“She adored being a professor; she was energized by her students so retirement was such a foreign concept to her,” she said.
Fordham was one of many institutions where Fava worked to promote and preserve Italian culture and language programs, including Farmingdale State College, where she was a tenured professor and chaired the modern languages department untill the day she died. She was still on staff at Fordham as well.
“The Fordham community has lost a teacher of Italian language, history, and culture who served the University with distinction for more than 40 years,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “As a child, she had dreamed of being a teacher; it is clear that this dream was fully, and gloriously, realized.”
In 1960, Fava emigrated from the small municipality of San Leucio del Sannio in the Campania region of Italy to a small two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx with her parents and six of her seven siblings. Like many recent immigrants, she faced significant hurdles as well as misogyny, said her family. But, within two years, she was teaching first grade at Our Lady of Victory School in Mount Vernon.
“When she came to the U.S. she lived at 242nd Street near the border of Mount Vernon and the Bronx,” said Palmina. “My mother traveled all of the world, but most of her life in America she lived within a three-mile radius to stay close to her family and friends.”
She began her academic career at Fordham’s former Undergraduate School of Education while working full time and going to school at night. It took seven years to earn her degree. By 1971, she was working toward her doctorate in Italian language and literature from New York University while continuing to work full time and raise her young family. She began teaching at Fordham in 1974 at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies (PCS).
Over the years, Fordham honored her with a Teacher of the Year Award in 1982, an Award for Outstanding Dedication and Service to Italian Studies in 1994, and the Bene Merenti medal in 2018.
In addition to Italian language classes, Fava also taught French and Spanish, as well as international cinema. Her favorite films—The Bicycle Thief, Cinema Paradiso, and Life is Beautiful—spanned the 20th century and focused on family, such as The Sound of Music, which she watched often in recent months. She also liked The Great Beauty for its lesson on the importance of living purposefully and its vibrant portrayal of Rome, a city where she taught as well. But off-screen she preferred Florence for culture, architecture, and art, said her daughter.
Steve Albanese, associate dean at PCS, observed her teaching a film course and saw her talent for getting students engaged and generating robust, insightful discussion.
“That’s what really stood out, she made sure that each student had something to contribute,” said Albanese. “She did such a good job in explaining—‘Here’s what you need to look for and then this is what we’re going to discuss,’ that they all contributed in a very informative way. She really made it come alive.”
PCS Assistant Dean Roberta Willim recalled that Fava’s love of the Italian culture was rivaled only by her love of family.
“She was a very devoted grandmother. She helped her daughters a lot with their kids growing up and babysitting when she wasn’t working,” she recalled.
Palmina said that she expects the grandchildren will also remember their nonna as a teacher as well.
“She was constantly imparting lessons through fun or instruction or a piece of advice she shared,” she said. “She repeatedly told them not to be afraid to try something new; she would say ‘try, try, try, and you will succeed.’”
Matilde is survived by her husband John Fava; nine grandchildren; five siblings; and three daughters, all of whom graduated from Fordham: Palmina is a graduate of Fordham Law School; Doreena is a graduate of Fordham College at Rose Hill and the Graduate School of Education, and Joanna is a graduate of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Visitation will take place Friday, March 5, from 3:30 to 8 p.m. at Yannantuono Burr Davis Sharpe Funeral Home at 584 Gramatan Avenue in Mount Vernon, New York, 10552. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, March 6, at Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Ursula Church at 129 E. Birch Street, also in Mount Vernon. There will also be a live stream of the Mass.
To honor her memory, Fava’s family has established the Dr. Matilde Fava Student Research Fund.
Chris Gosier contributed to this article.