An Alley in Chicago

“I Had Disappointed My Father”

Mundelein seminarians did not often get home. At most twice a year. There was a vacation right after Christmas (not for Christmas—after exams), and two weeks in the summertime. Two hours were set aside for visiting once a month. Parents on hard chairs and good behavior sat with their seminarian sons, also on their good behavior. Ranged around the audience room were another fifteen or sixteen similar groups painfully simulating social ease. “Those visits were the most boring things,” Jack recalls. “After the first half hour what was there to talk about?”

The inhibiting setting was designed to prevent real communication. After the formalities, there wasn’t supposed to be anything to talk about. “That was another part of the strictness. You weren’t supposed to be connected with the outside world.” Even your own family. “That clerical culture was so rigid that lay people didn’t get into it and we didn’t get out of it, so there was a great distance between the lay people and ourselves. I think this is one of the things, thank God, that Monsignor Hillenbrand helped me with,” Jack says.

There was an additional complication for Jack. His father still frowned on his son’s vocation. “Every time my father put me on the train to Mundelein after a vacation at home he would say, `Now, son, don’t forget there’s a place at home for you if you decide. . . .’” A compliant, eager young man with an ingrained need to please his father, Jack suffered from his father’s reproachful attitude. In choosing the religious life, “I had disappointed my father for the first time in my life.”

Yet that very ritual of breaking with his father to become his own man charged Jack with the stamina to struggle through Quigley in spite of his teachers’ misgivings and to stick at Mundelein when his philosophy professor counseled a switch. As Jack puts it, “To use a bad word, it prevented me from being a wimp.” The father/son rift fueled Jack’s ingrained determination to succeed, itself fueled by his father’s pressure on Jack. That lack of approval also fueled Jack’s need to be liked. “I liked to be liked,” Jack admits. “That didn’t make me unusual. But I think I liked to be liked to an unusual degree. I was also ambitious for recognition. That was a weakness because it turned people away from me.” Perhaps in trying to please, he tried too hard.

Jack ascribes that trait not only to the fact that he could never please his father. It was also “because I was small for my age, and I was never good at athletics even though I played them. I was always the last player chosen for a team and I always got roughed up.”

In the end Jack Egan prevailed. He was ordained on “a beautiful May day” in 1943, “and I still have some pictures of me giving my blessing to my mother and father.” He still did not know why his father had opposed his vocation. He seemed proud enough of him today. In his formal photographs the new Father John J. Egan retained the fresh-faced look of a polite altar boy. This was the day the Lord had made for Jack and his classmates. “You had just lived for this, worked for it. Ordination. It was your `marriage’ day. You never forget, you know where you were and you know everything that happened, who came. . . .”

Jack’s father, who had done all he could to thwart this day, described his son’s first Mass for his “dear Sister and Brother” in Ireland as a glorious sight. “The High Mass which was, of course, sung by your little nephew, was one of the grandest sights I have seen for a long time. The crowd was enormous, and when the Mass was finished, the people surged out, and down the steps of the Church to the sidewalk. It took at least one hour to clear the entrance of the Church, the steps, and the grounds around the Church.” Describing the banquet after the Mass, Mr. Egan revealed his deep feelings about the day. “In Jack’s reply to the speeches made regarding him, and which was very touching, many of the people were rubbing their eyes with their handkerchiefs, and trying to refrain from shedding tears.” As he promises pictures, and more pictures, and “more news in my next letter regarding the whole affair,” Mr. Egan exposes his pride in the vocation he opposed: “It was a grand spectacle to see the high dignitaries of the Church kneeling in the green meadows, receiving the blessing of the new priests. The head prefect (Jack) had a circle of clergy and laity around him for full two hours while he imparted the blessing.”

The young seminarians were now priests. They would wear Roman collars on the street and sacred vestments for Mass. Never again would they usher at local theaters or stock groceries at the National Tea Company for twenty-five cents an hour.

Parishioners, whether they wore hairbows, baseball caps or hearing aids, would call them Father. Mid-twentieth century, most ordinary fish-on-Friday, Sid-Caesar-on-Saturday, and Mass-on-Sunday Catholics in Chicago put a lot of stock in the priest’s word as God’s word. When Father said yes, it was yes. When Father said no, it was no. Father’s word was law to the faithful, mostly sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants, as they were.

The day he was ordained, May 1, 1943, Jack Egan upended that accepted order. He’d joined the priesthood to serve the faithful, not to lay down the law to them. On his great day, Jack made a solemn promise, “something close to a vow, that two things would have precedence in my life. I would try to work for the enhancement of the lay role in the Church and, wisely or not, I would never say no to anyone.” It was a promise to God and himself to be open to the people he was ordained to serve. “Now that has caused a lot of difficulty in my life. However, if you will accept the double negative, it has also produced a tremendous number of positives, and great benefits.”

Some months prior to his ordination, Jack had heard community organizer Saul Alinsky advise a group of seminarians, “On the day you’re ordained, make up your mind whether you want to be a priest or a bishop. Everything else will follow.” Jack had no way of knowing that day how profoundly his life would be entwined with Alinsky’s. Nevertheless, with his vow to serve lay people he had made the choice Alinsky described, knowingly or unknowingly. Some clerics look for clerical preferment; Cardinal Cody of Chicago was known for carrying sacks of gold to Rome. Jack Egan looked for lay preferment, in the sense that he meant to listen to the people in order to serve their needs.

As Pat Hollahan Judge, lured to Young Christian Students by seminarian Jack Egan, says, “He was an artist at listening. He recognized that every act of listening demands a follow-up, a completion. That’s partly why he’s always writing notes to people.” She’s reminded of the Finian’s Rainbow lyric, “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.” That’s Jack’s knack, she suggests, focusing on the person in front of him as, at that moment, the most important person in the world. And the one with the exact information he needs. She sees this as the aspect of Jack Egan that is never replicated, to his long-standing distress. “He took the priest pattern, the way all his peers were doing, on his ordination day but then he superimposed the additional dimension of listener/responder.” As soon as he began asking questions and offering to help, Jack Egan moved into arenas many Catholics—and many priests—considered off bounds for ordained ministers. He became citizen priest. Nina Polcyn Moore, another early witness, stresses how unusual it was in 1943 for a priest to work at enhancing the lay role.

Was the controversial role of citizen priest an appropriate posture for a priest attached to the archdiocese? Throughout his life, Jack would never be comforted by a sustaining consensus. Bold voices supported him. Disaffected voices, sometimes bitter, castigated him. Jack Egan heard them all as he plunged on, faithful to his early and powerful vision, trying to submerge his need to be liked and admired to the needs of the people he served.

Jack Egan would say that he was only carrying the implications of the doctrine of the Mystical Body to their logical conclusion. Ordained to be a “foot-washer of the world,” that’s what he’d be. For Jack in 1943 the hierarchical model of the Church was already outmoded and irrelevant. “At our very best we are to be servants of the servants of God. That means we have to put ourselves at the disposal of lay people.”

That service should be enhanced by kindness, the “big, rough and tumble, lovable Jesuit who taught Moral Theology” had preached to Jack’s classmates. “The day you are unkind in the confessional will be a day you will always regret,” Father Jim Mahoney told the young men preparing for Saturdays in the box. Once the penitent vanishes, the priest/professor warned, “you can do nothing about it. You do not know the person to whom you were unkind and you cannot apologize or do anything to rectify the unkindness.” That advice Jack never forgot.

Not all the young men ordained in the United States in that decade would ease smoothly onto the fast track leading the Roman Catholic Church world-wide to the second Vatican Council. But the lessons Monsignor Hillenbrand taught of devotion to the liturgy, commitment to social justice based on the encyclicals, and faith in the laity as the Mystical Body of Christ did prepare his seminarians. Once they were ordained to minister to the laity under the astutely permissive Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago, they began to strike out in new directions, pulling along segments of the Chicago Church, people who had been sensitized by Hillenbrand himself or Father Carrabine, CISCA, the Queen’s Work, Father Daniel Lord, Father Edward Dowling, Father John Ryan, Dorothy Day, and the Baroness de Hueck.

Like a shift in tectonic plates that opens up the earth and lets its molten innards erupt in a volcano, Monsignor Hillenbrand had opened the vein in the church that allowed the pent strength of visionaries, contemporary and historical, to affect his students, “Rynie’s young men.” A powerful force flowed through them into the lay persons they affected, and from those lay people into the national Church. Together, they all shared something of the invigorating exhilaration of the first Pentecost and all those times in the Church’s history when Jesus’ message is rediscovered, reformulated.

When Rynie’s group implemented the theory of the laity as equal members of the Body of Christ, they threatened the Church’s authoritarianism. They were forging new pathways, destination unknown. The idea of the Mystical Body seemed fresh as a morning in May in 1943. Few people remembered that Archbishop John England had grounded his teaching in the Pauline image of the Body of Christ, a response to his American experience of Church, a hundred years before. To these young priests, far closer to the mind of their immigrant forebears than they were to the insights of an Archbishop England, it was a giant step to embrace this image without losing touch with the Church they were raised in, the Church of their pious first or second-generation immigrant families.

For the Church they were ordained to serve in Chicago was still suffering the friction of an immigrant Church into the 1930s and 1940s in spite of Cardinal Mundelein’s vigorous efforts to introduce discipline, uniformity and centralization. The archdiocese was not nearly so unruly and stormy as Chicago’s fourth archbishop found it when he arrived on his special train from New York in 19l6. Cardinal Mundelein had been effective. Building a seminary to train young priests from different cultures together was an impressive advance. But, more than that, the dean of American Catholic church historians, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, credits the Archdiocese of Chicago for a half century of leadership in the American Catholic community before 1965. “It was there that national progressive movements relating to youth, family life, social justice, etc., took their rise during the administrations of Cardinals Mundelein, Stritch, and Meyer.”

In a review in Catholic New York, Tracy Ellis traced this national leadership “to an impetus given by the bishops of the Middle West that dated from the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, a gathering that the Middle Western prelates were mainly responsible for bringing into being in 1884, and which has influenced American Catholic life down to our own day.”

The Hillenbrand priests had a sense of serving not only their Church, but also their city. The city was their tabula rasa, their drawing board, their action center. A young couple who couldn’t save the one-third downpayment necessary to buy a home within the Chicago city limits remember a very young Father Egan aghast that they would leave the hub of life, the site of the ultimate contests, the playing field of the real contenders. They bought the tract house in the suburbs with the ten percent down they could afford. But they always thought of it as second best.

Jack was like a subterranean bulb that summer of 1943, poised to burst forth at the first sunshine. He’d spent six years readying himself for his first parish, his first contact with the people he longed to serve. With no mortgage, no family ties, no money worries to concern him, he could freely belong to the people.

How to be a priest was no mystery to him. Monsignor Hillenbrand had anticipated for “Rynie’s young men” the kind of ministry Father Richard McBrien, later chairperson of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, would describe in Catholicism. “Every ministry has something to do with advancing the work of the Church. Every ministry has something to do with building up the Body of Christ and somehow fulfilling the Church’s responsibility in the world to live out the Lordship of Jesus, to be a sign of the Gospel, to be an agent of social change, to serve the community as advocate.”

All the new Father Egan needed was the fateful letter assigning him to his first parish. For Jack Egan it was St. Justin Martyr at Seventy-first and Honore Streets in Chicago, founded in 1916 to serve Irish Catholics. There the young Father Egan would find his sunshine. By the time Jack arrived, shortly after the celebration of the parish’s twenty-fifth anniversary, the ethnic composition of the neighborhood had widened to include an Italian contingent, but it was still largely Irish who watched the host raised over the altar of Connemara marble each Sunday.

Before his assignment, Jack had never heard of St. Justin Martyr. “I remember taking the Ashland Avenue streetcar out there and walking down the street with my suitcase past all the houses with blue and gold stars in the windows. The new priest!” The pastor, Father James G. Halleran, like St. Justin Martyr parish, had recently celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary. “I thought he was old,” Jack says. “He was grey-haired.” Father Halleran showed Jack his room, “a lovely room,” showed him “the nice rectory, brought me over to the church, the school.”

“Jack,” Father Halleran said to his new assistant, “your job, yours and (the other associate) Frank Spellman’s, is to take care of the people. I’ll take care of the administration of the parish.” That’s all that Jack needed to hear. Like the red rocket streetcar that carried him down Ashland Avenue, Jack’s throttle was at full speed ahead. He plunged into parish work. Some new priests would have been content to take over the Sodality and the young people’s club as Jack did immediately, and be content. But Jack meant to “take care of the people.” That’s why he’d come. To him they were the “fair field full of folk” described by Piers Plowman, a fair field for him to care for, to cultivate for the Lord.

To take care of the people the two young curates alerted Sunday Mass-goers that they were going to ring every doorbell for a parish census. Ringing every doorbell was their exact intent. With that runaway eagerness of Maria in The Sound of Music, they would have climbed every mountain, forded every stream, followed every rainbow, to ring every doorbell, to follow their dream of service.

The first response to their efforts surprised them. Not having had any contact with the housewife’s life since they’d left home, the young priests were taken aback by the agitation their announcement provoked. To the women of the parish, a priestly visit meant a priestly checkup on their housekeeping skills. The homemakers in the congregation dashed home to scour their small frame houses. The husbands, delighted, reported to the priests that their homes were tidy for the first time in months. The wives were offended at their husbands’ insensitive teasing.

Oops, the young priests realized, consternation and heavy cleaning were not what they had in mind. Clearly, it was unkind to keep all the women poised with their mops. At their next Sunday Masses they gave precise information about the streets they intended to cover, suggesting they didn’t expect special treatment nor did they hope to be urged to dine with the family. That would keep the mother busy in the kitchen. What we’re interested in, they insisted, is chatting, “getting to know you.”

Jack felt visiting in the morning or afternoon was a waste. He wanted the whole family ranged around him while he engaged first the father in conversation about his job as postal worker or patrolman or streetcar motorman working out of the carbarns at Sixty-ninth and Ashland. “How are you getting on at work?” “What’s going on in the neighborhood?” “Are you happy with the parish operation?” “Is there any way I can help you?” Then he’d pursue the mother’s viewpoint. Before he left he would work down the family, drawing out the kids on their interests and plans. He found they all opened up, even the smart-aleck teen-agers. “Their life, what they’re doing, is important to every person.”

For some young priests, these forays into parishioners’ homes might have been dismaying. But Jack was genuinely interested in the particulars of the parishioners’ lives. “I have a great curiosity about people,” he says, “what they think, their ideas.” Nina Polcyn Moore, who came to Chicago as assistant director of Sheil School the year that Jack Egan was ordained, would agree. She recalls the young curate, “already a rising star, giving lectures on the social encyclicals at the Sheil School,” as vastly curious about every aspect of the school, the city, and the Church. She remembers him trudging up four flights of stairs to the Marshall Field Town and Garden apartment she shared with Katie Murphy, the woman who would later be Jack’s secretary, at 404 North Evergreen. Even then Jack was a “notorious stopper-inner, being in the neighborhood, don’t you know.” He would come “in need of a meal, a ham sandwich, and a kind word.” He brought the same inquisitiveness to the little frame houses on South Wood and West Seventy-first Street that he brought to North Evergreen.

St. Justin Martyr was a small parish, 800 families. “A lot of those people were bashful, especially people from the Old Country, They considered it a great compliment when a priest visited their home.” With a friendly, relaxed young “Father” in their living room, parishioners felt free to bring up minor irritations or disappointments with the parish.

Here at St. Justin Martyr Jack reaped another benefit of his father’s withholding of unconditional acceptance besides his ability to accommodate to harsh discipline. Anthony Storr analyzes in Solitude how hard children who don’t have their parents’ unconditional acceptance work to please. That early unhappiness also develops in them a capacity for empathy. Jack’s wary appraisal of the feelings of his father as he was growing up gave rise to an unusual capacity to identify with others. What Storr said of Rudyard Kipling in this context was true of Jack at his first parish: “People found themselves telling him their troubles in the assurance that he would not betray them.”

For fear that non-Catholic neighbors seeing the priests coming down the street might feel slighted if overlooked, Jack and Frank Spellman rapped at every door within the parish boundaries, “not to proselytize, to pay our respects.” Disarmed by the attention to the children, the appropriate nods and cluckings their confidences elicited, the families in the area responded with affection for the young assistant priests with their ready smiles and their serious eyes. That affection stood Jack in good stead when he returned to the area fifteen years later advocating Alinsky-inspired community organization.

According to Andrew Greeley, “a priest in a parish he likes and where he is liked is very much like a man in love.” That was Jack Egan at St. Justin Martyr. It was here for the first time in his life that Jack Egan felt he could be loved. Until that time he had always felt shy. “I wanted to be liked; I didn’t want to be rejected. I didn’t think I had enough stuff for people to like me.” In grammar school he’d felt on the social fringe; he worked while the other kids hung out. At Mundelein he felt respected, but, in his own words, “I wasn’t one of the favorite guys in the class.” At St. Justin Martyr, “I find out for the first time in my life that people can really love me. And I’m very close to them. I fall in love with them and they fall in love with me. It was really great.”

Out of that small parish 700 men were serving in World War II when Jack arrived in 1943. As it had done when he noted the gold stars marking the homes of men who’d given their lives for their country, Jack’s heart went out to frightened families as they described their sons’ suffering, and their own. Jack pondered ways the parish family could communicate its affection and concern for the men serving their country? As St. Justin Martyr parishioner Kay Fox wrote Jack about those days, “It was wartime. Most of the young men in our lives and in the parish were overseas. We needed to stay together and you made it happen. You came up with the great idea of sending a monthly newsletter to the boys of St. Justin’s.”

When he found the thread to tie those farflung servicemen to the parish back home, Jack had found another key life-long operating technique, one that supplemented his gift for finding the right person: finding the right linkage. With the pastor’s permission, he called the newsletter Just-in-Passing. For the parish it was an innovation. In Jack Egan it begot a lifetime partiality for the printed tie that binds. Every month each of St. Justin’s service men and women got mail from home, a compendium of news collected and collated by Jack Egan, signed by the priests of the parish, and mimeographed and mailed by a crew of young women in their twenties, including Kay Fox, whom Jack recruited. The newsletter “had a tremendous effect on their lives and their relationship with the Church,” Jack says.

What the young women remember is, “You wrote the letter and made the mailing of that wonderful letter very important and fun. The boys looked forward to receiving it and we loved sending it.” After they’d posted the monthly mailing, the mailing team would regroup at Kay Rodney’s house across the alley from the rectory. “You always made time to stop by. You listened to our problems and kept our spirits up. We loved you for the attention you gave us,” Kay Fox later wrote Jack Egan.

The essential Father Egan was already forming up in the young curate. The young women, whose loneliness he observed and then mitigated to some extent by organizing an activity for them, saw him as always happy, “even at early morning Mass,” as bubbly, and very religious. He was their good friend who drew them out by listening absorbedly to what they had to say.

As the young working women watched their new curate develop, they assumed that someday he would be a bishop. “He was involved in so much, had so much stored in his head that he had to take care of,” Kay Fox says. They appreciated his enthusiasm for young and old, how he remembered everyone’s name. Grateful for his attention, the young women were understanding, not miffed, when he interrupted every gathering “to make a few phone calls,” another Jack Egan hallmark. They felt privileged to garner the attention they got from this busy, involved curate.

That impulse to reach out to those lonely young women, to those in pain, to servicemen who felt out of touch, to the families of the seventeen parishioners who died in World War II, to young men making post-war adjustments, to the young women who married the young men making post-war adjustments, forced Jack to evaluate his counseling skills. Had he been sufficiently prepared in the seminary to respond to the unquiet misery he found around him? Jack thought not. “I felt very inadequate.” That inadequacy drew him to the University of Chicago where he experienced another of the great formational “funding”—in the Jack Shea phrase he’s adopted—experiences of his life. “I studied with the great Carl Rogers for a year.”

Once again Jack Egan showed his genius for ferreting out the person precisely tuned to the service required. At the great university just east of the parish border where he went to learn counseling, Jack encountered a legendary counselor. In Carl Rogers’ classroom this young curate who had been reared by an authoritarian father, educated in an authoritarian system, formed for an authoritarian role, learned the Rogerian concept of non-directive counseling: people change from within, at their own pace, when they are fully respected, not when they are ordered or advised, however kindly, to change.

Carl Rogers’ principles fit Jack like a cap fits a salt shaker. Monsignor Hillenbrand had showed his young men how people function as parts and parcels of the Mystical Body. Not lesser parts, each was a different part of the Mystical Body. Rogers supplied a psychological principle to undergird the theological principle. He taught Jack that if he, as counselor, accepted people as they were, listened intuitively to their stories, and made his own regard and support palpable, that those who came for counseling would find their own answers. They would also discover within themselves the faith and courage to act on what they saw as right and necessary.

“Out of the experience with Carl Rogers which had an enormous effect on my life,” Jack recalls, “I was able to develop an interest in counseling which has perdured all my life.” He sees how it’s helped him in the confessional, in preparing homilies, in working with the people in distress—those very persons he studied with Carl Rogers to help. At his final conference with Rogers, the therapist advised Jack, “Father, I want you to remember all through your life that you are only responsible for the things that you are responsible for . . .” Acknowledging the “good spirituality” in those words helped Jack over the years although he admits that, humanly, he’s violated it, and occasionally “tried to butt into other people’s business.”

Carl Rogers’ insights carried over into the marriage education Jack did during his St. Justin Martyr days. As he’d ask the young marrieds, “How are things going?” he’d hear, “Not so well.” The young people had many difficulties adjusting, all of them exacerbated by the shortage of housing right after the war.

Having anticipated some tension and stress, Jack had done marriage preparation with the young women. “We might have had the first marriage preparation for young women planning a wedding as soon as the war was over and the fellows came back.” When Monsignor Edward Burke, chancellor of the archdiocese, who would figure later as one of Jack’s strongest champions, heard about the marriage preparation sessions sometime in 1945, he asked Jack to develop a marriage course for high school students.

By this time Jack was working on his days off with Catholic Action cells. Never one to play golf or meet cronies regularly for dinner, Jack had eagerly agreed to be chaplain to the Catholic Action cell at Chicago Teachers’ College when Monsignor Hillenbrand approached him. Together with two high school students in one of the early CA cells, Mary Lou Genova Wolff and Jeanne Skepnik, Jack planned a marriage manual (“maybe fifty mimeographed pages, maybe in outline form,” he recalls), printed it, and promoted it in the schools. It related directly to the kids’ needs because Jack used the occasion, and his new counseling skills, to draw information from high school girls about the problems they faced in their homes and with their boyfriends.

At that point Jack Egan could have had no idea how largely marriage education was going to figure in his future and in his ministry. Or how the archdiocesan politics that made him a pioneer in the field would bypass—and embitter—the teacher at Quigley who had done the groundwork for the Cana phenomenon about to burst over the archdiocese.

Next Chapter . . .