That “girl from Mayfair” is retiring.
Sister Francesca Onley in June will be leaving the presidency of Holy Family University after 32 years leading the private Catholic college through periods of growth and hard times.
She will step down June 30, she said. She is the longest-tenured university president in Philadelphia, according to the school.
There might be few who work at the Frankford Avenue school who have known any other president, said board president Dennis Colgan.
“I’ll take a little sabbatical,” Sister Francesca said after she made the teary-eyed announcement to teachers and staff Monday at the university’s Education & Technology Center. After that, she’s not sure.
After all, the school has been “such an integral part of my life,” she said. She also has been an integral part of not just the school, but of Northeast Philadelphia.
Sister Francesca, 80, is so well-known that it’s hard to attend any large business gathering in the Northeast at which her name is not dropped. She is involved. She’s a member of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame.
And that involvement has not been limited to Northeast Philadelphia.
Sister Francesca is a member of the International Association of University Presidents and former chair of its Commission on Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace. Her special interests have included international educational partnerships and business, which have led to programs to teach English to seminarians in Vietnam and, in conjunction with Stanford University, to teach children in Africa.
Sister Francesca was a young nun who hailed from St. Matt’s parish, a “small girl from Mayfair,” when she was an undergrad at the small, private Catholic college for women. She had joined the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in 1950 and, in 1959, she graduated from Holy Family, the school those nuns had founded in 1954. Her bachelor’s degree was in education and business.
She said she went on to other ministries, including principal at Nazareth Academy High School, after she graduated and came back in 1980. In 1981, she was named the school’s fourth president.
The small Torresdale commuter college grew into a university in 2002 and kept growing. Sister Francesca said 500 attended the school when she did in the 1950s, but there are now 1,500 undergrads. Post-grads put the now not-so-little school’s student population at about 3,000, she said Monday. Holy Family also no longer is solely a commuter school. Two hundred and fifty students reside on campus, and the school draws students from around the world, she said.
While Sister Francesca’s been in charge, the university has erected many buildings, including the Campus Center in 1988 and the Education & Technology Center in 2005. A university building was put up in the school’s Newtown campus in 1997, and in 2003, Holy Family acquired a site in Bensalem.
“You only have to look around three campuses,” Colgan said, “to grasp what Sister Francesca has done.”
Currently, the university is working on developing the old Liddonfield public housing project to build a secondary campus with a sports complex, residence hall and retail stores.
“Our founding sisters would hardly recognize” Holy Family, Sister Francesca said.
The president had planned on retiring four years ago, but Colgan said the university board asked her to stay on. You don’t change leadership in the middle of a recession, he said.
He said that Sister Francesca’s leadership helped the university weather tough times better than other schools of similar size.
“She remained at our request for the last four years,” Colgan said.
On Monday, she said she didn’t know who her successor will be.
No one has been selected — yet — which is why Sister Francesca will stay on as a search committee looks for Holy Family’s fifth president.
Board member and chairman of that search committee Ray Angelo said preference will be given to a sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth. The deadline for one of the nuns to apply is Feb. 28. If no sister is selected, he said, then the panel will look for a qualified Catholic layperson to lead the school. ••