Rocco Abessinio, whose bank made $1 billion in pre-tax profits selling credit cards to people with weak credit, has made the latest in his string of gifts to Catholic institutions in the Brandywine Valley, granting his old prep, all-boys Salesianum School, $16 million toward construction of a new stadium on city-owned land in Wilmington and an endowment for student tuition aid.
Sallies has leased the property from the city for 50 years -- renewable annually for 50 more -- at a nominal rate. Besides hosting Sallies sports teams, the school has promised to schedule the stadium for community sports groups for 30 hours a month, and rent it to other users. Construction will start this spring, with opening targeted for the fall of 2020, Sallies president Brendan Kennealey told me.
“We need market rate rentals; this is a very expensive proposition,”Kennealey added. The school is soliciting additional donations. “This proposal is very innovative. Very few private entities step forward to renovate public property at this scale and make something better for the whole community.”
Abessinio’s gift is among the largest to a Catholic high school. The school teams had also used the field, across 18th Street from the school, when it was administered by the state of Delaware, which runs the city park system.
Abessinio’s previous gifts include the newly expanded Rocco A. Abessinio Building at Neumann College in Aston, Delaware County; the Church of San Roque (Spanish for Rocco), a Catholic parish built in Mexican style and jammed every Sunday by immigrant families in Avondale, Chester County; and the science building at Salesianum, where Abessinio graduated in 1959.
Athletic facilities are among the most popular gifts to public and private schools by successful alumni. Last year Blackstone Group founder Steven Schwarzman agreed to give $25 million to his alma mater, Abington High School, where the stadium is named for his family, though plans to rename the school itself for Schwarzman were canceled after a public outcry.
An earlier plan to replace Wilmington’s deteriorating Baynard Stadium, on parkland across 18th Street from the high school near the U.S. 202 exit from I-95, proved controversial. The Abessinio-aided plan, supported by Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, who played football in the 1970s for the University of Delaware and the NFL’s New York Giants, succeeds a 2016 Salesianum proposal for the site, backed by unidentified donors, that was withdrawn after a political faction led by then-State Rep. Charles Potter Jr. questioned private control over a public asset.
A plan and money beat no plan and no money: Critics failed to come up with alternate funding, and Potter was defeated by City Councilman Nnamdi O. Chukwuocha in last year’s Democratic primary, helping clear the way for Purzycki to clinch the deal.
With more than 1,000 students, “Sallies” rivals William Penn and Cesar Rodney public high schools for the largest enrollment of males in Delaware, which helps make it a perennial boys' team-sports power. It has sent alumni along to the NCAA and pro sports ranks, including 2014 graduate Donte DiVincenzo, a guard distinguished in Villanova’s 2018 NCAA basketball championship season who was picked up by the Milwaukee Bucks. Tuition totals $15,900 a year; Kennealey said “nearly 40 percent” of freshmen receive financial assistance.
It was the first high school to integrate black and white students in Delaware, where the former slave state still operated segregated public school systems into the 1950s.
Salesianum’s success in raising funds from graduates such as Abessinio, a son of immigrant lunch-counter operators who attributes his success to lessons learned on its playing fields, has helped insulate the school from the financial impact of lawsuits against a dozen former and deceased priests accused of molesting Salesianum students between 1955 and 1991.
The school’s operator, the Oblate Fathers of St. Francis de Sales, and its insurers in 2011 agreed to pay $25 million into a fund set up by the Diocese of Wilmington to help settle 39 claims by former Sallies students, most of them represented by a Salesianum graduate, lawyer Thomas Neuberger.
The diocese contributed more than $50 million from its charitable foundation to the fund, which also settled cases against parish priests. That move contributed to the closure of marginal Wilmington-area parish schools and layoffs at diocese-run high schools, where enrollment plunged as aid dried up. But at Salesianum, alumni aid has helped keep the school prosperous. “We have been blessed with generous donors,” Kennealey said.
Abessinio’s Applied Bank (formerly Cross Country Bank), with offices in Glen Mills, has mostly been a local lender since the mid-2000s, when Abessinio wound down his secured-credit-card business, which at its peak employed 5,000 in Wilmington, Glen Mills, and sites in Kentucky, West Virginia and Florida.
The card business, which charged high fees and deposits for people unable to get cards from mainstream lenders, was under investigation by more than two dozen state attorneys general for aggressive collections practices, such as repetitive phone calls. But Abessinio told me at the time that he was more concerned about aggressive competition from JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, which were expanding their competing lending to subprime borrowers -- and charging low rates that Abessinio correctly expected would prove unsustainable.
His investment firm, Roch Capital (a variant of Rocco) based at the former Rollins tower on U.S. 202, now invests in properties including hotels across the U.S.
Abessinio’s foundation has also given to the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. He has given Catholic schools statues of his name saint, a confessor who lived in the 1300s and became a patron of surgeons, bachelors, and the falsely accused. Abessinio once told me he wants to rehabilitate the name Rocco following its over-use in U.S. popular culture caricaturing Italian Americans.