On Saturday, September 30 2000, I had the pleasure of accompanying members of The Order of The Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie New York, to attend the special ceremony to commemorate Elena Cornaro, the first woman to receive a Ph.D. (Venice Italy, 1678). With me was my aunt, Commendatore Anne Paolucci, the first recipient of the OSIA New York State (1979) and the one and only recipient of the National OSIA (1993) Elena Cornaro Awards. This award, established by the OSIA in 1979, is presented annually by the New York State Chater of OSIA to an Italian-American woman for her scholarly achievements.
Elena Cornaro Piscopia was born in Venice in 1646. Her remarkable intelligence was noted while she was very young, and beginning at age seven, she was tutored in languages, arts, theology, science, rhetoric and logic by some of the greatest minds of the time. On June 25, 1678 she spoke before a panel of judges and learned scholars at the Cathedral of Padua, and, conversing only in Latin, she so impressed those present that she was awarded a University Doctorate.
Her life, although brief (dying at age 38), was devoted, not only to her studies, but to religious observance and ministering to the poor. Her memory was perpetuated with a special medal struck in her honor (1684), a statue was installed in the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, and the chapel in which she rests was renamed Cappella Cornaro in her honor.
The majestic 22 foot stained glass window depicting Elena Cornaro receiving her doctorate was presented to Vassar College and installed in 1906, in Vassar's Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library. It was the subject of a recent extensive restoration, and glowed in magnificent colors on this autumn day almost one hundred years later, September 30, 2000. The re-dedication ceremonies were lead by Sabrina Pope, Director of Libraries at Vassar College, who gave a brief history of the donors of this window -- Vassar trustee Fredrick Thompson and wife, Mary Clark Thompson. The Thompsons not only donated the window, but for many years retained the custom of providing college scholarships to four boys and four girls every year.
Brunch and a speakers' forum at the Vassar Almunae House followed the rededication ceremony. Marjorie Moschella, (Chairperson of the Cornaro Award Committee, Chair of the Vassar Cornaro Program, and member, New York State Commission for Social Justice, the OSIA Grand Lodge of New York) spoke not only about the legacy of Elena Cornaro, who "remains to this day a role model for women scholars to emulate", but of today's Italian-American women and the oppportunities, challenges and achievements that await them in today's world. Other speakers followed -- notably, Joseph Cangemi (President, NY OSIA), Dr Anne Paolucci, Dr Ann Merlino (Cornaro Award Recipient and former Chairperson, Cornaro Award Committee). Various representatives from the OSIA Commission for Social Justice spoke of perpetuating Elena Cornaro's memory by honoring Italian-American women who make notable contributions to intellectual thought and word. Jane Howard Guernsey, Vassar alumnus (Class of 48-49), author of the highly informative book, The Lady Cornaro, Pride and Prodigy of Venice, spoke about the research, curiosity and love that went into the making of her book. Closing remarks were delivered by Tina Haemmerle and Florence Gatto, Co-Chairs of the National Committee to Promote Positive Images of Italian American Women.
The day ended all too quickly, with members of this group resolving to perpetuate Elena Cornaro's memory and her legacy by reaching out to all young women who pursue their love of knowledge through formal education.
Marjorie Moschella, Chairperson of the Cornaro Award Committee (to the viewer's left), Commendatore Anne Paolucci (black jacket), Anne Merlino (red dress) and other Cornaro Award Recipients at the Rededication Ceremony
The beautiful stained glass windows depicting Elena Cornaro -- at the Thompson Library at Vassar College