An Alley in Chicago

“What Would Jesus Do in This Situation?”

Father Halleran at St. Justin Martyr had the good sense to insist that his young associates get out of the parish on their one day a week off. Young Father Egan didn’t have the good sense to listen to his pastor. Once he was involved in Catholic Action groups, he arranged their meetings on his free day. Peg Burke, a member of a CA teachers’ group, recalls their coming to the St. Justin Martyr rectory every Wednesday afternoon.

When cell members asked for Father Egan at the door, the housekeeper always demurred. “Father’s not in. It’s his day off.” Their standard rejoinder was, “Father told us we could use his office,” and in they’d go. “Father Egan had told us that the pastor was very firm about when it’s your day off you are not around, but Father always managed to sneak in each week for our meeting.”

Later on, in a Christian Family Movement group chaplained by Father Egan, Peg Burke experienced the adamant aspect of the amiable curate. Supportive and encouraging as Jack Egan was, he expected performance from the people he put his faith in and gave his time to. When he suggested to Burke’s CFM group after about six months of meetings that now was the acceptable time for each of the couples to set up CFM sections in their home parishes, the couples balked. “There was a unanimous feeling that we very much needed each other and we felt such support from the group that we just couldn’t split up into other groups.” Jack Egan reacted by showing what some call “his fierce side.”

It’s Peg Burke’s recollection that, “Father was most displeased with us and somehow I think he gave up on us and we just continued even though he didn’t come any more.” Nonetheless, Burke assesses the CFM experience as positive. “Most everyone that was a member of the CFM movement remained active in the Church and became a leader.”

The movements did ask a great deal of inexperienced participants. Pat Hollahan Judge was a vibrant, personable, fifteen-year-old (who, like Jack, had eluded the cookie cutter Catholic mold) when Father Egan recruited her at Immaculata High School where his sister Kay was also a student. Jack was still a seminarian when Pat first heard his pitch in the rectory at Our Lady of Lourdes. “He told us what the cell movement meant for the Church, how young people like us could improve our corner of the world.

“He was so young, so excited, so sure, so sure. And he had a flattering trust in us. He made us see that if we didn’t do this thing he was talking about, the good news wouldn’t get out. You got a sense of responsibility for this exciting plan he built up.”

Like Jaime Escalante who convinced eighteen Hispanic students in a poor Los Angeles high school that they could pass an advanced placement calculus test (and was memorialized in the movie Stand and Deliver), Father Egan plugged his faith into young people’s energy sources. He made it possible for them to say, “Of course I can do that.” He’d picked the right age group. When he assured Pat she had power, she says, “he tapped right into that idealism we had when we were young. `You can reach students better than anyone, better than priests, better than the Sisters,’ he’d say.”

His confidence in them evoked self-confidence in his recruits. “I was told to find a chaplain for a North Side group and recruit from four to six leaders from my high school to commit themselves to this new work of the Church,” Pat Judge remembers. She could do it because “Father Egan had communicated the urgency he felt to me. He really believed in the laity. He believed in me. He took risks on people.”

He functioned as spiritual director for all the participants, tonic, coach, therapist, model, bracer-upper, teacher. Sometimes, career counselor. It was at Jack’s insistence that cell member Jacqueline Krump studied for a Ph.D. “You know,” she wrote Jack in later years, “that I attribute my career to you.” At base, Jack Egan acted through his identification with Jesus. He looked at people and said, “You I want. You are called to do the work of the Lord.”

When the individual groups met—workers, students, teachers—they followed the Observe/Judge/Act formula that Canon Cardijn had worked out. They gathered facts about their small corners of the world. They judged the facts against the Gospel reading prepared with the chaplain. Then they asked themselves, “What would Jesus do in this situation?” Part of their power was their very mandate to act in the name of the Church. No one had ever said before that lay people were important. Now here were these dynamic, engaging, young priests like Jack Egan saying, “Jesus is helpless to bind the world’s wounds without your hands, your hearts, your willingness.” He’d learned very well from Monsignor Hillenbrand.

That confidence of the priests in the laity was a potent elixir. In Europe, Canon Cardijn, who preached the dignity of the young worker in season and out of season, could gather 100,000 Young Christian Workers in Heyssel Stadium in Brussels. Young Americans wanted to effect changes in the workplace and in politics, as European Young Christian Workers were doing. In 1945, immediately after the war’s end, the Europeans invited Catholic Action members from the United States to an international YCW meeting in Brussels. If they could get there, Chicago’s cell members realized, they could see first hand the sources of YCW power and élan. But how could they get there? The obstacles seemed insurmountable to the members of the struggling organization. No one was traveling in that postwar world who didn’t have important business overseas. According to Nina Polcyn Moore, Jack Egan refused to see the obstacles as insurmountable. Just as he scoured St. Benet Library and Book Shop regularly for books to focus cell members’ minds, he prescribed travel and European contacts to broaden their viewpoints and sharpen their perspectives.

With a little help from this pushy friend, the “senior working girls” made a quixotic decision to send two delegates.

They were up against such insuperable odds that only professionally visionary enthusiasts like Jack Egan could believe that they could ever marshal the resources: money, reservations, passports and visas. As Edwina Hearn Froelich remembers it, “TWA, the only airline flying overseas commercially at that particular time, laughed at our request to book a round trip to Belgium. They made it very clear that they considered it highly unlikely that two seats would become available for a year or more.” The embassies were more intractable than TWA. “They each let us know they were not just letting anybody in.” Besides, as Edwina recalls, she didn’t have a penny in the bank.

Cell members sold silk stockings—hard-to-get items—because there wouldn’t be any financial aid from the archdiocese for whom Catholic Action cells were definitely a peripheral concern. Cell groups were suffered, not honored. While it was true that the archdiocese provided space in the derelict schoolhouse at Three East Chicago Avenue, the priests who hung around there too much could get in trouble for doing it. Most pastors frowned upon Catholic Action. It threatened their absolute rule.

Moreover, it took up time and energy young curates might spend organizing the Sodalities and other controllable containers for young people that didn’t promise participants a say in what goes on in the Church.

Edwina Hearn Froelich remembers screwing her nerve to the sticking place to address a small group with the unusual (for its day, threatening) salutation: “Your Eminence, Honored Monsignori, and laity.” She blanched when Cardinal Stritch commented pointedly on the “new language we had here.” A gentle man, he would never have excoriated Edwina for brashness. Yet he couldn’t let pass her temerity in assigning the laity what might be construed as equal status. Edwina had added the word laity in the full knowledge that no one ever addressed the laity as if they actually existed in a mixed priest/laity group. She couldn’t have done it before her Catholic Action chaplain, Father Romeo Blanchette, urged Catholic Action members to think for themselves. In the lexicon of the 1940s (outside of Catholic Action circles) members of the laity didn’t figure in salutations. Nor did they think for themselves. “Holy Mother Church (in the person of the pastor) took care of that obligation,” according to Edwina.

The unsettling practice of laypersons taking themselves seriously as thinking religious persons was taking hold only marginally in the postwar Church. It takes a vigorous leap of imagination to capture mentally a time when a young woman’s daring use of the word laity in the sacred circle of those addressed at an intimate, enclosed meeting could create a situation. But that illustrates the measure of Monsignor Hillenbrand’s achievement in tilting at the clerical windmill of, “Father says.”

However, Hillenbrand was not the first American cleric to acknowledge the baptismal priesthood of the laity. Along with its triumphalist authoritarian lineage, the U.S. Catholic Church had consistently harbored a more democratic strain back to its first bishop, John Carroll. As Jack Egan was to do later, Bishop Carroll took part in the civic life of his country, contributing to a letter congratulating George Washington on his unanimous election and asking that Catholics share “equal rights of citizenship, as the price of our blood as spilt under your eyes, and of our common exertions for her defence, under your auspicious conduct—rights rendered more dear to us by the remembrance of former hardships.” When Washington died, Bishop Carroll issued a pastoral letter, asking pastors to observe on February 22 “the departed Spirit of the first of Heroes.”

Later explosions of immigrant populations diluted such liberal expressions of solidarity with the body politic. Conservatism, however, could never completely suppress the emergence of an Orestes Brownson or Bishop John England of Charleston, or Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, to restore the balance as such restoration was needed.

When Jack Egan was introduced as chaplain of Edwina Hearn Froelich’s Catholic Action cell, her first thought was, “Oh, my God, he’s not dry behind the ears.” Slight, round-faced, he looked like an altar boy, not a great believer in laity thinking for themselves and a natural heir to Bishop John Carroll. How could she tell that Jack Egan was as likely as Bishop Carroll to write congratulations to newly elected city officials and make himself useful to them, to a point that one day he’d be invited to serve on a mayor’s “kitchen cabinet?” Before Edwina met him at the second string CA hangout, Yonkers Restaurant on Chicago Avenue, Jack Egan had already begun to move out of the restricted culture of clerical life into the civic life of the community. But only marginally. His real initiation was yet to come when his concern for the housing needs of his St. Justin Martyr people sent him to testifying at City Hall. But that was later. When Edwina met him, she didn’t guess how wide his interests would grow, what a “marvelous listener this peppy interesting priest” would be, and how he would make things happen.

Through the sale of the silk stockings and the good offices of Jack Egan and the other chaplains and cell members, checks—“many from people none of us knew personally”—appeared in the mail for the plane trip to the international Catholic Action gathering in Belgium. Edwina and Mary Irene Caplice Zotti, the chosen delegates, made all their preparations in absolute reliance that if God wanted them to go to Europe, tickets and money and reservations would fall into place. And so they did. Embassy clearances were obtained, and rationed seats found on Trans World Airlines. The two women enplaned, not knowing where they would lay their heads or eat in a Europe where food was still scarce and rationed. Edwina lost fifteen pounds before she returned. If they’d had enough money, they still would have had difficulties.

Father Egan said a last Mass for the two women representing all of the Catholic Action cells in the United States at St. Justin Martyr Church before they took off from Midway Airport for an apostolic adventure that would change their lives, and change the direction of Catholic Action in the United States. In the three months it took to get clearance back to the United States, they quit their jobs to become full-time YCW organizers, having learned, as they said on their return, that “we’re doing YCW all wrong in the United States.” To identify with the Europeans, American Catholic Action groups would now be called, variously, Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students.

Although Edwina remembers hearing that in some places clergy dominated the cell movements, “it was never the case in the Chicago area.” No dependency on the chaplain existed “in my relationship with Father Egan, or any of the other YCW women with their spiritual directors. The clergy had a great influence on us, but we ran our own show.” Edwina acknowledges that the group did not change the world, as they had hoped, “by noon tomorrow.” But the women themselves were changed, permanently. “It was a time of tremendous growth for any who participated. The kind of spiritual nurturing we received through our activity in YCW was not available to the average young Catholic.” She capsulized the experience as doing for her, “and for many like me, what the recent George Gallup survey is recommending that the present Church should be doing. It helped us to find God in ordinary experiences. Somehow when that happens everything else falls into place.”

These two young women, Edwina Hearn Froelich and Mary Irene Caplice Zotti, who wanted to be holy without being goody-goody, gained a strong sense of their own power as women, lay women, in the YCW group Father Egan chaplained. Dedicated to the group’s spiritual development, he planned regular study days, celebratory Masses, and retreats. On occasion, Mary Irene and Edwina had their own private retreats with Father Egan at the Cenacle Convent on Fullerton Avenue. They responded by becoming strong leaders. “All through those years,” Mary Irene notes, “we were totally convinced that we were doing something important, largely because of your complete and unmitigated faith in us.”

The education went two ways. Jack Egan was educated by cell members (in a way that prepared him for archdiocesan marriage work) even as he educated them. “I think it was from Viola Brennan and Edwina Hearn Froelich (along with Msgr. Hillenbrand, of course) that I learned the most about the meaning of priesthood; the relationship of priesthood to married people, courtship and marriage, and the psychology of women and men.”

That confession sounds strange to him now because he’d been some years ordained. Nonetheless, it was they who “taught me about the dignity of the individual. I got a deep appreciation of the meaning of women in the world. Since these were working women and we were having inquiries about the working conditions that women had to face—everything from unequal pay to intellectual and sexual abuse and harrassment, the psychological problems women faced in the work force—(their perceptions) had a very deep effect on my life.”

For Edwina Hearn Froelich the cell movement presented “the first time in all my years of Catholic education I had the opportunity to talk to dedicated, caring young priests. The Roman collar was very much there, but the barrier of the pulpit and the confessional were not there at these enlightening and enjoyable times. With these priests I could set aside the don’t-bother-Father-he’s-too-busy attitude I had grown up with. They were there, they cared about my spiritual growth, they were interesting and knowledgeable and caring. Moreover, I could even have my very own spiritual director, a priest who was really accessible to me personally.”

For Jack, the YCW inquiries were stepping stones to the feminist revolution, a revolution he considers “the most important revolution that has happened in our century, in its implications far greater than the civil rights movement” because “it’s going to affect half the population of the world.”

Jack Egan finds it strange to walk by the Chicago Athletic Association on Michigan Avenue today and recall the time when women couldn’t use the main entrance. “When Bob Cronin (who structured the Pre-Cana organization as it still exists) and Mary Cronin would take me to dinner there, Mary had to go through a side entrance.”

Jack vividly recalls community activist Saul Alinsky ranging his organizers across from the University Club, up the avenue from the CAA. He’d have them stand across Monroe Street and gaze up at the magnificent Gothic exterior. “Look at that,” he’d snort. “That is the University Club. In order to get into it as a member, you not only have to have a university degree. You have to be recommended and voted on. Then you have to be admitted and pay heavy dues. They say they are dignified, that they represent the scholarship of the world. But they will not admit a Jew, a black or a woman. Never forget that.”

This exclusionary policy bothered Saul Alinsky who shared Jack Egan’s belief that “there should be absolutely no division between people. The dignity of every human person, which Canon Cardijn used to talk about, which Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about, is in the Gospel. Every single solitary individual is of infinite worth,” Jack insists. Dating back to early sessions with the Young Christian Worker women, Jack has acted on principles he learned from Monsignor Hillenbrand. Never seeing women as inferior, he insists he loves “to work with women who are more competent than I. I have never shied away from that.” He credits his early training in YCW “where I had very bright and wonderful persons to instruct me, guide me, suppport me, interpret for me, build bridges for me, and help me to understand the meaning of the world.”

He recalls that the people who were “closest to Christ in his life in many respects were women,” and questions the contemporary role assigned women in the Church. “This is one of the reasons why I feel the Church is making a serious mistake, which we will pay for as the years and decades go on, by not taking the lead and assuming that women would have a full role in any part of the function of the Church, the administration of the Church.”

As the Church approaches the second millenium of its founding tempered by the emanicipating free play of Vatican II, Jack’s stand for women is no more amazing than Mary Cronin’s taking the main entrance into the Chicago Athletic Association. In the triumphalist Church of the 1950s, however, when pastors could flag down police cars for police escorts to Comiskey Park and an occasional new mother was still being “churched” (cleansed) after childbirth, a priest admitting he’d learned something from a woman was like a priest permitting a girl to serve Mass.


It was excellent preparation, however, for the responsibilities that would soon be Jack’s.

Next Chapter . . .