In 1981, a year before her death, Grace Kelly Grimaldi—Princess of Monaco—made her last film appearance. She went to Rome to take part in Family Theater Production's "The Nativity."
This worthy production presents something about Grace Kelly that is little known today: her practice of the Catholic faith.
Everyone knows that the beautiful actress Grace Kelly married the Prince of Monaco. Not everyone knows that Grace Kelly was born, raised, lived, and died a Catholic.
The pop of the camera flash, the glitter of films, and the glamour of her photos have outshone other details of her life. We recognize her as a fashion icon, but who remembers that she went to Mass on Sundays?
Of course, simply going to Mass on Sundays does not guarantee the heroic virtue that signifies a holy life. Grace Kelly is a notable public figure, not a candidate for canonization.
But perhaps the dignity, the graciousness, the self-respect, the intellectual maturity, the courteousness, and the generosity of Grace Kelly—which set her apart from many film stars—could be traced to her faith and her Catholic education.
Various Hollywood stars of her day were "had-been" Catholics: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Rita Hayworth to name a few.
Grace Kelly, in contrast, actually attempted to live out her faith. Despite the sins and errors she made—which various biographers are happy to reveal or suggest—Grace never walked away from the Church.
Only God knows the intimate heart of a person. Only God knows the secrets of their soul and the deeper intentions behind their actions.
But facts do provide us with knowledge.
Donald Spoto's book High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly presents a forthright, non-sensationalized account of Grace's life. She trusted Spoto, permitting him to enter the family home and interview her. Most of her recorded words in that biography are what she told him herself in those interviews.
Mr. Spoto did not quite understand the Catholic faith—and because of that, aspects of Grace were not quite understood by him—but he had a respect for the Faith that is unusual for someone outside the Church. Rather than assuming the standard misconceptions, he seems to have admired Catholic principals, and did not "straw-man" Church teaching.
Like most people, I am deeply struck by Grace Kelly. Like other Catholics, I wish I knew more about her personal journey and the impact of Christ in her life. We won't know this side of paradise, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to go on.
Let's attempt to do some justice to the faith of Grace Kelly. We can start at the beginning, with what we actually know.
A Snapshot of Grace's Childhood
Grace Kelly was born into an affluent Philadelphia family on November 12th, 1929. She was the youngest of three children. A few weeks later, on December 1st, she was baptized at St. Bridget's Catholic Church in the East Falls neighborhood of Philly. (Interesting note: her family parish was founded by St. John Neumann.)
Grace's parents, John and Margaret Kelly, raised her in the Catholic faith. But as many people can relate to, Grace's family was not particularly devout. They attended Mass weekly and fasted from meat on Fridays. That seems to have been the extent of it.
And yet Grace Kelly owned her faith.
She did not treat it as a once-a-week-on-Sundays box that needed checking. Perhaps this is where a solid Catholic education (far more readily available in the 1940s than it is now) was powerful for her. As a young girl she attended Ravenhill Academy, which was run by the Religious of the Assumption, a teaching order of sisters.
Grace Kelly told author Donald Spoto about her experience with these sisters:
“They were remarkable women and I was enormously fond of them. They were strict about our studies, but also very, very kind...however rigorous their religious life, the nuns understood young girls and devoted themselves completely to our educational and spiritual welfare.”
A Catholic in Hollywood
After Grace Kelly's career in Hollywood became established, less seems to be known about the way she practiced her faith in her daily life. If more is known, Donald Spoto did not mention it in his book. He does casually mention her continued attendance at Mass at once point in the biography. But his focus is, understandably, her path to fame and the development of her acting abilities.
Grace Kelly had been well-formed, and she did not jettison her morals. That doesn't mean she lived impeccably. But she didn't succumb to the loose, amoral party life that most stars slipped into.
She was someone that people enjoyed being around. She was delightful, courteous, and had a lively sense of humor. But she preferred to decline invitations to be driven to parties—she wanted to drive herself, so that she could leave when she chose.
Later in her film career, when she was pursued by renowned designer Oleg Cassini and was seriously considering marrying him—even going so far as to be "unofficially engaged" to him—she had not set aside her faith. She took Oleg to Mass with her in France, where their romance was blossoming. He had followed her to the Riviera during the filming of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief.
It wasn't long before Grace had reached what Spoto calls a "crisis" in her life. She was at the height of her career; had won an Oscar for her performance in The Country Girl; was still considering marriage with Oleg; and was poised for further film opportunities.
But Grace was not happy. There are a variety of factors as to why, as there are for all of us when we are unhappy. Spoto does an attentive job of bringing some of the factors in Grace's life to light.
For one thing, she was oppressed by the atmosphere of Hollywood. She told Donald Spoto:
“My real life began with my marriage. Sometimes, looking back after so many years, I think I really hated Hollywood without knowing it. I had lots of acquaintances there, and people I enjoyed working with and learned a lot from. But I found a great deal of fear among people in Hollywood—fear of not succeeding, and fear of succeeding but then losing the success. I’ve often said it was a pitiable place, full of insecure people who had crippling problems. The unhappiness out there was like a smog—it covered everything.”
After she won an Oscar, and brought the coveted figurine back to her hotel suite, she called that "the loneliest moment of my life."
She wanted marriage, and to have a family, but did not believe in combining that with her career. "I don't believe in a part-time family life," she said.
"I was unhappy. I had fame, but you find that fame is awfully empty if you don't have someone to share it with."
It seems that she didn't want to let go of the possibility of marriage to Oleg, and yet was uncertain that she should marry him. In a letter to him around this time, she included these words:
One time you said to me that you couldn't love me any more than you did then. That upset me terribly, because I so hope that we shall never stop growing and developing our minds and souls and love for God and each other, and that each day will bring us closer.
You know how the story goes. She did not marry Oleg Cassini. But she met Prince Rainier III in what had been arranged as a publicity strategy. Whatever the human motivations involved, that meeting was no coincidence; it was providential.
Grace Kelly Marries a Prince
It wasn't too hard to arrange a meeting between the American actress and the Prince of Monaco. Grace Kelly was in Cannes (about thirty-eight kilometers from Monaco) for the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. She and her companions drove to Monaco and were given a tour of the palace before Prince Rainier—who was late to the meeting—even arrived.
After the Prince and Grace met, they spent some time chatting, walking the grounds a bit, while cameras clicked away. When they parted, Grace commented to those with her that "he was a charming man." That was it.
Shortly after, however, the two of them began a written correspondence. As Spoto points out, quoting Rainier himself, they were pen pals and friends "long before they ever held hands." And there was something very important that they shared: the Faith.
Donald Spoto writes [bold added]:
...they gradually came to see the similarities in their backgrounds. They were both public figures uncomfortable with their status as celebrities. They were both serious Catholics with more than a mere Sunday sense of obligation: they made no public displays, but faith was more than an inherited tradition—it was at the core of their lives. Their friends knew that religious practices were not burdensome obligations for these two; they were free and purposeful expressions of a deep if mysterious commitment.
As it turns out, Prince Rainier had made a pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1954 to ask the Blessed Mother for a wife. Later on, when this pilgrimage was mentioned to Grace, she had something surprising to reveal: her confirmation saint was Bernadette of Soubirous, Lourdes visionary.
The Prince and Miss Kelly married in 1956, and Grace began her new life among the royalty of Monaco.
The Last Years
Grace's full attention now turned to her duties as a princess and her role as wife and mother. She and Rainier had three children, and she was a devoted mother.
When Donald Spoto went to interview Grace, he did not see any nannies; Grace was looking after the children herself.
And now we come back to where we started, at the beginning of this article.
In 1981, Grace Kelly assisted the now-venerable Fr. Patrick Peyton in his work for Family Theater Productions. She had, in fact, first heard his famous phrase "The family that prays together stays together" on his radio station when she was a child.
"The Nativity" by Family Theater Productions was her last film.
In 1982, Grace died unexpectedly. She had a stroke while driving—never recovered consciousness—and died on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, September 14th. She was fifty-two years old.
It might sound a bit funny, but I've begun to pray for Grace Kelly and the souls of those whose work—whether in film, music, or otherwise—has impacted me. We pray for deceased family and friends (at least, we should be!) but who will pray for the soul of Frank Sinatra? Audrey Hepburn? Bing Crosby? Nat King Cole? There's been a lot of anguish in those lives. We enjoy their work but forget the hidden tragedies of life. We have the ability to pray for them—it is a gift that we can give. Prayers are never wasted. And none of us want to be forgotten!
Let's pray for Grace (how beautiful that her name was "Grace"!) whenever we think of her or come across her image.
May she rest in the peace of Christ.