Cecilia Bernardi and her husband were key donors in the University of St. Thomas' purchase of a campus in Rome.

Situated on the banks of the Tiber River in the heart of the city, the Bernardi campus is named in their honor and embodies two great passions for the Edina couple -- their Catholic faith and native Italy.

Bernardi, 86, died last Monday.

Born in Volterra, Italy, Bernardi met her future husband, Antonio Bernardi, when he was passing through the town on his way to North Africa in 1940. He was an officer in the Italian Army and was only stationed there a couple of days.

But once he moved on, the couple wrote letters to each other over the next five or so years while separated during World War II.

"It was pretty much love at first sight," said Luigi Bernardi, the youngest of the Bernardis three children. The couple married in October 1949 following Bernardi's military service. Antonio Bernardi, an engineer, then went to work for an Italian oil company, while his wife became a homemaker and began raising the couple's children.

The family lived in several Italian cities before Antonio was transferred to Iran, where they lived nearly five years before business brought them to Minneapolis in 1963.

One of the biggest changes for Cecilia -- besides the language barrier and colder weather -- was all the prepackaged food she found at grocery stores, recalled Nicole Bernardi, Luigi's wife.

"She was an Italian housewife," Nicole said. "She did a lot of cooking and raised her children and took care of her family. She was the best polenta maker, gnocchi maker and pasta maker. Her family and her faith were the two most important things in her life. She ... gave them everything she had to both."

Cecilia Bernardi attended the Church of St. Patrick in Edina every Sunday for the past 48 years, Nicole said. Luigi Bernardi is also a St. Thomas alum, who graduated in the late 1980s.

So it only made sense for the family to donate money toward the founding of the St. Thomas campus in Rome, bridging the Bernardis' passions, family members say. After arriving in the Twin Cities, Antonio Bernardi began buying land and built a successful commercial and residential real estate business.

A nondisclosure is in place regarding the level to which the Bernardis have donated to St. Thomas, and university officials can't release an exact figure. But the family has been generous benefactors to the degree the university's Rome campus was named after them.

The Bernardi campus, a 20,000-square-foot building, is located not far from Piazza San Pietro. The building was purchased by St. Thomas in November 1999, according to the St. Thomas website. The campus hosts students from two St. Thomas programs -- Catholic Studies and Rome Liberal Arts Semester.

In addition to her husband of 61 years, Bernardi is survived by children Paola, Sandro and Luigi, and 10 grandchildren. Services were held Thursday in Edina.

Rose French • 612-673-4352