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Holy Family University keeps focus on Christ, says outgoing president
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Sister Francesca Onley of Holy Family University will retire in June after 32 years as president and is easily the longest tenured university president in the Philadelphia area. She is pictured in a 2013 photo. 
Catholic News Service photo
Sister Francesca Onley of Holy Family University will retire in June after 32 years as president and is easily the longest tenured university president in the Philadelphia area. She is pictured in a 2013 photo. 
Catholic News Service

PHILADELPHIA  — Sister Francesca Onley, who has been at the helm of Holy Family University for 32 years, is easily the longest tenured university president in the Philadelphia area.

Earlier this year she announced she'll retire in June. She'll be turning 81 and "it's time," she said.

Today few people hold the same position for more than three decades. And not many spend their entire working life in the same complex within a few miles of their childhood home.

Born in the Mayfair section of the city, Sister Francesca, then Patricia Clare Onley, attended St. Matthew School and then went on to Nazareth Academy High School, where her teachers were members of her future religious congregation -- Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

A few months after her 1950 high school graduation, she entered the community. She was 17 years old. She was given the religious name Francesca for St. Frances of Rome, who also was the patron saint for St. Franciszka Siedliska, foundress of the Holy Family Sisters.

Her younger sister, Joan, followed her into the congregation, taking Michael as her religious name.

At the time, the order had two main apostolates: education and health. Sister Michael, now retired, ultimately became a radiologist, while Sister Francesca was assigned to the education.

After her religious formation, Sister Francesca was assigned in 1953 to teach at Nazareth's grade school; she took college courses in the evening and Saturdays.

In 1959, she earned a bachelor's degree in education and business from what was then Holy Family College; it opened in 1954 on the same campus as Nazareth Academy.

In 1965, she went on to teach in the high school division, and later became assistant principal and then principal in 1972.

She was named assistant to the president of Holy Family College in 1981 and the following year became president.

Along the way, she earned a master's degree in secondary education and business from Marywood College (1968) and a doctorate in higher education administration from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (1986).

Under her watch, the once undergraduate-only Holy Family College expanded to university status in 2002 and now offers a doctoral degree in education and master's degrees in education, criminal justice, counseling psychology, human resource management and information systems management.

Most recent figures show enrollment has increased to approximately 3,000. When she became president, the school had 1,281 students -- only about 500 of them were full-time day students.

If you ask Sister Francesca of what she is most proud, it is not the things the university has done. It is the things that have never changed.

"We are still able to live out our mission to children and young people and even older people of working families who are able to move ahead in their employment because of education," she said. "Our congregation's main focus is ministry to families, and I think we do that very well here at Holy Family, by being here for people."

During her tenure, the college acquired more property to open a satellite campus in Newtown and other sites in Bensalem and South Philadelphia.

Holy Family was among the first of the Catholic women's colleges to become coed. "They did that in the 1970s and it was a smart move," Sister Francesca said in an interview with CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Just as it was in 1954 when Holy Family College opened its doors, the school under Sister Francesca's leadership remains solidly Catholic to the core.

"The focus of our life is Christ," she said. "Every person attempts to do this. It is a special grace we have. There is a real effort on the part of the administration and faculty to help the students live a good life. We are not perfect but we are trying to meet that perfection."

She'll leave the university "in good shape," she said. "We have to move ahead. Different times need different ideas."

But Sister Francesca isn't heading for the rocking chair when she retires as president.

She has no specific plans other than to take a sabbatical. "Then I'll look around for another job."

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