End of an era

  • The large crowd stands to honor Sister Francesca after her big announcement in the Education & Technology Center.

  • Renee L. Rosenfeld, assistant vice president for human resources at Holy Family University, listens to Sister Francesca announce her plans to retire.

  • Sister Francesca steps away from the podium to applause.

  • Stepping aside: Sister Francesca Onley announced on Monday that she will be retiring in June as president of Holy Family University. Sister Francesca has led the university for 32 years. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

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. ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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