Betty J. Schneider 1918-2013

Betty J. Schneider, born July 21, 1918 in rural Minnesota, hailing from a family chicken farm near the town of Austin, passed to her eternal reward from Chicago on Christmas Day, 2013, after a lifetime of commitment to racial and social justice within the Roman Catholic tradition.

Betty was the first to volunteer at Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Friendship House in Harlem, New York City, in 1938, having traveled from her southern Minnesota farm for adventure during a college summer.

Thereafter Betty was continuously involved in the Friendship House apostolate as a volunteer, staff member, or board / adviser, becoming the Friendship House National Director in the 1950s when FH maintained five houses (now closed) throughout the United States.

A 1939 graduate of the College of St. Benedict at St. Joseph, Minnesota, which recognized her in recent years with a President’s Award, Betty also earned an MSW from Fordham University.

After her 1950s Friendship House directorship, Betty worked for the Chicago Public Schools, and for many subsequent years was the college placement counselor at the University of Chicago Lab School. In retirement she worked as an educational consultant, while residing throughout her latter Chicago days in St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Besides recognition from the College of St. Benedict, Betty received several other awards, including a citation in the early 1990s from the Council for College Attendance.

When Chicago’s Friendship House ran a day shelter for the homeless on Division St. during the 1980s until closing in 2000, Betty still served food at FH meals following regular liturgies and contributed much at FH Chicago Board meetings.

In her final years Betty assisted Chicago historians in identifying photographs brought to her from the Chicago History Museum’s collection on racial justice efforts in Chicago.


The following are excerpts / paraphrases from my U.S. Catholic Historian article on Friendship House and from the 1978 40th anniversary issue of FH’s Community Magazine (see page 38):

Betty’s 1937-38 year of college, saw visits from four now noted American Catholics: Catherine de Hueck, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Fr. Paul Hanly Furfey, sociologist and author of Fire on the Earth, who had lectured and then given a retreat. Betty and friend Jo Zehnle decided to write Dorothy and Catherine and see if they could work with them that summer. Dorothy did not write back but Catherine did. Betty recollected in the Friendship House oral history Catherine’s message as:

“Well sure, come and I’ll get you a family to live with in the neighborhood. There’ll be good days and bad days but you can come share whatever we have.” And so that was the summer of 1938, and I went to work in Harlem.

Betty Schneider brought two African American female students, Kathleen Yanes and Gertrude Danaval, with her when returning to the College of St. Benedict in the Fall of 1938, thus beginning the racial integration of that college. This direct personal action was the Friendship House pattern established by Catherine de Hueck, which Betty typified.

Friendship House staff and volunteers Betty Schneider, Bill Flynn, Monica Smith Cox, and Ed Adams were beaten in Chicago by bigots after they walked down a Chicago street together in 1946. Ed, the lone African American male in the group, was arrested.

In one memorable incident in the 1960s, Betty asked the donor of the Lewis Towers building on Loyola University’s campus why she did not allow African Americans to swim in the donated swimming pool.


But Betty Schneider should have the last word. Here is a reminiscence she wrote in 1978 of her days with Friendship House:

My prayer at nineteen was “I don’t care what you do with my life, Lord, but please, don’t make it dull.” Its answer, I can see now, was Friendship House.

From that summer of 1938 when I boarded a bus with a college friend to spend two months of what I thought would be hardship in Harlem, New York City, it has been a constant influence. It has given me highs and lows that make the Psalms come alive, Psalms I learned at F.H. in the daily Prime and Compline. It’s challenged talents I never knew I had and some I didn’t have and it has brought an over-riding theme to my life and my work. Whether within or outside the staff circle of Friendship House, I’ve always been involved, one way or another, in black-white relations.

Hundreds of memories jumble together to make a mosaic of what Friendship House is to me. There are the little in-house phrases, often humorous, sometimes profound- “I would I could a bourgeois be;” “being before doing” which an occasional staff-worker would facetiously interpret as avoiding work of a morning while prone, he was striving “to be;” “Work is love made visible,” “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.” Most were not original with us, but they became a part of us.

There was the pain and the heartwarming notes of trying to be a “civil rights movement” before the civil rights movement, the agonies and the joys of living in community, the anxieties of rent to pay and typewriters that almost seemed to walk out the door, and the sense of security that came when, providentially and often at the last moment, money or substitutes were provided.

The smell of Harlem of an early morning; singing through a requiem from the front pew at Saint Elizabeth’s, all alone when a delegated partner didn’t hear her alarm; traveling by bus, by train, by plane, and most of all with donated cars that managed to break down at the most inopportune times- all are part of a nostalgic mix with a strong meaning for me.

On food alone, I could wax eloquently, strange in so far as we talked of detachment but understandable, nevertheless, for feast and famine related to donations. Never to be forgotten for all of F.H. in the forties and early fifties was Teevie [Elizabeth Teevan], our greatly loved house mother, who, believe it or not, fed us well on $2.50 per week. Her dedication to Blessed Martin (now St. Martin de Porres) probably named our array of soups, salads, and casseroles for him. All were combinations of leftovers, prepared by as many different cooks as there were workers, and differing primarily in kind through the addition of water, mayonnaise, or a baking dish. There were the successes and there were the disasters. Who could forget sauerkraut, beets, and tangerines all in one soup?

There are the funny and the poignant tales of trying to live poverty or identify with poor only to find that the people who left and married often began to do both. We built courages in the strains of programs that failed, problems that loomed insurmountable and perplexities that were inevitable in the comings and goings of hundreds of young idealists. The greatest of these for me has been the “courage to re-organize.” Sometimes at very low ebb, it revives itself at crucial times in my work or in volunteering at F.H. through the years. It comes, I think, because basically, I learned, as we used to say, “God is a friend of the family,” and trying to serve is His work.

Friendship House gave me contact with a great variety of life styles, and a realization of the need for change. It offered opportunities to work for that change and helps to deal with it when it came suddenly in the church, in race relations, and in my life.

Most of all, it gave me friendships that stretch across the country and farther. Built on working, struggling, playing, and praying together, they remain. Their joys are renewed-in a visit to the B and Combermere, a chance meeting with a Casita “kid” twenty years later, and F .H. weekend or party-for I share a vision and a common experience with a circle of people. God grant that I can give to them a little of the confidence and security I feel in those sharings. They bring a height and a depth to my life and a sense of expectancy. They’ve brought the adventure I so glibly sought in my teens.

Betty Schneider, from Community, Vol. 37, No. 3, 1978, pp. 21-22.

As of this 1/6/14 writing, due to the holidays and to the extreme cold in Chicago, memorial arrangements are still pending for Betty Schneider. I’ll post something here as soon as details are known. May she rest in the Lord’s peace!

© Copyright 2014, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved


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3 Responses to “Betty J. Schneider 1918-2013”

  1. Matt Kramer says:

    Thank you for posting Al –
    I have been so certainly enriched by having known Betty – God bless her !
    Please inform me when memorial arrangements have been finalized. If I can be of help let me know.

  2. Claire says:

    Dear Al, Thank you so much for this information. I am trying to research the life of my great aunt, Betty Plank, who worked at Friendship House in Chicago for many years. Do you have any information about her?

  3. Claire,

    Thanks very much for writing. Happy to help. Betty Plank is mentioned on page 54 of the 1978 40th anniversary issue of FH’s magazine, Community —

    You may wish to try Sr. Louise Sharum’s dissertation, A Strange Fire Burning, which you might be able to get via interlibrary loan with the help of your local librarian —

    Also, the archives of Friendship House at the Chicago History Museum from the late 1960s and early 1970s should have more information about Betty Plank.

    In Christ,

    Albert Schorsch, III

    © Copyright 2014, Albert J. Schorsch, III
    All Rights Reserved

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