The inspiration behind Chestnut Hill’s Musehouse

After 13 years teaching English at Cheltenham High School, Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno took an early retirement. For at least seven years she had dreamed of founding Musehouse: A Center for the Literary Arts, and, finally, this opportunity was upon her.

After the tragic murder of her 21-year-old daughter, Leidy, in 2003, Sheeder Bonanno composed Slamming Open the Door, a collection of poems reflecting on the horrific crime and its aftermath.

The poetic memoir was well received in the academic and grief and loss communities after it was published in April 2009. It quickly became the No. 9 best seller for contemporary poetry and earned Sheeder Bonanno the Beatrice Hawley Award.

“It was through the touring of that book that I was reminded in a really significant way of the power of writing to heal and to build bridges between us,” said Sheeder Bonanno. “People really wanted to share what their particular loss was and were really grateful for my attempt to speak candidly and unsentimentally in some art form about our loss.”

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Following the book tour, Sheeder Bonanno was contacted by the Knight Foundation, a group that awards grants to literary and arts organizations.

“They invited people to submit their best ideas and my best idea was to start a Musehouse,” Sheeder Bonanno said.

The Knight Foundation liked her idea ad awarded her a $50,000 matching grant to do just that.

September 2011 marked the much-awaited opening of Musehouse. The center is currently offering 20 spring writing workshops and hopes for at least 12 to be fully enrolled with the maximum six students.

As Sheeder Bonanno settles into her first year as director of Musehouse, she remembers her daughter’s legacy and feels her memory is part of the fabric of the literary center.

“Attempting to turn [loss] into art changed me for the better,” Sheeder Bonanno said. “We’ve had some magical readings here. Certainly, some wonderful things have happened around the table with the writers in our memoir classes and when those beautiful moments happen I do attribute it to the presence of my daughter in this place.”


Becky Kerner and Kris Kitts are students at Temple University. Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a NewsWorks content partner, is an initiative of the Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.

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