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Xavier Magazine | October 20, 2018

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Profile: Francesca Thompson, O.S.F.

Greg Schaber

Francesca Thompson, O.S.F.
Master of Education, 1964 | Assistant Dean/Director of Multicultural Programs, Fordham University, New York

Home in Indiana | Thompson’s route to her vocation with the Sisters of Saint Francis of Oldenburg, Ind., was both circuitous and unexpected. Raised in a politically active Anglican family in segregated Indianapolis, she found that only one public high school and virtually no private schools accepted African-American students. A twist of fate landed her at St. Mary’s Academy.

Act of Faith | “I loved St. Mary’s; I loved the whole drama and aura of the Catholic Church, and after a year I wanted to join. My father made me wait. After a year, he said, ‘OK, I think you’re sincere.’ ”

Reading the Signs | Thompson decided to enter the convent, but her father insisted she attend college. He eventually acquiesced on the condition that she first join a group touring Europe for the summer. “We had an audience with Pope Pius XII, and he gave us all medals. I asked him to pray that I would be allowed to enter the convent. His eyes opened real big and he gave me another, larger medal. I figured that was a sign.”

Mission Cincinnati | Thompson began teaching at St. Mary’s in 1954 as she continued her education at Marion College in Indiana. After graduating in 1960, her first mission led her to St. Joseph’s, a black grade school on Cincinnati’s West Side. Her impact was strong—in 2004, those first students honored her with the school’s distinguished service award.

Back to School | Thompson’s superiors soon sent her with a group for summers at the University, where she earned a master’s degree in education with a concentration in communications. “I loved it—it was the very first time that we had been on our own. Our courses were chosen for us, but I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.”

Curtain Calls | Thompson’s parents were film actors and members of the Lafayette Players, the first black dramatic stock company in the United States. Her deeply ingrained love for the art led to the University of Michigan where she earned a doctoral degree in theater in 1966. At Michigan, she taught actresses Christine Lahti and Ann Crumb, and coached comic Gilda Radner. She’s also a longtime board member for Broadway’s Tony Awards.

In Demand | After 15 years teaching at Marion College, Thompson moved to Fordham in 1982. A noted orator, she’s spoken for such organizations as the Leadership Conference of Religious Women, the Leadership Congress of Religious Men, the NAACP, National Black Congress and National Black Women’s Conference.

Reflections | Thompson’s amassed honors, degrees and awards over the years, and has taught at all levels. But she says her greatest highlights pale in comparison to her vocation. “It is the joy of my life. Maya Angelou says we work to pay rent for the space we occupy, and I think working as a religious is the way I’ve worked to pay my rent.”

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