Sister Francesca Onley, 88, of Philadelphia, Holy Family University’s former president credited with transforming a local Catholic college into a multidisciplinary institution of higher education, died Saturday, April 17, at Nazareth Hospital.

The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, her religious order, do not release the cause of death of their members, a spokesperson said.

“She oversaw the establishment of the university and the leading of the university into the 21st century,” said Sherrie Madia, spokesperson for the university located in Northeast Philadelphia.

Sister Francesca served as the fourth president and chief administrative officer of the university from 1981 until her retirement in 2014 at age 81. Her religious order is dedicated to serving families through hospitals and education.

Current university president Sister Maureen McGarrity said providing students in Northeast Philadelphia with access to Catholic higher education that addressed the needs of changing times and changing student populations was always Sister Francesca’s compass throughout her 32 years at Holy Family.

“The value of family — providing opportunities for every person to reach his or her fullest potential — was her North Star in every decision,” said Sister Maureen. “Her legacy continues in the lives of our graduates who have and continue to change our world each day.”

Sister Francesca led the transformation of the college into a university in 2002. She added many educational programs, including criminal justice, as well as graduate and doctoral studies in education. She presided over several capital construction projects, too. Under her guidance, the university also expanded into multiple satellite campuses.

In addition, Sister Francesca, in association with the United Nations International Association of University Presidents, helped Holy Family establish various international friendships and reach partnership agreements with universities in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and China.

“Sister Francesca sought to create a global presence for Holy Family that would in turn create worldwide opportunities for impact,” Madia said. That included her role in activities such as grant writing that benefited children in developing countries.

Sister Francesca was born March 4, 1933, to Edward and Marie Onley in Philadelphia.

She entered the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in 1950 and professed her final vows with the order in 1959.

Sister Francesca earned her bachelor of arts degree in business from Holy Family College in 1950, a master’s degree in secondary education from Marywood University in 1966, and a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Southern IIlinois University in 1986.

From 1953 until 1980, Sister Francesca served at Nazareth Academy Guide School and Nazareth Academy High School, both in Philadelphia, as a faculty member, guidance counselor, assistant principal, and principal.

Sister Francesca was appointed president of then-Holy Family College in 1981, replacing Sister Lillian Budny, who was retiring. Sister Francesca had been tapped to serve as her assistant the year before.

In addition to the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Sister Francesca is survived by her brother David and other relatives.

A viewing will be held Sunday, April 25, from 2 to 4 p.m. at St. Katherine of Siena Catholic Church, 9700 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia. A funeral Mass will immediately follow. Masks are required, and social distancing protocols will be in place.

Donations may be made in Sister Francesca’s memory to the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, 310 N. River Rd., Des Plaines, Ill. 60016, or online at