East Falls bus tour takes Grace Kelly fans to her childhood home, church, theater and school

It’s no secret that members of the Kelly family left their mark on Philadelphia’s history.  In East Falls, it’s a point of pride to talk about the theater where Grace Kelly made her acting debut and the schools that she and her siblings studied at.

This weekend, those neighborhood landmarks were the focus of an East Falls Historical Society sightseeing tour.

The tour was a kick-off to a public dedication ceremony for a historical state marker to be placed in front of the original Kelly family home, located at Henry Avenue and Coulter Street, on Saturday, Oct. 27.

The free tour, which carried attendees in a limousine, was funded in part by the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia, East River Bank and the office of City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.

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Patricia Cheek, who wrote the proposal for the historical marker, says she hoped the tour would shine a light on the family and their ties to East Falls.

“The tour features places that are significant to the Kelly family,” said Cheek. “Not many people know how active the Kellys were here. We wanted to bring these details to the public and make these places more accessible.”

Exploring old Kelly haunts 

The first stop on the tour, William Penn Charter School, is the oldest Quaker school in the world and was established in 1689 by William Penn. Members of the Kelly family, including John B. Kelly Jr., who graduated in 1945 and John B. Kelly III, who graduated in 1978, attended the school.

Another stop on the tour, Ravenhill Academy, a former private Catholic girls school, was attended by Grace Kelly. The school was overseen by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Sisters of the Assumption.

Ellen Sheehan, president of the EFHS, spoke to the tour group about her time at Ravenhill as a teacher.

“I remember there were lots of beautiful antiques everywhere,” said Sheehan, who pointed out that one of the two front parlors were used for school board meetings. “Mrs. Margaret Kelly, Grace’s mother, was on the board. She was the kind of woman who spoke her mind.”

Sheehan also noted that even after becoming Princess of Monaco, Grace kept in touch with one of the school’s teachers, Sister Francis Joseph, through letters and phone calls.

Today, the school is owned by Philadelphia University and the mansion is used for classes and art exhibitions.

More Kelly connections

The last three stops on the tour, the former Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Old Academy Players and St. Bridget Parish – all played a role in the lives of the Kelly family.

Margaret Kelly was involved in fundraising for the college, which was the first medical school for women in the world when it was founded in 1850. Today, the school is a part of the Drexel University College of Medicine.

Grace’s picture is hung by the front door of the Old Academy. One tour attendee, Carol Conway of Drexel Hill, says her mother, Edith Conway, performed with Grace at the theater.

“My mother says Grace was kind of quiet,” said Conway, who recently took her 91-year-old mother to see a production at the theater. “Both of my parents were involved there, we love Old Academy.”

Between the ages of 11 and 14 Grace performed in six plays at Old Academy and on their 34th anniversary she sent the theater a congratulatory telegram.

East Falls resident Mike Daily says seeing members of the Kelly family at St. Bridget Parish, located on Midvale Avenue, over the years was “no big deal.”

“People knew who they were,” said Daily, who says his aunt babysat for the Kellys, “but no one made a fuss over them. This neighborhood is really mixed economically. It’s a regular neighborhood, that’s why I love it. East Falls is beautiful – we’re like a hidden town right on the banks of the Schuylkill.”

‘A part of our history’

Three women who attended the tour together say they are interested in the Kelly family because they all grew up in East Falls.

“It’s a part of our history,” said Lillian Cannon, who now lives in Schwenksville, Pa., “I remember my mother used to wash and iron the Kelly family’s clothes – we were poor. My mother was very active at St. Bridget’s too, she used to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the nuns there every year.”

Roni Donnelly, who now lives in nearby Roxborough, says she remembers seeing Grace in the neighborhood.

“I remember Grace would drive around in her black convertible,” said Donnelly. “It had her initials printed on it in gold letters. She’d shop; I’d see her get an ice cream, buy nail polish, things like that.”

Marie Kinsinger, who still lives in East Falls, says she loved learning more about her Fallser roots at the tour.

“I learned a lot about my hometown today,” said Donnelly, “East Falls is a unique place.”

The dedication of the Kelly family historical state marker will be held on Saturday, Oct. 27, at McMichael Park and is open to the public. The ceremony will begin at 1 p.m. and include bagpipe music. Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. will address the crowd, as well as John B. Kelly, III, who will speak on behalf of the Kelly family.

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