A lifetime of giving

Frances Maguire’s enduring generosity

By Kristin Holmes
Posted 7/20/23

It would have been easy for Frances Maguire to get lost in her own life. But she found a way to do much more.

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A lifetime of giving

Frances Maguire’s enduring generosity


It would have been easy for Frances Maguire to get lost in her own life.

The Wyndmoor artist raised eight children while her husband James, a high-powered insurance executive, traveled the world building what would become a multi-billion dollar business. And Frannie, as she was known, did it at a time when social norms dictated priorities for a woman's life. Her place was at home.

But amid societal expectations for women of a certain time, and the demands as well as the joys of motherhood, Maguire found a way to nurture her own interests and carve out pieces of a busy day to reserve them – unapologetically – for herself. 

“She would say, always have something of your own,” said Megan Maguire Nicoletti, Frances Maguire’s daughter. That something, the interests and activities cherished by Maguire, who died at 84 in 2020, also have helped fuel her family’s philanthropy, impacting education, social services and the arts for decades to come. 

In the years since it was founded in 2000, Maguire Foundation has given millions to universities, museums, charitable organizations, schools, and students. Many of the beneficiaries of the family’s generosity are based in Northwest Philadelphia and the nearby suburbs, where the Maguires made a home for their family, shopped for groceries, enrolled their children in school, and attended church. 

Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, where Maguire studied art and served on the board, received a $10 million gift from the family, facilitating the institution’s purchase of the nearby St. Michael’s Hall, which has been renamed Frances M. Maguire Hall.

Scores of scholarships

Chestnut Hill College is one of the scores of schools that offer a Maguire Scholars scholarship program for students, an endowment that benefits students from grade school to college. At Face to Face in Germantown, a social services nonprofit organization where Maguire taught art, the family’s flood of donations has helped to renovate what is now a community center bearing the Maguire name. Gwynedd Mercy University in Lower Gwynedd, where Maguire earned a medical secretary degree and studied nursing, has received more than $20 million leading to the plans for a Frances M. Maguire healthcare innovation campus and the renaming of the college’s school of nursing and health professions in honor Maguire. 

A record-setting gift of $50 million to James Maguire’s alma mater St. Joseph’s University has helped with student aid and programming and facilitated St. Joe’s lease of the former Barnes Foundation museum in Merion, which has been renovated and reimagined as the new Frances M. Maguire Art Museum.

“The Maguires used the Jesuit motto of being a person for others as their motto,” said Mary Kay Meeks-Hank, executive director of Face to Face, “and Frannie exemplified that to every person she met.”

As a benefactor, Maguire, who attended daily Mass at Our Mother of Consolation Church in Chestnut Hill, was inspired by her faith to give. She was “warm” and “direct,” said William Valerio, Woodmere’s Patricia Van Burgh Allison director and CEO.

During one outdoor museum event, Valerio sat down on the garden grass with Maguire, who was clad “in a beautiful dress.” They sat and talked even as a light drizzle sprinkled down. “You knew exactly what she thought at any moment. If she liked something she said it – or didn’t. She’d say ‘Oh, I’m not that interested in that,’” Valerio said. “She wasn’t somebody who was coy or mysterious or held back.”

Sharing God's beauty

Her commitment to the arts was also rooted in her spirituality, Valerio said. “Art was a means for “sharing that beauty she found in God with others,” Valerio said. “Art was deeply spiritual for Frannie.” Her longtime interest in art was amplified after she was injured in a bike accident and painted during her recuperation.

Maguire created colorful abstract canvases and sculpted busts, often of people she knew. At home, she would cook dinner nightly for her family, and, in the middle of preparing the beef burgundy, scurry off to apply a few brush strokes to a piece she was working on in her makeshift studio, the mudroom next to the kitchen. 

Her artistry also infused her gardening, an award-winning hobby for which she would scavenge in the trash, looking for the perfect planter. In one case, an old box spring she found became part of a winning entry in the Philadelphia Flower Show. 

“She was a notorious trash picker,” said Nicoletti, who runs the family foundation. “My dad is like ‘You have all this junk and debris in the back of the car. What is going on? You need your car cleaned out.’” Her mom would explain, “But it’s for my art.”

Maguire’s parents, who worked as a physician and a nurse, had introduced their daughter to art and culture, sparking a near lifelong interest. When Maguire began dating her husband-to-be, he had recently returned from serving in Korea and was a student at St. Joseph’s University. The couple shared the experience of growing up in large Irish-Catholic families. 

Numbers and art

On Thanksgiving in 1957, a day that James Maguire could get off from school, the Maguires married. Frances Maguire wore her sister’s wedding dress. The couple began their life together in a third-floor walk-up in Germantown as James Maguire started building the insurance business that would become Philadelphia Consolidated Holding Corp. with the help of his wife, who ran the office.

“He was in the numbers world and she was raising children and making art,” Nicoletti said. It was as if, “He was watching black and white movies and she was the color.” His wife was so popular and outgoing that James Maguire, for a time, was best known as Frannie’s husband, he writes in his autobiography, “Just Show Up Every Day.” 

Eventually, the family moved to Wyndmoor.

“She did everything in Chestnut Hill,” Nicoletti said. “She would walk from her home in Wyndmoor, down Gravers Lane to Germantown Avenue to go into Caruso’s Market, to get [ingredients for] dinner.” Maguire shopped for her family at discount stores, buying her daughter’s prom dress at a consignment shop on Germantown Avenue. She squeezed in art classes and gifted her children and family with pieces, writing notes on the back that encouraged and affirmed them. 

In 2008, James Maguire’s firm was part of a $5 billion merger of the holding company with the Tokio Marine Group, a Japanese company. The Maguires continued to share their wealth, and Frances spent time with and got to know the people who are affected by the causes that were dear to her.

During her last 10 years, Maguire’s health declined. Nicoletti cared for her mother and the family surrounded her. But while she needed help, Maguire still found a way to do what she loved, including attending art classes regularly at Woodmere. 

Maguire died in February 2020. Since then, her family has struggled to cope with her absence. Decades before, the Maguires had mourned the loss of a son who died in infancy. James Maguire, ever the businessman, looked for a formula.

“How do you do this thing called grief? He wanted an answer,” Nicoletti said. “Who can you call, or what script or policy [is there?].”

His solution: surrounding himself with memories of his wife – and continuing to give.

“After she died,” Meeks-Hank said, “one of the first things Jim did was come here with trunks full of her clothing [to donate to] Face to Face.”