrace social responsibility.
The four built an enduring legacy of commitment to social change amid an era of upheavals. Wilmington feels echoes of their imprint even now in every soup kitchen, every law embracing the less fortunate, and every community event celebrating human diversity.