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Family, faith, and food are what guided Jeanette Mancini Mitchell, a pillar of Sonoma County’s Italian-American community, all her life.

She died at home in Santa Rosa on Sunday at age 86.

Mancini Mitchell served as one of the founding members of the North Bay Italian Cultural Foundation and its second president, serving for 28 years from 1985 until she retired in 2013.

It was then that her health started to take a turn.

“That had been her life,” said daughter Maria Crane, 57.

Crane, of Santa Rosa, recalled for years watching her mother dress up as “La Befana,” a good witch who, in Italian tradition, brings gifts to children on the eve of the Epiphany, similar to Santa Claus.

“(The foundation) meant everything to her,” said Donald Tarpley, who served as Mancini Mitchell’s vice president for about 25 years. “She was a tireless worker in the cause of Italian culture.”

Since the foundation’s inception in 1984, its membership has grown to 374 households. It holds events within the community to promote Italian heritage and sponsors students interested in studying Italian.

“Her family was from Tuscany, and she just wanted to keep that heritage and the culture and the language going,” said George Golfieri, who succeeded Mancini Mitchell as the group’s president in 2014. “That’s why she started the foundation — to have a focal point for the Italian community to come together. Something where they could come together and promote their heritage.”

Mancini Mitchell was born in Santa Rosa on Nov. 16, 1930 to first-generation Italian-American parents.

She attended St. Rose Catholic School before graduating in 1948 from the Catholic all-girls Ursuline High School, which closed in 2011 after 130 years in the community.

From Ursuline, she went on to Santa Rosa Junior College, where she first met her future husband, William Mitchell, now 90. The two wouldn’t begin dating until the summer of 1956.

“He dated her for two weeks, and they decided they were in love and to get married,” said Michelle McFetridge, 56, of Sacramento, one of their four children.

That same year, they did. This past Dec. 29, the two celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, surrounded by family and friends.

The two, both teachers, had four children, but “she was a mother to many,” Crane said. “She had that big heart.”

After graduating from SRJC, she attended Lone Mountain College, now part of the University of San Francisco, and then went on to get her teaching credential, working first in San Francisco, then moving back to Santa Rosa with her husband once they had their first child.

She retired as a resource specialist for the Rincon Valley School District in the late 1980s.

“She was a lively, spirited, elegant, classy lady,” daughter McFetridge said.

In addition to her husband and two daughters, she is survived by two sons, Mark Mitchell, 59, of Santa Rosa, and Matthew Mitchell, 53, of Vacaville; and brother George Mancini, 81, of Santa Rosa.

Services will be at Saint Rose Catholic Church, 398 Tenth St., Santa Rosa on March 31, with the rosary at 10 a.m.

Funeral Mass will be at 10:30 a.m., by the Rev. Denis O’Sullivan, with a lunch reception in the parish hall to follow.

The family asks that those who wish to may donate to the scholarship at Santa Rosa Junior College in her name, which benefits students studying Italian.

Contact information is foundation.santarosa.edu or SRJC Foundation, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95401.

“(Mancini Mitchell’s) beauty was both external, and even more so internal,” O’Sullivan said. “She just had a lovely spirit about her. To me, she is just a wonderful example of what it is to live your faith as a Christian.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.