Obituary: Founder of Priory Hotel Mary Ann Graf


Courtesy of McDonald-Linn Funeral Home

Mary Ann Graf — teacher, wife, mother, grandmother, volunteer and founder of the historic Priory Hotel — passed away peacefully from complications of lung disease on January 8, 2014. Beloved wife of Edward L. Graf, loving Mother of John E. (Suzanne) Graf of Ben Avon, Stephen L. (Andrea) Graf of Ben Avon, and Timothy J. (Karen) Graf of Alexandria VA, Mary Ann was also the doting “Oma” to grandchildren Laura, Will, Max, Charlie, Josh, Garrett, Ella Rose and Declan Graf. She was preceded in death by her sister Arlene Spiegel and her brother-in-law John Spiegel, Esq., as well as her parents Earl and Margaret Johnston. Mary Ann was also sister-in -law to Gail Hodgins and to Denis (Carole) Graf, and aunt to many nieces and nephews.

Born on June 7, 1938 and raised in Ingram, Mary Ann was graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1960. At Pitt, she was a sister of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority and was also the “Sweetheart of Phi Gamma Delta” fraternity, where she met future husband Ed. She was the first kindergarten teacher at Avonworth School District and later served as a CCD instructor at Sacred Heart Church in Emsworth.

Mary Ann and Ed lived in Ben Avon for over 30 years where her volunteer activities included Avon Club, the Ben Avon Fall Festival, and the “Music and Arts in ACORD” festival in Avonworth Park. She was a founding member of the Ben Avon Area Historical Association, and helped to save and restore the original Dickson Log Cabin, Ben Avon’s oldest building. She served as Board President of the North Boroughs YMCA and was a willing and indispensable volunteer for anything that would benefit the community or its schools.

In 1984 Mary Ann’s life changed when her husband took her to see the vacant St. Mary’s Church and Priory, two adjacent “National Register” landmark buildings in the Deutschtown section of the North Side which had been acquired by PennDOT for the construction of Interstate 279. Although saved from the wrecking ball by a change in the route of the highway, the structures would require significant restoration to be useable. Mary Ann and Ed agreed that she should attend the auction to acquire the property while Ed traveled overseas on a two week business trip. Upon Ed’s return, Mary Ann met him at the airport and announced “Well, we own a church and a priory…what are we going to do with them?!”

With an eye toward turning the historic church structures into a hotel and ballroom, Mary Ann was thus exposed to the world of restoration construction, city and state politics, and entrepreneurship. As she and Ed explored the history of the church (built in 1854) and priory (built in 1888), Mary Ann met a number of the Benedictine Brothers of St. Vincent Archabbey, the priests whose order oversaw St. Mary’s Parish, as well as many of the clerics whom had lived at the St. Mary’s Priory over the years. Along the way, she also grew to know countless former congregants of the church, along with many neighborhood preservationists. Ed and Mary Ann also learned that the German-speaking early church members included Ed’s grandfather Eugene, who had emigrated from Switzerland in 1883. She worked with three Pittsburgh mayors in the process of redeveloping the St. Mary’s Church and Priory– Richard Caliguiri, Sophie Masloff, and Tom Murphy.

The 25 room Priory Hotel opened in late 1986, and immediately received industry accolades as Pittsburgh’s first and only European-style boutique hotel. The Priory Hotel was later expanded in 2011 to 42 rooms. In 1995, Mary Ann and her family unveiled the restoration of the church into Pittsburgh’s Grand Hall at the Priory, which wins plaudits to this day as one of the city’s premier event destinations. Not content, Mary Ann and Ed restored a historic storefront on East Ohio Street in Deutschtown, transforming it into the neighborhood anchor bakery Priory Fine Pastries.

During her time as a North Side businesswoman, Mary Ann was active in many neighborhood and industry organizations, including serving as one of the first female board members of Visit Pittsburgh as well as the board of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. In 1999, Mary Ann and Ed completed their commitment to Deutschtown by restoring and moving into the historic “Frater House,” built in 1888, which had been a home to the Marianist Brothers who later taught at North Catholic High School). In June 2013, Mary Ann was recognized by the North Side Leadership Conference as one of the 30 most influential people in the last 30 years of development on the North Side.

Known for her generosity and giving spirit, Mary Ann will be sorely missed by her family, friends, employees and the community. Friends will be received at MCDONALD-LINN FUNERAL HOME, 529 California Avenue, Avalon, on Friday, January 10, from 2:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m., and 6:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m. A funeral mass will be held at Sacred Heart Church, 154 Orchard Avenue, Emsworth, on Saturday, January 11, at 10:00 a.m. Memorial donations in lieu of flowers are suggested to either the Ben Avon Area Historical Association, 136 Dickson Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15202, or Brothers Brother Foundation, 1200 Galveston Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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