Sister Francesca Onley retiring as Holy Family U president

Sister Francesca Onley , president of Holy Family University for 32 years, after announcing her retirement to members of the university Monday. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Sister Francesca Onley , president of Holy Family University for 32 years, after announcing her retirement to members of the university Monday. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 15, 2014

NORTHEAST PHILA. After 32 years, Sister Francesca Onley said, it was time for new leadership at Holy Family University.

Onley, at 80 the longest-tenured college president in the region, is retiring June 30, she announced Monday.

She ushered in a new era at Holy Family, whose main campus is on Frankford Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia. Under her leadership, the school added master's and doctoral programs, became a university, dramatically expanded enrollment, and launched new campuses.

"We will never be able to thank Sister Francesca for her unparalleled leadership for the past three decades. Her retirement marks the end of an era, yet because of the path she forged, we look to the future with great optimism," Dennis J. Colgan, the university's board chairman, said in a statement.

A nun from the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth has served as Holy Family's president since the college was founded in 1954. A university committee and search firm will examine the congregation to see whether another suitable president can be found within the order's ranks, but is prepared to expand the search nationally and hire the next president from outside, Onley said.

Onley first made noises about retiring a few years ago, she said, but the trustees kept asking her to stay a little longer. On Monday, some were teary when she made her announcement.

"I'll be 81 by the time I finish my service," Onley said. "It's about time I look around, take a little rest, and see what else I can do by way of ministry. There's so many things that I can do with and for people going forward, and if I'm asked to do work for the university, certainly I will."

She intends to assist her successor in the transition, she said.

Onley was born and raised in Mayfair, and joined the order in 1950. She was a member of one of the first graduating classes of what was then Holy Family College, then earned a master's degree from Marywood University in Scranton and a doctorate in higher education administration from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Her entire education career has been spent in a few-block radius in Northeast Philadelphia: a teacher at Nazareth Academy grade school; then a teacher, counselor, and principal at Nazareth Academy high school; and then on to Holy Family, where she worked for a year as assistant to the president before assuming the presidency herself.

And yet, her work has taken her around the world - throughout the United States and to Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia.

"I just come from a plain, ordinary family, and have had so many opportunities through the congregation and the university and my education," Onley said. "I've been in little old Northeast Philadelphia, but of the world."

Onley said she is proud of the university's growth during her time as president. And though higher education has seen turmoil in recent years, with waning state and federal support for colleges and universities, Onley is optimistic that things are now trending upward at the school of roughly 3,000 undergraduates and graduate students.

"When we seem to be in a trough, a very low place, then we're moving up to another pinnacle," she said. "That's the history of higher education - it's very cyclical. It's good for somebody new to come in. We're moving up."

Intelligent but accessible, Onley is known around campus for her down-to-earth ways - and for her desire to expand the university's reach. She has said that her rules for long-term leadership are simple: Never spend money you don't have, always plan for the future, and achieve the goals you say you will, on time.

Onley said she never expected to lead the university for three decades, but she's delighted she had the opportunity to do so.

"This part of the city has a wonderful group of very hardworking people and families," Onley said. "I was happy that I could contribute to this kind of work."

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