An Alley in Chicago

“I Am Myself”

“Whoever speaks at my funeral will not say I was a priest’s priest. I was a lay person’s priest,” Jack Egan muses. It’s not that he doesn’t have close priest friends, “a variety of people in Chicago related to me because of my work.” It’s simply that from his earliest days in the priesthood Jack Egan has spent his free time with lay people. Early on, they were Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students.

“This is what I liked doing, this is what I thought I should do, and as a result, I became far more close to the laity,” he says. This was true in spite of the fact that Father Egan was working very closely with hundreds of priests across the country in his Cana organizing. Although the generosity of the clergy in Chicago “overwhelmed” Father Egan, “in a certain sense I was hesitant about asking the clergy (to participate in Cana), but I was never hesitant about asking the laity.”

Early Cana co-chair Art Schaefer recalls the night Father Egan called to say he was in the neighborhood. “Could I drop in for a few minutes?” As Jack Egan laid out the role of speaker couple, Art and Virginia Schaefer were shocked to think of themselves as an example for others, although, Art writes, “we were about as compatible as man and woman can get.” The Schaefers’ association with Cana in 1948 “didn’t rescue a marriage, may not even have made it better,” Schaefer says, “but it enriched our experience” by training the Schaefers’ attention on the spiritual reality underlaying their union. To give the feel of Egan’s effect on him and his wife, Schaefer quotes mythologist Joseph Campbell, “We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.” Jack Egan communicated that rapture to the Schaefers.

An able pair—Art was a vice president at DePaul University, Virginia the mother of nine—the Schaefers evaluated current board practices of pioneer chaircouple Eileen and John Farrell and Executive Director Jack Egan. They proposed refinements in the structure. In line with Father Egan’s pitch on the primacy of the laity, they suggested lay couples take charge of the Cana program. Father Egan could function as chaplain with the power of veto if the board’s actions contravened the goals of the archbishop. Once Jack agreed, the Schaefers and Frank O’Dowd (whom Jack had met at that first October 9, 1947, gathering) drafted by-laws providing for a nine couple board, each with three-year terms. A senior couple, elected chaircouple, would serve a fourth year. The system worked, but it wouldn’t have, Schaefer wrote Father Egan, “without your extrovert nature, your people-managing ability, and your faith in the idea that there was plenty of talent among the laity to accomplish the Cana mission.”

Father Egan’s faith in the Schaefers was well placed. The couple, whom Art once wryly described as “professionally happily married,” were a premier speaker couple as well as board chairman in their day, addressing thousands of couples at Pre-Canas, Lenten programs on marriage, and on road shows to demonstrate Cana style in other dioceses. They quoted St. Thomas Aquinas to their audiences, telling how the natural impulse toward fleshly union is the beginning of the virtue that leads to psychological and spiritual depths that make marriage, in Virginia Schaefer’s words, “the best idea God ever had.”

Not all clergy were as willing as Jack to ascribe competence to laypersons. Sociologist Father John L. Thomas, an authority on marriage relationships as author of The American Catholic Family, wrote a draft of a marriage manual for couples making Pre-Canas. Jack Egan suggested a review by a lay committee. What could be more natural than to consult couples doing a good job at being married? As Peggy O’Dowd recalls, “Father Egan had continually encouraged our thinking” as well as a freedom of expression his priestly contemporaries found unsettling and unnecessary for the laity. Committee members, all of them now in marriage education for the archdiocese, felt completely free to critique Father Thomas’ work. Father Thomas, astonished if not dumfounded, felt free to critique their effrontery.

“Father Thomas was not accustomed to this mode of operation at all. He was outraged. He left our house in a huff,” Peggy O’Dowd relates.

It’s probable that Jack Egan intervened, smoothing over the rift—one of his superlative skills—for eventually Father Thomas used many of the committee’s suggestions. Once acclimated to this singular lay behavior, Father Thomas became a staunch supporter of Cana.

Father Thomas himself dumfounded participants at a study day when he pronounced that women were men’s intellectual equals. “There was quite a rumble,” Peggy O’Dowd reports. “I had never been told that in my life. It even startled Mary Cronin (Peggy’s co-hostess whose inequality had kept her out of the main dining room of the Chicago Athletic Association). Forever after, Father Thomas became a beloved friend.”

These couples were learning more than they could have hoped as they took responsibility for creating a body of religious, psychological, and physical information about marriage. In Father Egan’s first ten Cana years as chaplain, those insights were transmitted to 71,430 men and women who attended 600 Pre-Cana Conferences in 250 parishes. Those post-war days were a unique time. Drawing on the enormous energies of young married women not carrying double career loads as their daughters would, and young men not yet overwhelmed by managerial responsibilities, Jack mobilized the vitality and good will latent in people grateful that the world-wide conflict was over. Like Jack, they sought deep spiritual meaning in their lives. Some of them were the CISCA “graduates” whom Father Carrabine had primed for responsible service to the Church, some graduates of Catholic schools where they’d been reared on the same encyclicals that radicalized Hillenbrand’s seminarians. As Jack himself says, “The kind of laity that had developed had not been available in the Church before.”

Jack Egan skillfully harnessed that new energy, directed it, educated it. From Monsignor Hillenbrand he’d learned how to nurture good conscripts with good coaching. He gave them visiting scholars and theologians. He provided electrifying study weeks at Oxley, Ontario. He organized training courses and planned retreats. Now, when he called to say he was in the neighborhood, he’d arrive with a great new book on marriage, maybe one recently translated from a French theologian. Under the other arm he’d have a bottle of wine.

Two generations before Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman wrote In Search of Excellence in 1982, Jack Egan instinctively provided the concentrated personal attention that pushes an individual to his or her best performance. Peters/Waterman observed that good companies motivate people “by compelling, simple—even beautiful—values.” Jack motivated his Cana people with all the compelling, simple, beautiful values he’d learned so well from Monsignor Hillenbrand.

He added zest. “If we’re going to do it, let’s have fun doing it,” Father Egan would urge volunteer speaker couples and doctors.

Priest-conductors earned only a pittance, as Father Egan had assured Monsignor Molloy. Their bonuses were Cana parties in the basement of Old St. Patrick’s or at near North Side hotels, dinners with visiting Church luminaries, late night talk sessions. These events galvanized the organization. Most everyone experienced the conjunction of laity empowerment, equality of women, searching theological inquiry, and service to the Church as a heady mix. Jack Egan told his Cana recruits that they were the Church in Chicago, that the Church in Chicago was wonderful, that they were wonderful. He made them believe they were doing work that was important and necessary, fruitful and long-lasting. Some of them smiled at his hyperbole—could every occasion be historic?—but generally they were willing to let his elixir do its work. That was good for them, but was it always good for Father Egan?

“I used to be getting my meals here and there,” Jack mentions casually. He never clocked his solo hours in his car. Only later could he admit how alone he felt in his early Cana days. “There was nobody I could go to who knew anything about the development of an organization like this.” Father Voss would have been his natural ally and teacher, but Father Egan felt “a coldness there, an understandable coldness.”

Nor was Jack Egan’s charm proof against the politics of marriage education. The priest director of the Family Life Bureau in Washington suspected Cana was preempting his life work. Within the archdiocese, the West Side Cana group, who worked with the Dominican priests in River Forest, distanced themselves from the North and South Side groups which had developed originally as actions of Catholic Action men’s cells. They, in turn, were separate from Pre-Cana founded in 1944 when (Christian Family Movement co-founder) Patty Crowley thought that a Pre-Cana Conference “would be wonderful” for her sister who was getting married. She and Dorothy Drish of the Catholic Action Women’s Group enlisted the help of the girls’ Catholic Action Federation to organize the first program for engaged couples at Mallinckrodt High School in Wilmette. They were consistently rebuffed as they went from North Side parish to North Side parish to collect names of couples planning imminent weddings. “Most of the priests turned us down. Some wouldn’t let us in.” As Patty says of the first Cana Days, “Those were the days in the Church when women and men were never heard of together.” These women were not to be encouraged!

By patience and persistence, Dorothy Drish and Patty did manage to get a few names. They arranged the place and found a priest willing to do the marriage instruction. They organized all the incidentals they thought necessary to give these young persons the kind of experience that Patty had known at the Father Dowling Cana Conference she’d gone to. The young couples arrived at Mallinckrodt eager for information about Christian marriage. The priest did his best at this eventful birth of a new concept. But it didn’t work out exactly as Patty had planned. “Everybody liked it but my sister and her husband,” she recalls. “They thought it was awful.”

It wasn’t Jack’s style to schedule R & R between assignments. The night of his appointment as Cana director he accompanied Father Voss to a big meeting of the West Side group. His first day on the job, he began to replay the St. Justin Martyr’ census plunge. His priorities: to introduce the Cana concept to all archdiocesan pastors, to recruit and educate additional priests, to develop the lay organization (that meant unifying the North, South and West Sides), and to multiply doctors and married couple speakers. By this time, Pre-Cana was growing exponentially. Even so, Father Egan had one rule: “I only asked volunteers to serve two years. I wanted them to know it wasn’t a lifelong commitment.” They could continue to serve if they wished.

Jack didn’t have options. He felt beleaguered. Goaded by his self-expectation, his need to succeed, the largeness of the task, the nagging politics in the movements locally and nationally, the physical strain of interviews—and meals—on the run, the apparent need of all the young couples in the archdiocese, he saw his task as larger than his present capacity to cope.

Soon after his Cana assignment, Jack had been invited by a friend, Father Fred Mann, to a conference concerning the priest and counseling at Catholic University in the nation’s capital. His interest piqued by his experience with Carl Rogers, the new Cana director carved out the time to do himself what would prove to be a great kindness. For at that conference he met the therapist and ally he was soon to need desperately, “this genius, Father Charles Curran.”

Curran, Carl Rogers’ first Ph.D. in counseling at Ohio State and a scholar relating Rogerian theory to Thomistic philosophy for a book called Catholic Life and Education, was by 1955 a pastor in a little parish in Carmel, Ohio, and a teacher in the minor seminary in nearby Columbus. The country around Carmel was pretty, rolling corn belt land merging into the fertile hills and valleys of the Appalachian plateau to the east.

In Chicago, Jack Egan was hefting prodigious responsibilites. He felt unsupported by his natural father figures, cut off from any shared life with peers. However rigid the discipline in some rectories, parish priests knew where they fit in the clerical scheme. They came home to dinner—it was often compulsory—around a table of people who understood their concerns. They met with classmates every chance they got, golf club or wine glass in hand. At a time of life when it was natural to question celibacy and the nature of authority, Jack had no one with whom to share a nagging disquietude. He lived in a parish, but he wasn’t one of the regulars. Besides, he was always running about on Cana business.

He couldn’t turn to his mentor, Monsignor Hillenbrand. Jack had disappointed Hillenbrand, as he had once disappointed his father. “He lost a lot of interest and respect for me because I devoted myself to the Cana and Pre-Cana Conference when he thought I should be working full-time in Catholic Action, in YCS and YCW.” Hillenbrand was not satisfied with Jack’s dedication in spite of the fact that Jack was still spending his day off from Cana as national chaplain of the YCW women.

On point as the first Cana director, Jack felt his inadequacies grating as unrelentingly as a charleyhorse biting into a calf muscle. “I knew my limitations. Monsignor Hillenbrand once said it is a good person who knows his limitations. I knew I wasn’t bright and didn’t have a real understanding of all the intricacies of the philosophy and the psychology and the theology of marriage, the whole conjugal relationship.” Besides the intellectual demands, Jack had managerial demands he hadn’t been trained for.

He was trying to do too much too fast with too little support and preparation. If he stumbled, he’d risk himself—and Cana. He couldn’t continue to rally Cana volunteers if his own zeal faded to zero. He knew he had “problems that (he) had to cope with.” He felt trapped. Somewhere there had to be help available. He had experience now of helping people. He knew it was possible. “I had to make serious changes so I could grow spiritually and relate to people.”

Emboldened by the boost in self-confidence that the people at St. Justin Martyr had given him, Jack did for himself what he was so willing to do for others. He called Father Charles Curran in Carmel, Ohio, and asked for help. He knew that “it’s one thing to be liked and another thing to accept and integrate yourself.” He could be of more service—he could go on, he thought—if he got to know himself better and like himself better. At Father Curran’s encouraging invitation, Jack got in his car, for once not to listen to parishioners’ woes, not to mitigate pastors’ irritation, not to chaplain his YCW group, not to recruit or encourage new speaker couples. He drove to Carmel, Ohio, to do for Jack Egan what he desperately knew had to be done, to scrutinize and analyze his life with the help of a counselor. Again, he had picked the right person, a truly tutelary genius.

For ten days Jack Egan met for an hour counseling session morning and evening with Charles Curran in his pleasant lakeside rectory in the quiescent Ohio backwater town. “Charles Curran was the premier counselor that I ever encountered. He pulled everything out of me, my past life, my guilt, my relationship with my family, myself, the seminary, the priesthood. He helped me examine my whole life in that magnificent non-directive way.”

Actually, it wasn’t necessary for Curran to pull anything out of Jack Egan. Jack poured it out. That’s why he’d come. Never one to waste time—he had too much to do in life—Jack dived down to those depths he didn’t want to face alone. “I knew I was the only one who could solve my problems. He helped me open up so I could see the solutions.”

As a Catholic priest, Curran could understand the pressures of celibacy and loneliness Jack was suffering. As Jack revealed the pressures crowding him, beginning with his relationship with his overcritical father, he began to see the picture of himself he was drawing with his own words. “Everything became clear in my life because for the first time, I was totally, completely, honest with another human being. I revealed the deepest feelings of my soul to this person with absolute confidence and without any pressure. He saw inside me because I opened myself to him.” Tangentially, Curran deepened Jack’s hold on non-directive counseling. “But, more importantly, he helped me see myself as I was, really was, with all my limitations.” And he made it possible for Jack to accept himself as he really was, for Curran accepted Jack as he really was.

Contemplating the gentle ripples lapping the lakeshore between sessions, Jack forgot Chicago and Cana and Catholic Action groups and archdiocesan politics. He concentrated on “my relationship with God, my relationship with people, my relationship with work, and my relationship with the priesthood. It was the first time I was able to separate myself really from my father.” Jack speculates that he wouldn’t have been able to deal later with Cardinal Cody—“I’d have buckled under”—without this experience. As he put the nature of authority into perspective, Jack changed his perception of himself. “For the first time I really accepted myself as a person of value. Here I was, thirty or thirty-one (finally realizing I was) a person of value who didn’t have all the answers, but who didn’t need to have all the answers.” How many people, like Father Kevin Conway, had told Jack, “I don’t think you have brains, but . . .” Now Jack could tell himself, “I don’t have all the brains in the world, but I do have certain qualities, insights, experiences that other people don’t have. I am myself.”

When Father Curran saw Jack Egan to his car after those intense ten days, Jack was a different person. “I felt completely clean, I felt completely washed. For the first time I was able to cope with my relationship with my father and my relationship with authority.” Jack had eliminated fear from his life, “that unreasonable fear that prevents you from acting, that immobilizes you. Father Curran helped me appreciate my talents, and encouraged me to push them to the limit, and also to care for myself. He is the finest counselor I have ever encountered.”

The people at St. Justin Martyr taught Jack Egan that he could be liked. With Father Curran, he learned he could like himself. He no longer felt the need to be someone else, “someone more competent, smarter, better at athletics, better at speaking, better looking.” He could be happy being Jack Egan.

His time with Curran made it possible for Jack to persevere in his goal of attending people’s needs. All the time he skimmed over the city, netting a cheese sandwich here and an additional doctor speaker there, Jack Egan operated at several levels. At the surface he functioned as full-time, really an over-time, director of Cana. Below the surface, he always nurtured a subterranean agenda. Just as he’d organized marriage preparation as a curate at St. Justin Martyr, now that he was in marriage preparation full-time, he was becoming known as a priest responsive to social issues.

In the early 1950s, he got a call from a group of University of Chicago students working with a Woodlawn priest, Father Leo Mahon, to help the city’s newest immigrants. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans, American citizens who’d moved into the near South Side area, were at the mercy of the city. The police didn’t speak Spanish. Firemen couldn’t speak Spanish. Nor did storekeepers or landlords. Schools had no books in Spanish. The Puerto Ricans were desperate that cold spring. The Woodlawn Latin American Committee set up to assist them was in debt. Could “good old Jack” come to a meeting? And could good old Jack raise some money?

Aware that Monsignor Edward Burke, his champion at the chancery office, had a natural interest for he was already working with Mexican-Americans at a little Mexican church at Twelfth and Halsted, Jack contacted Burke at his cathedral room. It was Holy Thursday morning, the beginning of the heavy Holy Week schedule for all priests of the archdiocese. The chancery office was closed.

Nonetheless, Burke agreed to meet Egan at his office. Jack painted a poignant picture of the Puerto Ricans’ plight and the efforts of the Woodlawn Latin American Committee, “what they were doing, their need for money, (volunteers) working there free.”

“All right,” Monsignor Burke agreed. “Let’s go see the cardinal and I’ll ask him for some money.” After a quick phone call, Burke announced, “We’re going up there right away. We’ll use my car.” Not as confident as Monsignor Burke, Jack pulled back. “Wait a minute. I’ve never been to the cardinal’s house. What are we going to say to him?”

The chancellor reassured him. “Jack, don’t worry about it. Leave that up to me. I’ll take care of it.” So, in Jack’s words, “we got into his car and we go up to the residence” where Samuel Cardinal Stritch had lived since Cardinal Mundelein’s death in 1939. The red brick mansion at the southeast corner of North State Parkway and North Avenue, just opposite Lincoln Park, was imposing both for its dignified portico, its multiple chimneys for the once-useful fireplaces, and its history since the Most Reverend Patrick A. Feehan built it in 1880. When Catholics gathered in Chicago for the 1926 Eucharistic Congress, Cardinal Mundelein hosted there what was probably the largest gathering of prelates in the Western Hemisphere. Eleven years later, Mundelein had President Roosevelt to lunch after the President dedicated the Outer Drive Bridge. Cardinal Pacelli was received here before he was Pope Pius XII. And now Jack Egan.

If the residence was imposing, Cardinal Stritch was “down home casual” in his second floor office (the only time Jack was ever on the second floor of the cardinal’s residence). In contrast to the ermine-trimmed trappings he wore for formal occasions, Cardinal Stritch was in his shirtsleeves, his suspenders around his waist, surrounded by piles of books, typing a pastoral letter warning that no Chicago Catholic could attend the World Council of Churches meeting in Evanston. Catholics were still very insular in the 1950s. (“Unbelievable,” Jack comments, thirty years later.)

Taking in Monsignor Burke’s urgency and Father Egan’s hesitancy, Cardinal Stritch hospitably invited them to a comfortable alcove overlooking the well-kept grounds. After a succinct introduction to the Puerto Rican situation, Monsignor Burke turned to Jack: “Why don’t you tell the Cardinal all about it?”

For Jack it was one of those times when the Holy Spirit endows the timid with sudden eloquence. The cardinal, already aware of the depth of social disruption on Chicago’s South Side, listened as Jack Egan brought the poverty of the city’s newest Hispanics into that rich room. The cardinal turned to his chancellor, “Earmark $10,000 for this work and give Father Egan $5,000 today so that it can begin.” Not one to stop at one success, when Jack later found himself with the national director of Catholic Charities, Monsignor John O’Grady, he asked his advice about the Woodlawn Latin American Committee. “You know, Father Egan,” he said, “what you should be doing is getting in touch with Saul Alinsky.”

“Well, I’ve met him,” Jack said.

“Well, meet him again,” the Monsignor persisted.

Jack was approaching another decisive turning point. Saul—“don’t give me any of that Jesus shit”—Alinsky was to be Jack Egan’s next great tutelary genius. And dear, dear friend.

Next Chapter . . .