An Alley in Chicago

“To Serve God and Be of Some Use to People”

That wasn’t the end of his troubles with Latin, Jack admits. At the major seminary all the courses were taught in Latin. “Our textbooks were in Latin, the lectures were in Latin, examinations were in Latin.” When Jack didn’t fare well his first semester, the professor of his most important class identified Latin as the pothole on Jack’s road to learning. Taking Jack aside, he tactfully adverted to his inauspicious grades.

“Mr. Egan,” he said, “I would like to recommend that you think about going to a seminary where they teach philosophy and theology in English instead of Latin.”

Having established himself at Mundelein in spite of his difficulties at Quigley, Jack wasn’t going to be dismissed that easily. Casting about for an alternate solution, he studied fellow seminarians who were successful, who could do what he couldn’t do, who could learn the theology based on the Council of Trent (when the Catholic Church defined its doctrines in the late sixteenth century) and the philosophy based on Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century scholastic philosopher, also definitive) in the language of the Caesars. He asked a couple of them to tutor him in their skills. He picked the right pair.

Jack’s knack for picking the right people went back to his high school days when he chose the staff for the DePaul Academy newspaper he edited. It was then he began developing “an ability which stood me in good stead through the years.” When he had a position of authority, he seized instinctively on appropriate confederates. Part of the skill may have been inborn, but Jack developed it deliberately. Later on, he would intuitively scan gatherings for recruits the way retirees scour suburban parkways with metal detectors. As a result, he remembers his good friend Father Kevin Conway telling him on a street in Baltimore, “You may not be very bright, Jack, but you certainly know how to pick good people.”

All Jack had ever learned to do was memorize. “George Drury and John O’Connell showed me how to think of an entire thesis instead of simply memorizing the proofs. It was then, in my first year at the major seminary when I was twenty-one years of age, that I finally learned to study.” Drury and O’Connell made it possible for Jack to stay at St. Mary of the Lake. Jack’s contribution to his own advancement was finding the right people. That knack for descrying tutelary geniuses—and, in time, becoming one—was as natural to Jack Egan as greeting Sunday morning Mass-goers with a smile.

Like Jack, his classmates were Depression kids. Born during the war to end all wars, they’d spent their early years in a world of illusory stability and fragile prosperity. Even during what are looked back on as the boom years of the twenties, Jack’s family seemed poor to him, although his father always had a steady job. A basement apartment under a north Broadway plumbing establishment in the early twenties was not palatial accommodation. Sleeping with his brother in a Murphy bed they pulled out of its wall cupboard each night was not luxury living, nor was sharing a bed on a sun porch until he went to the seminary.

Jack was ten when his father said, “When are you going to go out and get a job?” and launched his career, “if you can call it such,” of some ten years of rolling out of his bed at four in the morning to cart the Chicago Tribune and Herald Examiner to the parents of his classmates still abed. Later on, Jack added an afternoon route and tossed copies of the afternoon papers, the Chicago Daily News and the Abendpost, up on porches and front steps while his classmates tossed softballs in the neighborhood’s empty lots.

On the morning after the presidential inauguration in March, 1929, when Herbert Hoover told Americans that they had “reached a higher degree of comfort and security than has ever existed before in the history of the world,” Jack Egan was up as usual at four in the morning delivering the newspaper which quoted the new president’s unfortunate—and unprescient—claim. Jack’s family, like most of the working class, had not got a fair shake in the evanescent boomtime of the twenties. Although there was more wealth than ever before in the country, the working classes were not getting their share, a factor in the trouble brewing. Their purchasing power—if they had had a fair shake—could have kept U.S. production increasing and possibly staved off the worldwide shutdown.

Jack saw this close at hand the summer of 1934 when he was working with his father at the Chicago Motor Coach. The drivers went out on strike. On the midnight to eight a.m. shift, Jack got all the reports on “what the goons were doing to the motor coach drivers, shooting ball-bearings with slingshots through windshields of the busses of the drivers who were joining the union, breaking their legs on the curb with baseball bats—cheery things like that.”

“There was a lot of bloodshed and finally (the goons) broke the attempt of the union to organize the drivers which turned me against company unions and made me see that they would always be a tool of the company. The independence of the workers in choosing representatives to truly represent them was just ignored. That was 1933-34. It made me realize the absolute necessity for labor unions and the labor movement in the U.S.”

Even though Jack’s father counseled patience, “Don’t knock it, son, because that is the company that is putting bread on the table,” Jack turned against the management and decried the Motor Coach management ads in the Chicago Tribune arguing the company should not be organized. “They really detested, hated Franklin Roosevelt, and they felt the unions were a tremendous attack on the whole free enterprise system.”

In some ways, the Depression years were more democratic than the boom times. Few families totally escaped hardship when men and machines lay idle everywhere in the Western world. The entrenched poor and the suddenly poor tramped the streets searching for buttons to maintain their sanity, queued in soup kitchens, sold apples and pencils, got a night’s sleep in municipal lodging houses. Beggars marked the back doors of housewives found willing to share a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

The young seminarians at Mundelein coming out of a babushka, nine-day-novena and vigil-light-in-the-parlor Church knew personally of Depression conditions even if they had never personally gone to bed hungry or stuffed cardboard into their shoes to keep out winter’s slush. They had seen the Depression overwhelm families. Many of them were sensitized to the plight of the poor and, like Jack Egan, were ready to take a more intense interest in the role of labor unions and the condition of the working man than they might have in more prosperous times.

By 1937 when Jack’s class came to St. Mary of the Lake, the nation was coping under President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration although suffering was still widespread. At Mundelein the new seminarians found unaccustomed amenities in what was considered the crown jewel of American seminaries. They passed copies of seventeenth and eighteenth century masterpieces in their marble halls. They looked down on flower gardens in American flag designs. They stared up at a library interior modeled after the Barberini Palace in Rome, in a building with an Early Georgian exterior. Even if they hadn’t heard tales of Cardinal Mundelein tramping the site with his architect Joseph McCarthy, planning the unlikely blend of Roman interiors and Early American exteriors to link the Church’s long history to the country’s, the seminarians felt ennobled—as the United States’ first American cardinal west of the Alleghenies meant they should—by their new environment. Being at Mundelein, they shared an eminence with His Eminence.

Their homes away from home were the Early American dormitories of the Cardinal’s dream seminary. His home away from his stately mansion on north State Street in Chicago duplicated Mount Vernon. The main chapel at the seminary was a double of the Congregational Church in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Its chandeliers were replicas of the enormous brass and crystal chandeliers in the White House. Other buildings were also ambitiously Georgian. What Cardinal Mundelein had conceived as a melting pot for archdiocesan seminarians had inflated into a sacred vessel of dramatic proportion.

From its inception, Cardinal Mundelein insisted on an austere regime at the seminary, an almost monastic schedule of exercises, classes and study periods. There were no magazines to read, no novels, no radios. Seminarians were discouraged from banding in groups. They couldn’t visit in each others’ rooms or speak in the corridors. They couldn’t go home for Christmas. If the regulations and scheduling were austere, however, the accommodations were first class. Each seminarian had his private room and bath, his own desk and bed. Facilities for sports—which were encouraged—were lavish for the times: a swimming pool, a superb gymnasium, and ball fields far more satisfactory than the vacant lots where most of the seminarians had played piggy-bounce-out as kids.

Cardinal Mundelein would have been gratified at Jack Egan’s reaction to his university of the west. “There wasn’t an unhappy day. Were there tough days? Yes. I loved it. It was the first time I had my own room, my own bathroom. It was the first seminary in the world where every room had its own facilities. The food was good. The professors were good, I thought. The studies were exciting.”

Jack took in stride the discipline fearsome to young men not conditioned by authoritarian fathers. He liked the orderliness of the day, the pressure of the studies, and the companionship of the other seminarians. He felt respected by his classmates, although “I wasn’t one of the favorite guys in the class,” he says.

A great, wide, stimulating world was opening up for Jack and his peers. They’d had some exposure to the ferment germinated in the Church during their high school years. Jack had visited the Catholic Worker house and, as an old hand at hawking papers, had peddled The Catholic Worker during a rally to oppose El Caudillo Franco in the Spanish civil war along with Ed Marciniak, a friend from CISCA (Chicago Inter-Student Catholic Action). Other seminarians had been exposed to the Church’s teaching on race relations, social justice, and labor unions at CISCA where Father Martin Carrabine, S.J., presided in the ascetic and gentle aloofness that belied the fire in his belly, or at Summer Schools of Catholic Action at the Morrison Hotel. Like hundreds of other students, some of the seminarians had come under the influence of the affable and inspiring Father Daniel Lord of the The Queen’s Work, a publication for students in Catholic Action, and Father Edward Dowling, S.J., an early spiritual influence on the evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous. These were men with tremendous power to inspire generous action in young persons.

Some CISCA messages conflicted with the status quo messages the seminarians heard in the tight enclaves of their home parishes. There, parishioners sometimes fought to keep out the outlanders—even if they were fellow Roman Catholics. Peggy Roach, Jack Egan’s long-time associate who shared his ministry after 1966, remembers her mother mimicking the German pastor at St. Henry’s Church who excoriated “you damn Irishers” for attending the Luxemburgers’ church even if they lived within parish boundaries. “Go to St. Tim’s, the Irish parish,” the pastor thundered from the pulpit. “That’s where you belong on Sunday.”

The strength of the Church in Chicago was that blood-bond of people who had left an old country for a new. Once they were established and had built their ethnic churches, they wanted to control them, like the Lithuanian women at Providence of God Church who used their hatpins to drive off the police trying to protect their pastor from them. The dispute was over control of parish finances. According to a contemporary account in the Chicago Inter-Ocean in February, 1906: “Confused by showers of bricks and paving blocks, menaced by flying bullets, and suffering keenly from wounds made by the hatpins wielded by the women, the police were at last compelled to fire over the heads of the mob.”

Jack Egan’s classmates were tied by blood and sweat to those fiercely protective pastors and parishioners. They shared their passions and their prejudices. Those ordained as late as 1957 “were most of us out of lower economic class families—many of us with immigrant parents who had no formal schooling,” according to Father Patrick O’Malley, pastor of St. Celestine’s in Elmwood Park in 1990. They had come to Mundelein hankering for a greater vision, for expanded horizons, for goals on which to hang their youthful ideals. At Mundelein Jack’s fellow seminarians found a rector to inform and quicken those ideals, a charismatic intellectual to expand their horizons, to throw open windows on the world thirty years in advance of Pope John XXIII’s aggiornamento of the 1960s.

That rector of the seminary, Monsignor Reynold J. Hillenbrand, was an original. Not banked with the warm fire within of a Pope John, Hillenbrand was a firebrand, not a comfortable hearth. He was intense, cerebral, driven, and indefatigable. Where John XXIII would draw people to him, Monsignor Hillenbrand’s severe mien held them at a distance. The rigidity of his face betrayed the care with which he repressed any perfidious emotion.

Nonetheless, this stubbornly unbending rector was capable of crystallizing all that was inchoate in the groping idealism of young seminarians. He was “the first major intellectual influence in my life,” Jack said. That was true for many of Jack’s classmates. “Monsignor Hillenbrand opened up a whole new world for us.”

No one else had ever told them that lay people participated in the priesthood of Christ by virtue of their baptism and confirmation. Seminarians sat rapt under the great crystal chandeleirs, mesmerized like members of the Christian Family Movement would be in another ten years, by preaching that some members of Hillenbrand’s own faculty found radical. Most seminarians and priests assumed down deep that they were the Church. Now it appeared that they “had a deficient sense of church as a living, organic oneness of its members” if they thought that priests had a corner on leadership, initiative and responsibility.

Monsignor Hillenbrand’s like has not been seen again in the archdiocese. A brilliant student, he was sent to Rome for further study two years after his ordination. There the seeds were planted that would blossom in the fields of Mundelein. During Hillenbrand’s Roman year, Pius XI published the encyclical which would become the handbook of socially active priests, Quadragesimo Anno. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII had published the first papal encyclical describing an equitable society in which working people had rights of their own. Quadragesimo Anno (meaning “forty years later”) brought Leo’s teaching up to date. To Hillenbrand this concentration on the plights and rights of the working man was fresh material. He hadn’t studied anything like this in his seminary days.

During his Roman year Hillenbrand also came in contact with a Catholic Action movement spreading in Europe. Young Christian Workers were groups of individuals who worked together to Christianize society and bring its institutions in line with Jesus’ teachings. Hillenbrand told Cardinal Mundelein’s biographer Edward R. Kantowicz that he “didn’t get far in his thinking about social reform at this time.” It was only after he was assigned to the seminary that Hillenbrand had a chance to focus on the potential of the Young Christian Workers founded by Belgian Canon Joseph Cardijn in 1925 in Brussels. Hillenbrand was impressed by the simple strength and effectiveness of Cardijn’s formula. What Young Christian Workers did was straightforwardly analyze the conditions they saw around them in their daily lives according to the values they found in the Gospels they studied. They set themselves to Observe (conditions), Judge (their morality against Gospel values), and Act (to change society). They met weekly or biweekly and reported at every gathering.

Until Canon Cardijn devised this formula for turning talkers into activists, committed Catholics had generally been content to organize study groups, hunch over coffee cups, and discourse on new and improved social arrangments in terms of, say, the encyclicals. Cardinal Cardijn was impatient with that approach. For him, as for Jack Egan later on, to fix upon a stand was to take action. His Observe, Judge, Act model was formulated to get study group participants out of their cocoons and into flight. Workers had grievances against society. First, they identified them. Then they solved them. His strategy worked. Father John Fitzsimons of Liverpool, an early Young Christian Worker chaplain and associate of Canon Cardijn, reports that presently the political establishments in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and other European countries are staffed with former YCW members. Once Cardijn’s movement gained papal approval, it spread across Europe.

But it didn’t affect Hillenbrand until he was back in the United States. On his return to Chicago, Hillenbrand taught one year at Quigley Preparatory Seminary before Cardinal Mundelein hand-picked the bright young scholar to preach in the newly formed Archdiocesan Mission Band and to teach at Rosary College. During that year, 1933, Hillenbrand told Kantowicz, he synthesized a theology of Catholic Action. It was grounded in the vision of Christian solidarity in the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. According to the papal encyclical Mystici Corporis, the Roman Catholic Church was made up of Christ (the head) and Church members (the body). Together, they created the Church. Together, they created the liturgy. Christ was in the worshipping assembly just as he was in the priest who celebrated the liturgy. It was a doctrine that would develop thirty years later at the Second Vatican Council into an understanding that Church members were the “people of God” in pilgrimage. In Hillenbrand’s mind, in 1933, the concept of the Mystical Body enlarged the whole notion of Church and gave power and dignity to lay people. Using it, he could call them to share the work of the hierarchy in doing the work of Catholic Action.

Hillenbrand used well the unusual study opportunities Cardinal Mundelein gave him, creating a watershed in his own life and, as rector of the seminary, a watershed for the archdiocese. When he was appointed rector at Mundelein in 1935 (at thirty-one!), Hillenbrand brought riches with him. The range of his interest in, and knowledge of, art, poetry, literature, theology, and liturgy electrified the pious young men in his care reared in homes and schools largely barren of intellectual delights and wide-ranging interests.

Like Jack Egan, the bulk of the seminarians had come to Mundelein to “serve God and be of some help to people.” Here was a rector who could make them see how exciting and provocative and daring that helping could be. They would not be ordained to hide behind rectory doors, wondering, as Dorothy Parker once said in another connection, “what fresh hell” was announced by every ring of the doorbell. They were going to be out on the streets, like the Rosary College students Hillenbrand inspired to street-preach in Oklahoma. The seminarians were to bring the life of the Church into the lives of the people. They’d have the tools, the techniques, to mobilize their parishioners. For seminarians begging “more meat for the mind,” like Oliver Twist begging “more gruel, please,” Hillenbrand was filling a need apparent to them—and to him.

The Roman collars these young men would wear would be an entrée into real power. They would have the chance to make a difference in society. Hillenbrand worked to prepare them for that opportunity.

Hillenbrand drew on other sources besides the encyclicals: American forerunners. As far back as 1908, early social activist Monsignor John Ryan was deploring the condition of the working man in the U.S. He followed up his doctoral dissertation on the living wage with a synthesis of moral principles called Distributive Justice: The Right and Wrong of our Present Distribution of Wealth in 1916. He based it on the encyclical Rerum Novarum which J. P. Dolan in The American Catholic Experience called “the Magna Carta of Catholic social thought.” As head of the social action department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, Ryan organized social action congresses and labor schools to bring the Church’s social gospel as outlined in the two major social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, to Catholic priests and lay persons.

Although most priests in the country adhered to the novena-rosary-parochial school model, restricting themselves pretty much to local parish concerns, John Ryan and his associate Father Raymond McGowan managed to influence an impressive cadre of “labor priests” into serious study of the social encyclicals and their practical applications to American conditions. The principles Ryan and McGowan expounded at their Social Action Summer Programs were not lost on Monsignor Hillenbrand and “Rynie’s young men” at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, one of the summer school sites.

Ryan and McGowan stressed the dignity of work and the dignity of the working man, principles out of the social encyclicals that played into the insights of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the Mystical Body published in 1943 which also stressed the importance of individual persons, however humble. These encyclicals were the agents of change used by the small groups of factory workers and teachers and students in Europe who were reading Scripture, observing the inadequacies of their schools or workplaces, and fixing on actions needed to bring the practices of the workplace more in line with the Gospel and Catholic social doctrine.

Not content to draw on secondary sources to reach the seminarians’ minds, Hillenbrand brought in the innovators themselves, people living by these theological insights. Among them was Dorothy Day, one of the first women to speak at the seminary. In 1933, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin put flesh on the church’s social teaching when they started The Catholic Worker newspaper and the Catholic Worker movement to make the Catholic Church “the dominant social dynamic force in the United States.” Radical in their pursuit of Christian perfection, they opened houses of hospitality for the poor, homeless, and unemployed. They joined the struggles of labor. They published their tremendously influential penny paper. They bought up farmland for communes. The Baroness Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the founder of Friendship House, as dedicated to the integration of the races as Dorothy Day was to the poor, was also invited to Mundelein. Already in awe of Hillenbrand’s deep spirituality and thirsty for these new words of eternal life, seminarians like Jack Egan, men about to make the Chicago Archdiocese the liveliest in the country, found nectar, nurture and a week’s inspiration in this access to the best thinking on the Church in the United States and in Europe.

Jack Egan says that the beginning of interest in Catholic Action cells came in the summer of 1938 when Oklahoman Father Donald Kanaly, who had known Canon Joseph Cardijn in Louvain, described Cardijn’s organization of small groups of like-minded people for action at the clergy Summer School of Catholic Action.

“Hillenbrand got interested. He got Father Jake Killgallon interested, and some other people—Father Marhoefer.”

Jack describes how the young seminarians were readied for take-off. “Everything was happening in those years. The liturgical movement was beginning to find its way from Europe over here—I remember going to the first liturgical conference at Holy Name Cathedral. The Catholic Worker. Friendship House. The beginnings of Catholic Action. The seminarians’ study weeks. Commonweal, America. The social action movement.”

As Hillenbrand’s skilled typist, Jack had a special relationship with the rector. Hillenbrand asked Jack to transcribe the talks from the Summer School of Catholic Action. Jack remembers it was such men as “Monsignor John Ryan, Bishop Haas, John Cronin and all those men who were the founders of Catholic social action theory and teaching. All intellectuals. It was four weeks in the summer of both 1938 and 1939. To be able to sit and listen to those men and to type out their talks—just a great experience.” As prefect of the deacon building in 1942-43, Jack went over the week’s activities with Monsignor Hillenbrand every Saturday night. “When we got finished with the business, we would sit and talk. That was better than any class I ever had. He and I became very close.”

Through person-to-person contact like this, the speakers he invited in, his Saturday night seminars on papal social thought, his Sunday homilies when he preached—“really preached,” Jack Egan says admiringly—to the seminarians, his selection of diocesan priests to augment the Jesuit faculty, Monsignor Hillenbrand plumbed the roots of Catholic social thinking and liturgical practice. He was energizing his seminarians to change—Christianize—the world, “preferably by noon tomorrow,” as one of those early Catholic Action advocates remembers. Some of them really tried to do it.

Next Chapter . . .