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Italian Cultural Center hosts grand opening


By Peg DeGrassa, Delaware County Daily Times

TINICUM, Pa. –  Under cloudless skies of blue, a decade-old dream of many local Italian Americans turned into a reality with the recent grand opening of the Italian Cultural Center of the Delaware Valley, located inside the historic Lazaretto in Tinicum Township on the Delaware County waterfront.

From left: Delaware County Common Pleas judges Richard Cappelli, Barry Dozor and William Mackrides attend the opening. | PHOTO BY PEG DEGRASSA, DELAWARE COUNTY DAILY TIMES

Dozens of guests and supporters descended upon the long-awaited center to experience an epicenter of Italian art, vibrant culture and history and to celebrate their Italian ancestry and achievements. Visitors were delighted to discover another way to celebrate their rich Italian heritage and traditions and share them with the community.

“This cultural center project has been a long time coming,” said Joe Morinelli of Havertown, Pa. “It’s fantastic to have a museum of this magnitude in our area. The plans have been brewing under the radar for 10 years, but this grand opening day has finally arrived. As everyone can see, it has been well worth the wait.”

Justin DelBorello, vice president of the Italian Cultural Center of the Delaware Valley, and Maura Febbo, president, greet guests in the new museum during its grand opening celebration. | PHOTO BY PEG DEGRASSA, DELAWARE COUNTY DAILY TIMES

The wheels to create the center were first put in motion in 2013. Italian-American organizations from the Delaware Valley worked closely with Tinicum commissioners and other township officials to bring the vision to fruition.

“The Lazaretto is a work in progress,” said Pat McCarthy, president of the commissioners. “We’re thrilled to provide space to both the Italians and the Swedes in this multicultural historic landmark, but we are far from done. With the waterfront access, the sky is the limit here. The idea is to develop this part of our township to bring people here and show them what a beautiful town that we have.”

Several generations of the Tolotta family of Garnet Valley, Pa., attended the grand opening of the Italian Cultural Center at the Lazaretto and enjoyed viewing the many unique exhibits, especially the original passport of their grandfather, Michael DiPilla Sr. From left: Gabriella Tolotta with Rob Scherb of New York, Julianna Tolotta, Jill Tolotta and her brother historian Michael DiPilla, Sofia Tolotta and Vincent Tolotta. Michael DiPilla is the author of “South Philadelphia’s Little Italy and 9th Street Italian Market.” | PHOTO BY PEG DEGRASSA, DELAWARE COUNTY DAILY TIMES

Tinicum purchased the land and building of the historic Lazaretto from a private commercial owner in 2001.

The landmark seemed like a fitting location for the cultural center since the Lazaretto was the first quarantine hospital in the United States. It has been estimated that one-third of all Americans have an ancestor who was cleared for entry through the Lazaretto, including many Italians.

In addition to the center, the Lazaretto currently holds exhibition rooms for the Tinicum Township Historical Society and the Swedish Society. The Lazaretto is the oldest surviving quarantine station in the Western Hemisphere and one of the 10 oldest in the world. Built beginning in 1799 after a series of devastating yellow fever epidemics, the Lazaretto protected Philadelphia from imported epidemics from 1801 to 1895.

“Our goal is to showcase the greatness and the ingenuity of the Italians and what they’ve brought to America,” said author and historian Michael DiPilla of Philadelphia, as he led tours at the cultural center throughout the day.

“This is really inspiring,” said Lou DiPietro of Holmes, Pa., as he browsed the exhibits. “It’s somewhere that I can bring my children and grandchildren to visit and get them interested in their heritage. I still have cousins in Italy so maybe after my family learns more about their background, they will be excited to take a trip with me to Italy in the future.”

Spearheaded by area Italian organizations, including CIAO Delco, the new Italian Cultural Center took a decade to create, funded by millions of dollars in grants and private donations.

The nonprofit CIAO Delco is a coalition of eight local Italian-American organizations: L’Associazione Regionale Abruzzese (ARA) Delco, the Delaware County Justinian Society, Associazione Abruzzese of the Delaware Valley, the St. Anthony diPadova Society, Societa Da Vinci, Sons & Daughters of Italy, Christopher Columbus Memorial Association and Filitalia Delco.

Following remarks by “mistress of ceremony” Melissa Cannavo, a longtime Italian American radio show host, visitors at the grand opening wandered through the museum, admiring a 1950s meat grinder, rolling pin and mortar and pestle, drawings of Thomas Jefferson’s macaroni machine, 1920 rosaries from the Vatican, Italian prayer books, Pinocchio figurines, Italian pottery and copper, a tomato strainer and a mezza luna ravioli maker from the late 1800s, and other unique artifacts and exhibits.

The cultural center, with its first-floor community room and second floor museum, is only in its infancy stage.

On the third floor, the center is creating a specialized library that can be a resource for scholars, researchers and individuals interested in studying Italian-American history, culture and traditions.

Future events, such as special speakers, wine making, cannoli and homemade pasta making and many more, will be open to the broader community, fostering cross-cultural understanding and appreciation, enriching the cultural landscape of the region and inspiring generations to embrace and cherish their shared heritage.

“The creation of this center took a lot of work and fundraising to get to this wonderful grand opening day,” commented Nick Rapagnani of Brookhaven, president of Associazione Regionale Abruzzese Delco. “We are still fundraising and accepting donations to keep what we created vibrant and operating for generations to come.” 

For more information about the Italian Cultural Center of the Delaware Valley, follow ICCDV on Facebook or Instagram or visit ItalianCulturalCenterDelVal.com.

To arrange a visit or find out dates of public tours or to make a donation, contact President Maura Febbo at 570-290-3653 or email ICCDelVal@gmail.com.

The Lazaretto is located at 97 Wanamaker Ave., Essington, Pa.

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