Mother Ursula Infante, MSC, 1897 – 2001, Cabrini foundress dies; legacy lives on

By Joe Holden
April 19, 2001

Mother Ursula Infante, MSC, pictured here in a 1984 Loquitur photo

by Joe Holden
editor in chief

This is the story of Mother Ursula Infante’s last days.

Mother Infante had been placed on deathwatch a little less than a week prior to her death. In the time leading up to her death, the other sisters with whom she lived assisted her in every way possible. Whether it was being wheeled to the chapel for prayer or fetching the Philadelphia Inquirer, she was surrounded by her sisters, her beloved friends.

“She was a delight to be with,” Sister Christine Perazzoli said.

Sister Perazzoli is the superior of the Saint Frances Cabrini Nursing Home, a nursing home for the sisters. It is her job to see to it that the sisters’ needs are fulfilled. Sister Perazzoli found Mother Infante to be more charming than ever during her last days.

Mother Infante spoke more than usual in the days prior to her death. Sister Perazzoli remained with Mother Infante for long periods of time. “She was afraid to be by herself at night, so I remained with her and talked to her.”

Mother Infante ate full, healthy portions on the day of her death. “She naturally had her glass of beer both at lunch and dinner,” Sister Perazzoli said. At 7 p.m., she went to the television room to watch Jeopardy! with her other sisters.

Around 9 p.m., Mother Infante told Sister Perazzoli that she wanted to go to bed, this being earlier than her usual bedtime. She noted that Mother Infante became very serious and that something was wrong.

Sister Perazzoli brought her to her bedroom and another nurse began to tuck her in, when Mother Infante said, “I’m dying.”

Mother Infante struggled to breathe. She was placed on oxygen and other sisters came to see her. Sister Perazzoli held Mother Infante’s hand as her breathing stabilized.

“I’m prepared. The Lord is going to take me. I’m dying.”

Sister Perazzoli could feel Mother Infante’s hand becoming cool. At this time, she left the room to call the chaplain and other members of the order. When she returned, Mother Infante’s hand was ice cold.

Sister Perazzoli noted a change in the expression on Mother Infante’s face after her death. “She had a gray appearance on her face while she was struggling to breathe. But when I returned she looked so peaceful. Her face was white and shiny. It is how she wanted to die”

Mother Infante died April 9 as she wished –surrounded by her fellow sisters at the home, West Philadelphia- after months of failing health. Mother Infante, 104, died at 9:15 p.m., according to nursing home officials.

In a statement released by the office of the president on April 10, Antoinette Iadarola, president, wrote that Mother Infante would have wanted the community to “take comfort in the apothegm she lived her life by and the words said so often by St. Cabrini, ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.’”

Mother Infante died praying. Her death reflected the life she had lived. Whether it was reciting the rosary in the television room or community prayer in the chapel, prayer was her main and dearest activity. “She was such a woman of prayer,” Dr. Mary Louise Sullivan MSC, faculty member of the college, said.

It was prayer that helped her decide to become a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And it was prayer that brought about her to open the doors of Cabrini College in 1957.

At the age when traditionally a person would retire, Mother Infante, 60, was planting the seed that would take firm hold and root itself in the rich Radnor soil. Thirty-two women made up the first graduating class. Cabrini College has grown much since that time. It now boasts an enrollment of over 2,000.

Born Anna Lawrence on Feb. 18, 1897, she was adopted by a well-to-do family from Brooklyn, N.Y. She was educated in Catholic schools and entered the convent on July 21, 1915. Mother Frances Cabrini, now Saint Frances Cabrini, founder of the order, accepted Mother Infante into the order.

Mother Infante, a persistent woman of a little more than 5 feet in height, broke gender barriers during a time when the woman’s place was believed to be outside of the classroom. She completed degrees in pharmacy and education at Fordham University, New York City, and earned a master’s degree in education from Columbia University, New York City, by the mid 1920s.

She taught in the Catholic school system of New York City, eventually becoming principal. Though her job of being a principal was important, the powers of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart had other plans. The order saw Mother Infante as an innovator and sent her to the Philadelphia suburbs to petition the archbishop to open another Catholic college with order’s name behind it.

Archbishop John Cardinal O’Hara turned Mother Infante away, arguing that there was no need for another college. Her opinion differed.

Mother Infante visited the surrounding Catholic colleges and met with the presidents. She asked if they would object to the formation of another college. Mother Infante returned to the archbishop’s office with approval and left with a new college.

Named for the patroness of the order, Cabrini College was led by Mother Infante for 10 years. During an era of tumultuous change in the Catholic Church, Cabrini offered young women a post-secondary Catholic education under the strict and watchful eye of Mother Infante, arguably an unshakable pillar.

Mother Infante was transferred in 1967 to direct Cabrini-on-the-Hudson Retreat House, West Park, N.Y. She returned to the college in 1984 and was charged with translating over a thousand of Saint Cabrini’s letters from Italian to English. She also published a book containing the translated letters.

After her retirement from the college, Mother Infante continued to be a beacon of inspiration for college students, staff, volunteers and a handful of other visitors to the nursing home up to her last minute.

She had a love for the orchestra and the performing arts and would frequent the Academy of Music. She was an avid rummy and poker player and was rarely known to lose a hand. She claimed that beer was the key to her longevity.

Dr. Antoinette Iadarola, president, visited with Mother Infante the afternoon of her death. Iadarola recalled that she was “very zesty and quite alert.” She also mentioned Mother Infante’s love for the students. “She talked about education of the heart and the spiritual formation of the student,” Iadarola said. “She was teaching right to the end.”

Joe Holden

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