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Charitable Sounds

Note: This is the 11th profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

Frances Burger Noetzel ’41 was a talented pianist. During her time at Notre Dame College, the music major delighted audiences with solo performances of Bach’s “Sonata No. 12,” Scarlatti’s “Italian Concerto” or Scriabin’s “Nocturne.” After graduation, she perfected her skills during advanced studies at the Conservatory of Music at Wooster College. Later, she kept her interest in music alive as a volunteer instructor at Mary B. Martin Elementary School, and as an organ and piano player at Gesu Catholic Church in University Heights.

Music was Noetzel’s passion, but it was not her only one. What really set the tone for Noetzel’s life was her commitment to make a difference and to serve others, particularly those of faith. She did so in several leadership positions on campus, in Cleveland and on a national scale, until her death in 2008.

Frances Burger Noetzel in 1941
Frances Burger Noetzel in 1941

Born in Rittman, Ohio, on Nov. 29, 1919, Frances Burger moved to Cleveland in 1937 to attend Notre Dame College. On campus, she got involved as a student council representative, a member of the co-op student board, a staff writer for the Notre Dame News, and class president.

Her commitment to her alma mater only grew stronger after graduation. During World War II, she worked for the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce on river and lakefront development programs and for Cleveland Aircraft. After marrying her husband Justin Noetzel, an accountant, in 1944, she quickly established herself as an alumnae leader. She became president of the College’s Alumnae Association and served on numerous committees after her one-year term ended in 1945. Among other things, she established study clubs within the Alumnae Association that helped women learn about developments in the religious field.

In recognition of her work for almost three decades, Noetzel became the first recipient of the Alumnae Association’s Woman of the Year Award in 1971.

“Fran is the embodiment of woman liberated, whose entire life has been one of self fulfillment in service to others through gentle, attractive leadership,” read the letter nominating Noetzel for the award. “Her understanding of the responsibility of a Catholic education has evolved with her ever deepening scholarship, maturing spirituality and selfless service to church and civic community.”

After receiving the award, Noetzel continued to serve Notre Dame for another 33 years. In 1979, she was elected to the College’s board of advisors and in 1990 she became a trustee after NDC’s governing structure was reorganized. She remained active on the board until 2004 and was named a “Life Member” after her resignation.

Besides giving her time and talent, Noetzel also supported the College financially. Together with her husband, she established Notre Dame’s first charitable annuity trust, which provided scholarship money to incoming students.

“Both my husband and I feel very strongly that the College has been a positive force in our lives,” Noetzel said. “The education and especially the formation have influenced our family life, and the relationship keeps growing. We think of the College really as an extension of our family.”

“I was on a scholarship at Notre Dame, and this is a way to help other students,” Noetzel said. “We want to see the College be able to continue forever.”

In recognition of her service to the College and its students, Notre Dame awarded Noetzel the Fidelia Award, one of its highest honors, in 1994. She was the first woman who was not a nun to receive the award.

While Noetzel’s commitment to the College was remarkable, she did some of her most important work with the Interfaith Commission of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese. A member since 1965, Noetzel helped develop guidelines for Catholic relationships with members of other churches and faiths, as well as for interfaith marriages.

Frances Burger Noetzel in 1990
Frances Burger Noetzel in 1990

“I grew up in a very small town in Wayne County,” Noetzel told The Plain Dealer in 1990, “and Catholics and Protestants cooperated there when I was a teenager in the 1930s, long before Vatican Council II opened the door to such ecumenical relationships.”

But when Noetzel first started working with the Interfaith Commission, the program was considered radical.

“It was new and it was somewhat strange for even Christians to reach out to each other,” Noetzel told The Plain Dealer in 1990.

That year, Cleveland Catholic Bishop Anthony M. Pilla presented Noetzel with an award for her work, noting her “devoted service to fostering Christian unity.”

Noetzel also had input on religious issues as a leader in Kappa Gamma Pi, the National Catholic College Graduate Honor Society, of which she had been a member since graduating from NDC in 1941. She served in various national leadership positions for the organization and eventually became its president in 1963.

During her four-year term, she established the KGP National Office, which was initially located in her own home and consolidated the records of the organization that had been scattered in members’ homes across the country. Even after her presidency was over, Noetzel continued to work for the organization on a national and international scale.

In addition to her work with NDC, the Cleveland Diocese and Kappa Gamma Pi, Noetzel was a board member at the Newman Foundation, where she chaired the distribution committee that supported campus ministry on Northern Ohio campuses; president of the parish council at Gesu; organizational services chairman of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women; and much more.

Noetzel accomplished all these things while raising five children.

“The activities you become heavily involved with are those you develop an interest in and knowledge of when your children are young,” she once said.

Noetzel’s generous spirit, her love for the Church and her fidelity to Notre Dame live on in her children and grandchildren today. Many of them were in attendance when the College celebrated the renewal of its Christ the King Chapel in 2008. The renewal was made possible in part through generous donations by the Noetzel family. They made the donations in memory of Frances, the woman whose charitable sounds can still be heard to this day.