Holy Family Sister Francesca Onley. (Photo by Sarah Webb)

Sister Francesca Onley, C.S.F.N., is retiring as president of Holy Family University after 32 years, marking the longest tenure of any university president in Philadelphia. She will step down officially June 30, the university announced Jan. 13.

“I feel so privileged to have been able to play a role in Holy Family’s tremendous transformation from a college to a university, from a small, local private school to one with students from other states and other countries,” said Sister Francesca said at a press conference Monday. “The university enjoys an excellent reputation for success, gaining the respect of the Philadelphia community, of our state and federal government agencies, and of our national and international colleagues.”

Sister Francesca was inaugurated as the university’s fourth president and chief administrative officer in 1981.

In her more than 30 years at the helm, she has overseen the growth of the university from its Northeast Philadelphia main campus to a second campus in Newtown, Bucks County and two additional locations in Bensalem.


The school has added programs ranging from criminal justice to doctoral studies in education.

“We will never be able to thank Sister Francesca for her unparalleled leadership for the past three plus decades,” said Dennis J. Colgan, chair of the Holy Family University Board of Trustees. “Her retirement marks the end of an era, yet because of the path she forged, we look to the future with great optimism.”

Born in Philadelphia’s Mayfair section, Sister Francesca joined the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in 1950. She received her B.A. in education, business from Holy Family in 1959. Seven years later she earned her master’s degree in secondary education, business from Marywood University, and in 1986 she earned a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Besides Holy Family’s transition from a college to a university in 2002, new buildings have arisen during Sister Francesca’s tenure including the Campus Center (1988), the university building in Newtown (1997), the Education & Technology Center (2005) and the Garden Residence (2006). The university also acquired a site in Bensalem in 2003.

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.

As university president, 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.