Father Mark Schmieder, Founder and Chairman of the Board of St. Francis-St. Joseph Catholic Worker House, died on Christmas Eve at age 69. Father Mark was a compassionate and selfless man who will be much missed.
In June 2009, Father Mark wrote “Most of all, what I owe my thanks to is God. It is prayer that is the final line as I have seen the results of prayer so often in my own life and in the ministry. I look at this pancreatic cancer as just another phase in my life and also as a gift: to get my priorities in order. So often we concerned and worried about the wrong things in life.”
The Staff, Board of Trustees, and Catholic Worker House Guests extend
condolences to Father Mark’s family and friends.
The life of Fr. Mark is the story of a “man for others.” His years have been devoted to service of others, especially the neediest among us, as priest, teacher, social activist, prison chaplain, and advocate for the homeless.
In 1954, at the tender age of 14, Mark left his home and loving family in Minster, Ohio to join the seminary and prepare to serve as a Catholic priest. While still a seminarian, Mark worked during the summer of 1965 at a Bible Center in “Over-the Rhine,” which became a refuge for Appalachians migrating from the closed coal mining regions. Living among these folks was an eye-opener for young Mark and he felt a deep calling to serve those who struggled to make ends meet. He was more and more becoming concerned about the serious social problems of poverty, racism, hunger and militarism in this country.
Mark was ordained on May 28, 1966 and assigned to work in a parish and teach at Alter High School. He was well-prepared academically, with M.A.’s in philosophy and religious education. While teaching upper middle-class students, Mark also got caught up in the riots of 1967-68, and became more aware that there were two distinct societies in the United States. The same contrasts were evident to him in his next assignment, teaching at Springfield Catholic Central and serving as Chaplain at Wittenberg University. During this period, Mark’s service with underprivileged youth and his participation in protests against the Vietnam War further radicalized him. From 1973-80 Mark continued his teaching and pastoring in Cincinnati, and then took a two-year leave to reflect and decide where he could best be of service to the dispossessed.
In 1980 Mark took a position which he says deeply shaped his personal life spiritually and emotionally. He accepted the position of Catholic Chaplain at Lebanon Correctional and worked there for 22 years. Fr. Mark not only personally ministered to thousands of prisoners, he also initiated the Kairos Prison Ministry, which has now spread to nine prisons in Ohio. He has trained over 1200 volunteers to work in this prison retreat program and tells many wonderful stories of conversions and life changes among numerous prisoners.
In 1990, Fr. Mark also took on the leadership of St. Francis-St. Joseph Catholic Worker House, a shelter for homeless men. For 20 years, he led this shelter, where 35% of the men move on to independent living. At the same time, Father coordinated Catholic ministry for the Hamilton County Jails and served as President of American Catholic Chaplains. In this capacity, he was invited by President Bush to help welcome Pope Benedict XVI to the White House. Mark had also been very active in Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful.
It was not all work for Fr. Mark. He enjoyed racket ball and canoeing and has paddled 1500 miles in the Northwest. Mark was proud of the award his pleasure boat received in the Tall Stacks Celebration of 1999!
We have been blessed to have Fr. Mark among us. We thank him for his love, friendship and heroic service of others.
I never considered my brother, Mark, much of a cook, but when he entertained he loved to serve this Portabella appetizer: Drizzle large portabella mushrooms with soy or teriyaki sauce and marinate for ½ hour. Grill mushrooms 5 minutes per side and top with grated cheese to melt. They were delicious and he would always say, “You’re going love these!” So now whenever I make “Mark’s Mushrooms” I can hear him say, “You’re going to love these!”Darlene Dieringer
“Father Mark said ‘yes’ to God at many levels.”Mike Harmon
“Since we met Father Mark two years ago, we have mysteriously discovered that we are surrounded by dozens of caring, compassionate people.Michael & Robbie Dufek
“Mark was a tenacious guy; not just in the programs that he initiated or supported, but in all his life activities. He was the greatest brother that anyone could have. He leaves a huge empty place in our family.Luke Schmieder
“Mark was a treasured friend. I miss his smile and humor in the face of life’s daily challenges. I am thankful for his example of steadfast determination to bring hope and healing to the survivors of abuse. Father Mark was a courageous advocate for accountability, transparency, justice, equality and dialogue within our Church community.Kathy Weyer
“Father Mark will stand in my memory for what one of Jesus’ priests should be: prayerful, fun-loving, compassionate, dedicated to justice for all, and deeply concerned for the poor and the outcast. “An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop. Now there’s a pearl. A vagrant wanders empty ruins. Suddenly he’s wealthy.” The Sufi poet Rumi.Brennan Hill
Mark: Hunger Walk, PaddleFest, Christmas Carols-friend-River Captain, Papal invitee, brother—man—Catholic Worker House, Prison Chaplain, Devoted Activist—inspiration… the laugh, the face, the belief system—personal saint. Pray for us.Steve & Joyce Kiernan
Mark inspired me by always being a gentle crusader. Mark clearly stated his position on various issues, but was never overbearing, affirming in his position. Bob Busum
Father Mark… What can you say?… Doer… Giver… Selfless and admired by all who knew him!!! I guess you can call that “Saint”!!! I’m sure he will be missed, mostly by the people that needed him, but his good work will go on through his friends who are dedicated to what he believed in.Jack & Marie Eiting
Last summer, as part of an awareness fund raiser, Connections planted a flock of flamingos in Mark’s yard. He caught us as we were removing them and he was delighted and jovial as we talked “flamingo.” It was the first time I had met him and in that brief encounter his gentle and open spirit was evident.Rebecca Born
Mark’s enthusiasm and glee in a good plan were infectious. His openness to serving his fellow man in a humble, unassuming way was impressive. His determination to speak truth to those he felt needed to hear it (despite the repercussions) was courageous and admirable. He will be missed!Christi Eisenberg
I was 14 months older than Mark. In our youth we were servers together for the daily Mass for visiting priests. Our parents’ home was less than a half-block from church, so it was not a problem to be tasked for that chore.
I remember when we were about ages 10 and 11, Mark and I shared a morning paper route together; we had 105 customers. Mark had the northern half of our hometown and I had the southern half. We had to rise early about 4:00 a.m. in order to have the delivery finished before school started at 8:00 a.m. And, in the wintertime, the paper delivery was a nightmare for both of us!
Later on in life, Mark joined me on several trips to canoe wild rivers in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Mark became an expert canoeist.
In the past ten years, we were together almost two to three times a week. I helped Mark ‘prep’ his boat while it was in dry-dock so it would be ‘sea-worthy’ for his Ohio River excursions in the summer. We laughed while we worked together, recounting funny situations we had personally experienced.
Mark was a wonderful brother. Like a good friend said to me not long ago… ‘I will miss his laughter. I will miss his genuine smile and listening heart. I will dearly miss Mark.’ And so will I.Carl Schmieder
For any project I did at the House, Mark would always ask, “What is your backup plan?”Kevin Staigl
We have all seen the bumper sticker WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” Father Mark had no problem responding to that question; he lived a Jesus life in everything he did. “Whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you have done for me” was his mantra. We can only hope that the Good Lord will allow Mark to return as our guardian angel and help us perpetuate his teachings.Don and Mary Dufek
Of anyone I know, the closest to whom I think Jesus would be like today is Father Mark.Fran Harmon
“How’s your world?” Karl Fields
“First impressions are lasting impressions.” Keith Waller
“Let’s pray for the Kingdom.” Ron Brown
“Just want you to get yourself together.” Ted Lewis
November 1, 2009 was a momentous evening for all those connected with the Catholic Worker House. House Founder Father Mark Schmieder was subjected to the hilarity of a Hollywood style roast along with the warm cheer and deserved praise of a hearty toast. Two hundred friends and admirers packed the Hartwell Recreation Center, testimony to Father Mark’s selfless energy and unrelenting spirit. This is a man who has made a difference. And, this is a man who is, well, different.
Brennan Hill initiated the fun with a side-splitting parody of Father Mark, emphasizing that trademarked chapeau and purposeful demeanor. Mark’s brother, LeRoy, and sister, Darlene, apparently mindful of the Lord’s scrutiny, minimized the roasting and shared poignant stories of growing up with Mark. Long time friend, Mike Harmon, turned up the heat with a satiric epic poem and introduced us to “The Boat.” Apparently, Father Mark plied the waterways on a craft that was subject to much ridicule and jest. Fellow clergy, Fathers Harry Meyer, Tom Fitzsimmons and Stanley Neiheisel, along with friends, George Rebeck and Sam Schloemer, gleefully and metaphorically tied Father Mark to the mast with a catalogue of bon voyage stories. Sister Judy related comical tales of Father Mark’s visits and displayed items, many of dubious utility, that Mark brought to the Sisters from his travels. Pete Buzwinka recalled the stern warnings to Father Mark’s somewhat naive Kairos volunteers at Lebanon Correctional. Former Catholic Worker House resident, Kevin Staigl, brought us back to earth with his story of recovery through Father Mark’s committed intercession and the loving oversight of the House staff.
Finally, there was Father Mark at the podium, cherubic smile and humble hand commanding a halt to the long standing ovation. Naturally, Father said nothing about his extraordinary efforts to help others, but thanked God and his fellows for their love. Certainly, his message and the delightful tributes inspired all of us to increase our compassion and good works.
The attendees enjoyed a variety of tasty soups, including white chile, tomato bisque, chicken noodle and Italian wedding. Much gastronomic thanks to all of the volunteer chefs.
While the joyous spirit of the night was most fulfilling, the Worker House benefitted from over $25,000 in contributions related to the event. This is much needed and the House guests, staff and board thank all who attended and all who contributed time and money. Father Mark expressed his gratitude to all.
We wish to specifically thank these prime roast movers, members of Mark’s Thursday morning men’s group: Pete Buswinka, Jerry Davis, Rod Davis, Bill Malarick, John Murray, Don Rucknagel, Mike Shryock, Sam Schloemer.
Also, Pat Schloemer and Sr. Judy Tensing,
as well as others too numerous to name.
On behalf of the immediate family, welcome everyone to this funeral for Mark Schmieder. Welcome to our new Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, who graciously joins us today. Greetings to Mark’s brother priests. (He had said he expected six priests for his funeral. Nice try, Mark.) And a very special greeting to all those here who are recovering, or are homeless, or have been in jail, or who aren’t too sure where next month’s rent is coming from. You are Mark’s very special guests today.
A remarkable individual has been taken from us. Your presence in such large numbers this afternoon, the tributes in the media, the outpouring of affection and sorrow are some indication of the tremendous imprint of Mark Schmieder’s life. Mark stepped into our hearts and will abide there until our last days. To know him was the privilege of a lifetime. A biography is waiting to be written, but the print would have to be very small; a movie should certainly be filmed, but the actor would need to be large indeed. After this funeral, at the reception, there will be an opportunity for many more stories to be told. For now, as Mark would say, it’s time to give it my “best shot.”
2500 years ago, the Prophet Isaiah described a mysterious Servant, a “chosen one,” endowed with God’s spirit so that he might bring justice… “to serve the cause of right, to free captives from prison and to bring from the dungeon those who live in darkness.” Surely many hundreds and thousands of men and women have fulfilled that text: Jesus our Savior and Lord; Dorothy Day and Dorothy Stang, who were inspirations for Mark; and in an earlier era, St. Francis of Assisi.
In 1940, a new Chosen Servant was born, and Isaiah was about to be fulfilled again. Joan Chittester, one of Mark’s favorite writers, says that every person is an incarnation of God’s care and mercy— some much moreso than others.
It was a difficult delivery. To the doctors, it seem clear that the baby was dead and that the mother was dying, hemorrhaging. So the newborn infant Mark was set aside and forgotten while the staff tried to save the life of the mother. For at least thirty minutes he lay on a steel table, forgotten. Finally, someone glanced over and said, “Look, that baby is alive!” Thirty minutes set aside, forgotten, abandoned.
And Mark would dedicate his life to all those whom society had set aside, forgotten and abandoned— the throwaways of humanity. At a dinner in his honor on November 1, Mark summarized the theme of his life: “Nobody is a nobody in God’s eyes!” Not the toughest prisoner at Lebanon Correctional Facility, not the most forlorn homeless man in Over-the-Rhine, certainly not the condemned man on Lucasville’s Death Row, and not the victims of abuse— whether by a person or an institution. “You have to help the poor,” he would say. “The rich can take care of themselves.” Mark had sayings like, “Some people just need a helping hand,” and he always prayed “for anyone who may be losing hope.” Three months before he died, Mark again summarized his life in Street Vibes: “It is always easier to ignore the cries of others; if you acknowledge the pain of others you might be forced to do something about it.”
As far as I know, Mark did not walk on water. Knowing him, he probably tried, perhaps on Lake Erie or his beloved Ohio River. Instead he decided to buy a boat. An old boat— a boat that hardly needed to be locked, because no one would possibly steal it. The “Marco Polo” became a symbol of Mark’s life: bring people together, feed them, provide hospitality, build community— and often, go out onto the deep waters. Yes, enjoy the calm waters of downstream, but don’t be afraid to sometimes sail against the current. “Ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” God didn’t make any of us to live a small, safe, conventional life on the shores of society— but especially not Mark. He left a deep wake indeed.
And sometimes he did sail against the current. “People live in a culture of fear,” he would say. “That’s why things don’t change.” Mark was certainly not afraid to speak the truth to power. More than one prominent bishop nationwide knew very well Mark’s strong views on women in ministry, the handling of the abuse crisis, the church’s use of resources. (I can easily imagine some bishop reading his mail and saying “who is this Schmeyeder guy?”) And I feel sure that City Hall knew very well the return address of 1437 Walnut Street.
And on one remarkable afternoon, Mark found himself close up at the intersection of church and civil power: on April 16, 2008 he found himself only fifty feet from both Pope Benedict and President George Bush. The invitation came from the President, and we kidded him: “Mark we always knew you were a closet Republican! You made a large contribution to the Republican Party!” Just recently I learned that the invitation actually came from the Pope.
Don’t be afraid to leave the harbor, to try to walk on water, to travel upstream. Live life fully every day, leave a deep wake behind you— because none of us knows how long we have. In March, ‘gallstones’ became pancreatic cancer. Five year survival rate: 5%. Massive chemotherapy and radiation. On Thursday August 3 at 7:00 pm, my phone rang: “Bill, what are you doing for dinner tonight?” 7:00 pm. We sit down, he picks at his food. “My tumor marker is 67,000; it’s supposed to be 37. The cancer is everywhere. I can feel it. I’ve known about it since Tuesday.” How do you begin to say that you’re dying? (Mark liked so speak of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane: twice Jesus begged that God would take the ‘cup’ from him— but something happened on the third time. Perhaps something happened deep inside Mark.)
He later wrote that the cancer was a gift, that it helped him get his priorities in order, but he loved life too much to leave without a struggle: from the treatments, to Lourdes France, to the Mayo Clinic, finally to Washington State. I can tell you that Mark gave cancer his best shot, as he did everything else since that miraculous day in 1940.
It seems impossible that that hearty laugh is now stilled, that never again will any of us hear, “What’s happening?” But we do hope and believe that by the grace and mercy of God, Mark has reached the other shore. And that there to welcome him, besides his brother Paul whom he loved so much, and his family, will be a huge throng of the poor and homeless and forgotten and abandoned, the cast aside and lowly— the anawim of every nation, religion, and color. And in the midst of them all, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who once said, “Whatever you did for the least of my brethren, you did it for me.”
Mark, thanks. You are forever written on our hearts.
Over the past 2 months, the Staff and the Board of Trustees of the SFSJ Catholic Worker House have come to a renewed sense of purpose in honoring the vision of Father Mark Schmieder, House Founder and former Chairman. We have clarified our roles, voiced our expectations and solidified our trust in one another.
Often the loss of a leader, especially one who led by example, is a scary time in an organization. However, the SFSJ Catholic Worker House is blessed with Father Mark’s vision imbedded in the very structure of the House: in our Mission Statement, Bylaws and Policy Manuals lay the codified path; in the shared experience of knowing Father Mark lays the spiritual path.
We hope more readers of this newsletter will come to know the Staff and Board and join us in the daily life of the House. There’s always room at our dinner table for you. Volunteering your conversation with our guests is a donation we cannot buy.
We would like to reiterate what we said in a previous letter sent to the many friends of the House:
Father Mark imparted to us the true meaning of Jesus’ teachings through his tireless and selfless efforts to rescue those forgotten by society.
Father Mark cannot be replaced. However, through his inspiration and unwavering faith, the House will proceed with its mission of helping homeless men adopt principles of responsibility and become useful members of society. Father Mark taught us how to run an effective operation on a tight budget. We are blessed with excellent management and staff along with a fully engaged Board of Trustees. We wish to assure our compassionate and generous donors that the SFSJ House remains viable and will continue Father Mark’s vision to help homeless men help themselves. This is Father Mark’s legacy.
We thank you for your continuing support and hope to meet you soon.Joyce Kiernan