by Joe Holden
editor in chief
State courts were battling whether women should be allowed to vote. William McKinley was president and Academy Award-winning director and filmmaker Frank Capra was born. Mark Twain wrote “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” and K.F. Braun invented the television’s earliest ancestor, the cathode-ray tube. It was 15 years before Titanic plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic and the year the college’s foundress, Sister Ursula Infante, MSC, was born.
It was 1897.
Sunday marked the 104th birthday of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s oldest religious servant. The college has also deemed Feb. 18 Founder’s Day in honor of Sister Infante.
The community of sisters, friends and employees of the Cabrini Sisters’ Nursing Home, West Philadelphia, gathered with the post-centurion to celebrate her life and another year at a little past noon. A full-course lunch was served, followed by cake and gifts. Nine floral arrangements of red and white roses, tulips and lilies towered over the petite and surprised nun.
Sister Infante finds strength in such celebrations. Her fellow sisters know she loves a good party.
At first sight, Sister Infante made sure the most beautiful arrangement of flowers was taken to the chapel to be displayed for daily Mass. A woman of impeccable faith and dedication to Christ, the Blessed Virgin and St. Frances Cabrini, her spirits have been upbeat and her senses have continued to be sharp.
Earlier in the day, a Mass was offered in her honor. Fr. John Dellacarpini, chaplain, thanked her for her dignity and presence and “the pride that she exemplifies in her faith. She’s really been a real woman of faith.” Each night, Sister Infante thanks God for her life. “She’s on her knees at 104 praying and thanking God.” The other sisters can hear her repeating the words “thank you, God.”
Sister Infante, born Anna Lawrence, was adopted and came from a wealthy family in New York City. She attended Catholic schools in Brooklyn. She entered the convent on July 21, 1915 and was accepted by Mother Frances Cabrini, now Saint Frances Cabrini.
The times were turbulent as World War I was being fought. Sister Infante had to persuade her father to allow her to enter. She reasoned that he would always know where she was as young men her age were being drafted to fight on the front lines. He agreed and gave her his blessing.
Sister Infante received a pharmacy degree and a license from New York’s Fordham University in 1922. She continued her education, earning a bachelor’s degree from Fordham and a master’s degree from Columbia University, both in education.
From the late 1920s until 1957, Sister Infante taught in various schools in New York, eventually becoming a principal.
The order of Cabrini sisters wanted to open a college in the Philadelphia area in 1957. Archbishop John Cardinal O’Hara saw no need for another Catholic college. Determined to succeed, she visited all of the area college presidents and asked them if they objected to a new college. She returned to the cardinal and showed him her findings. Cabrini College was founded and Sister Infante was president.
For 10 years she nurtured the young college into a well-known and respected institution of higher learning. In 1967 she was transferred to do other work for the community. She directed Cabrini-on-the-Hudson Retreat House, West Park, N.Y. Sister Infante returned to Cabrini in 1984 and became curator of the Cabriniana Room. There she translated over a thousand of St. Frances Cabrini’s letters from Italian to English. She also published an English edition of a book of Cabrini’s letters.
When Sister Infante first met Dellacarpini she told him that Mother Cabrini really loved priests. She told him that she loved him as well. “She’s been a tremendous addition to this community,” Dellacarpini said. Sister Infante uses her time to pray and read, but she also enjoys the company of good friends. Dellacarpini and Sister Infante were talking in the chapel when she noticed the statue of the Sacred Heart. Nonchalantly, she turned and said, “well we know we’re in good company.”
It’s good company that keeps the 104-year-old nun going. Though she uses a wheel chair to get to and from distant places, she prefers to walk most of the time. Good company is not hard to find with so many sisters admiring her accomplishments. “It’s been a blessing beyond words knowing Ursula for which I thank God,” Sister Julia Toto said. Toto, a member of the order and of the Saint Donato convent, Overbrook, visits often with Sister Infante.
The college will honor Sister Infante on Feb. 27. There will be a reading of the proclamation instituting Founder’s Day followed by a reception in the mansion.