An Alley in Chicago

“What Do You Think of the Rosenburg Case”

As Jack Egan likes to say, “There’s a little bit of history here. To get to Alinsky in 1955, you have to go back to those people who drafted me into the Woodlawn Latin American Committee—Father Leo Mahon, Nick von Hoffman and his wife Ann Byrne von Hoffman, Ed Chambers, Sally Cassidy, Paula Verdet, Fran Kelley, Lester Hunt.”

As interested in people as he was, Jack Egan couldn’t have the shortest commerce with the Latin American committee without quizzing them on the source of their concern for their Puerto Rican neighbors. When he found out that Paula Verdet had been president of the Young Christian Students in France before she’d come to study sociology at the University of Chicago, Jack revealed his hankering to study family movements in France and Belgium. American theologians still emphasized the precepts of canon law and the justice issues between husband and wife. “If you examine some of the marriage material (in the United States) of those days, it is very canonically ordered, truly bland, nothing of the romance and beauty and psychology which were beginning to be developed by good psychologists across the world,” Jack recalls. In France, he thought, he would get a deeper understanding of conjugal spirituality.

Even as Verdet encouraged Jack in his European quest, however, he drew back. He had never traveled abroad. Even when he traveled in the United States for Cana road shows, in some sense he never left home. “I would be picked up and brought to people of comparable ideas and attitudes.” Verdet assured him that her YCS contacts would get him through rectory doors in the French countryside and cities once he was “in the neighborhood.” He could learn so much. Finally succumbing to the bait of wheedling knowledge from experience, Jack took a crash course in French, shopped for a black beret, and flew across the Atlantic on June 5, 1953, for three months of fieldwork/rest. “It wasn’t until I went to France that I saw a whole new culture and development.”

The friendly American priest, with his broken French and disarming manner, was welcomed in foyers sacerdotaux, French “bread-and-breakfasts” for traveling priests. Immediately, he was confronted by his own provincialism. The night of his arrival in Paris, at the first dinner he shared with French priests, they leaned across the table and inquired intensely, “What do you think of the Rosenbergs?” In the rectories Jack had been visiting in Chicago, the talk was of recent appointments at the chancery, White Sox chances for the pennant, the press of young couples eager for marriage, the “togetherness” that would be hailed as “almost the national purpose” in McCall‘s magazine the following Easter. There was no speculation in the average Chicago rectory about the fate of the couple accused of participating in a spy ring that sent hundreds of documents detailing every aspect of the production of the atom bomb to Moscow. Should the Rosenbergs be executed as Soviet spies? Jack didn’t know. He was at a loss to explain the McCarthy era to people in this very poor and very Communistic suburb of Paris. How could he explain noisy American demonstrators waving placards which read, “Two Fried Rosenbergs Coming Right Up?” With that first shared meal, Jack realized that traveling in France would stretch more than his grasp of conjugal spirituality. Listening more than he spoke, Jack lapped up the words of distinguished pastors like Abbe Michonneau, a great intellectual of the left, “but not the far left,” author of Revolution in a City Parish. As Jack ranged through all France’s large cities, visiting the priest-workers at several different locales, staying with the “marvelous” Stanley de Lestapis, S.J., he sought the theological substructure of their widening understanding of marriage, and techniques for teaching it. But the question of the Rosenbergs and the Catholic Senator Joe McCarthy followed him.

As he visited “all the finest theologians,” Jack recorded daily reports with his typewriter, and daily pictures in his head. He remembers sitting in a kitchen with French theologian Henri deLubac, S.J., who assured him “we are just beginning to think about the whole question of conjugal spirituality here in France. We have not developed a theology yet.” What Jack knew was that deLubac and Michonneau and De Lestapis—France’s most original theologians—were passing on their insights as fast as they formulated them. As teachers to the chaplains of the Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students, these theologians were formulating the input for YCW/YCS Gospel inquiries. The young people following Canon Cardijn were getting the best theology available at the time, the theology that would lead into Vatican II in 1962.

Actually, these theologians Jack was meeting were moving so fast that some of them were skidding into roadblocks. Father deLubac was only one of the French theologians silenced in 1954 by the Vatican. Another was French Dominican theologian Father Marie-Dominique Chenu who saw similarity between the current strength of European Catholic Action and the great apostolic movements of Saints Dominic and Francis of Assisi. Although they weren’t allowed to teach the faithful in 1954, Chenu and deLubac were invited to teach the bishops at Vatican II. (Chenu was adviser to the French-speaking African bishops.)

These men, reading “the signs of the times,” in Chenu’s telling phrase, believed in small, committed groups as a theological source. As Jack had hoped, they shared insights on marriage. Jack had timed his summer in France at the watershed moment when theologians were “moving from a canonical understanding and appreciation of marriage to a personalist appreciation of the dignity of both persons wedding themselves one to the other.”

At the foyers sacerdotaux set up to provide traveling priests lodging, breakfast and a place to say Mass for five hundred francs a night, Jack found contacts unavailable to France’s casual tourists. One night a “marvelous” concierge in Lyons excitedly informed him that morning would bring the great Father Voillaume. “Who is he?” Jack asked, unhappy to be uninformed, but unwilling to miss an experience.

“You never heard of the founder of the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus who live with the poorest of the poor all over the world as a sacrament of presence? With the pygmies in Africa, the poor on the docks in Marseille, in the slums of Rome! Father Voillaume rewrote for them the rule of Charles de Foucauld who was killed in the Sahara early this century by one of the Arab tribes.”

Intrigued, Jack rose early to serve Mass for Voillaume who returned the courtesy. “In those days you didn’t concelebrate.” Then the concierge interpreted as Jack asked about Father Voillaume’s work, revealing that in the United States he had never heard of the Little Brothers or the Little Sisters. “We are a wealthy country,” he said, “but we do have poor people.” Then he put his usual question, the one that gives him his long must-do list. “Is there anything I can do for you?” When Father Voillaume admitted that Cardinal Spellman had refused permission to bring his order to the U.S., Jack was quick to absolve New York’s archbishop. “Let’s be fair to him. Everybody who gets off the boat in the United States expects Cardinal Spellman to set them up and do something for them.” Jack promised Father Voillaume an audience with Cardinal Stritch in Chicago, making the gesture that was second nature to him, as usual with no thought for what he might be bringing on himself. In this case, once the message was in the tube, its course would affect markedly Jack’s own future.

Father Voillaume contacted his dear friend Jacques Maritain, a distinguished French theologian who’d done several teaching tours in the United States, about Egan’s offer. Maritain, in turn, wrote his dear American friend, community organizer Saul Alinsky. Alinsky called Egan: “I got a letter from my friend Maritain who wants me to take care of this fellow—what’s his name?—who’s coming to visit you.” He added, parenthetically, “I’ve heard of you, Egan.”

“I’ve heard about you, Mr. Alinsky,” Jack rejoined. “Why don’t you come over for lunch and we can talk about how we can make this man’s visit as pleasant as possible.”

From that day in 1954 throughout their long friendship, Alinsky kidded Jack Egan about the kosher salami sandwich and cup of coffee Jack called “lunch.” If Alinsky didn’t get a Caesar salad and a bottle of Pinot noir carefully held back for occasions such as this, he did find sympathetic sensibilities and a receptive ear. As Jack remembers the occasion, they established their common revulsion at seeing the common man—like Jack’s black man on the streetcar—pushed around. They talked about the Catholic Church, community organizations, their own lives. Alinsky told Jack “about his first wife who was drowned trying to save their adopted children, tears running down his cheeks. He was really in love with his first wife, devotedly in love.”

When they got around to Father Voillaume’s visit, Alinsky suggested, “Lookit, Egan, when this guy comes to town, why don’t you give me a ring and we’ll go down to the Palmer House Grill and have lunch. Then you can go ahead and arrange whatever talks you want.”

Jack demurred. “Mr. Alinsky,” he said, “I met this man. I know how he lives, where he lives, the people who belong to these organizations, how they live with the poor. I think he would feel very out of place at the Palmer House. Couldn’t we go to some ordinary restaurant?” Alinsky was impressed, he reported later to Maritain, that he’d found an American priest sensitive to the sensibilities of the poor. Meanwhile, Egan was arranging a number of lectures to “get this poor fellow Voillaume a bit of money to pay for his transportation,” and planning a meeting with Monsignor Vincent Cooke of Catholic Charities in Chicago (a very influential man, Jack Egan says, who knew 268 ways to help poor people in the state of Illinois).

Because of a scheduling conflict, Jack drew the duty of bringing Father Voillaume’s petition to Cardinal Stritch. The cardinal sat quietly, head in hands, as Jack explained how the Little Sisters wanted to take up residence in a poor Chicago neighborhood, asking no quarter except the opportunity to be friends with their neighbors, a presence among them. They wear a blue denim habit and a little scarf on their heads, Father Egan told the cardinal, find jobs in nearby factories or stores, and welcome neighbors to their prayer services. When he could think of nothing to add, Jack said, “Your Eminence, I would like permission for the Little Sisters to come to Chicago.”

He waited patiently, silently, while the cardinal carefully removed his glasses and carefully set them on his desk. He watched the cardinal drop his head in his hands once again. The seconds dragged like the feet of reluctant schoolboys. To Jack it seemed an interminable five minutes, although now he says, “probably just a minute or two.” Finally, the cardinal reached out for his glasses, arranged them across the bridge of his nose and behind his ears. He looked up into Father Egan’s eyes and nodded. “Yes, I give them permission.” The Sisters were moved into 1725 W. Jackson Boulevard. Merchant Sol Polk donated a refrigerator the Sisters refused when it was delivered. Their neighbors had no refrigerators! And Jack Egan had a set of new friends—the Sisters as well as Saul Alinsky.

When Monsignor John O’Grady of the national Catholic Charities office came through Chicago again some months later, he arranged dinner at the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue for his friend Saul Alinsky, Nicholas von Hoffman of the Woodlawn Latin American Committee, and Jack Egan. In 1939, Alinsky had come into Chicago to organize the Back of the Yards neighborhood, port of entry for Eastern Europeans who lived the desperate lives Upton Sinclair depicted in his powerful novel The Jungle. Alinsky had a great clerical (and fiscal) friend in Bishop Bernard Sheil, who, like Alinsky and Jack Egan, had great faith in the power of the people to get things done when they mustered around issues important to their lives. With support from Sheil, Alinsky had organized the people in the stockyards area to express their own interests, their hopes, sentiments, and dreams so they could “own” their own organization. He worked to convince them that together they were not helpless before their chronic social problems of unemployment, disease, child welfare, delinquency, and poor housing, that they could take a good deal of their own fate into their own hands. He’d enlisted the help of the Catholic Church (ninety percent of the population was Catholic), neighborhood organizations, and labor unions to support the people’s efforts. By working together, Alinsky preached, you can promote the welfare of all residents, regardless of their race, color, or creed, so you can all find health, happiness, and security through the democratic way of life. Now the executive director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, Saul Alinsky had not organized in Chicago since 1939. It was clear to Jack Egan that Saul Alinsky needed help “to get back into community organization work and maybe the one great contribution I made to Saul Alinsky’s life and the city of Chicago and community organization was to help Saul (he would laugh if he heard me say this, but it’s true) begin another career. He was not doing any organization work when I met him,” Jack recalls.

At the dinner at the Blackstone with Monsignor O’Grady (whom Jack considers one of the towering figures of the Church in this century) Alinsky guyed von Hoffman about his assistance to the Puerto Ricans in a way he had of taking a man’s measure by observing his reactions. Working in community organizations was abrasive; working with Alinsky meant being under constant appraisal. Even as he critiqued von Hoffman’s efforts for the Puerto Ricans as muddle-headed, Alinsky was appraising and approving of von Hoffman’s quick comprehension. It seems that when Egan went to Cardinal Stritch for the $10,000 to pay the Woodlawn Latin American Committee’s debts, the cardinal had expressed interest in expanding the Puerto Rican work. Later that month after the Blackstone dinner, Alinsky offered von Hoffman one hundred dollars a week (of the cardinal’s money) to study the Puerto Ricans’ jump over the black community into the Dearborn Street area on the near North Side above the Chicago River. Bishop Bernard Sheil of the CYO and Sheil School had earlier been a financial supporter of Alinsky’s initiatives. Now Cardinal Stritch was moving into that role through the agency of Jack Egan. Stritch put up the money; Egan, the life.

As Sanford Horwitt analyzed the Egan/Alinsky relationship in Let Them Call Me Rebel, Alinsky had “stumbled upon a young man who had the potential to become what Alinsky had found to be so elusive: a crack organizer with whom he could work as a brother, or perhaps as a father, sharing and rejoicing in the adventure, the jousting, the fun, the power, and the nobility of a just cause.” For Jack it was the beginning of a relationship “that perdures [he likes that word and concept] to this very day even though Saul died in 1972. We were very, very close.”

To the casual onlooker, Jack Egan and Saul Alinsky were, in Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ phrase, “a crazy salad.” Jack was the oil to Alinsky’s vinegar. Always abrasive, determined to be in control, engineering all relationships on his terms, Alinsky charmed people into obeisance or irritated them into rejection. To those who paid him homage, his lack of modesty was part of his charm. His acid wit was tolerable because it was used most often to bite the hands restraining the community will. Besides, he was a fount of great stories from his days communing with the Capone mob as a student criminologist and functioning as a sociologist at Joliet prison. A superlatively entertaining companion, he was the most loyal of friends.

At base, what sealed the bond between the politic Egan and the caustic Alinsky was their common distaste, even revulsion, at seeing people robbed of their dignity. When Jack Egan asked Saul Alinsky how he got into community organizing and Saul answered, “Oh, Jack, I hate to see people pushed around,” their pact was confirmed. That mutual urgency whipped their disparate personalities into a functioning unit. Jack Egan brought his spiritual conviction of every person’s worth to Alinsky’s skill at creating a setting “in which victimized people could experience and express their self with power and dignity.”

In the mid-1950s, the Cana Conference was going well. Jack Egan’s faith in laypeople had proved to be accurate and well-timed. Cana volunteers were dogged workers, meticulous organizers, and enthusiastic partisans of the intense family culture creating in the fifties a generation of outsize—baby boom—families. They were experiencing, courtesy of Cana, their own jousting, fun, feeling of power and satisfaction in the nobility of their high-minded cause. They were sharing Chicago’s Catholic “high,” the sense that for Catholics in the fifties Chicago was the fountainhead for the Church’s transformation from immigrant backwater supernumerary to player on the main stage. Monsignor Hillenbrand still functioned as head of the rapidly growing Catholic Action movements. Pat and Patty Crowley were acknowledged leaders of the locally initiated, now world-wide, Christian Family Movement. Cana was being exported via regular road shows. Where in the early fifties Jack had gone to France to find the spirit and substance of the Church’s vitality, in the late fifties seekers came to Three East Chicago Avenue or Twenty-one West Superior or the Crowleys’ welcoming living room in Wilmette. Jack’s Cana work had brought him very close to Monsignor Burke, an intensely loyal man, who’d picked Jack as a comer and shepherded his talents into a direct line into the chancery office. Cana board members noted that there was little that Jack asked of the chancery office that wasn’t conceded, even encouraged. Once Jack made the connection (through Burke), the cardinal saw Alinsky as an agent to expand the archdiocese’s efforts for the city’s poor. He wanted two things. Besides the report on the condition of the Hispanics in Chicago that Nick von Hoffman worked on, (“you couldn’t do that today without a million dollar study,” according to Jack Egan) the cardinal wanted a study of the New York Life Insurance Company housing development between Thirty-first and Thirty-fifth Streets and King Drive and the lake. “The cardinal was deeply interested in what was happening to the poor black people moved out of that area and those displaced by the Dan Ryan Expressway,” Father Egan recalls. The cardinal told Egan, “I would like to find out how those people survived and where they moved to.” Jack Egan would work on that. Both studies were funded in 1957 when the archdiocese allotted $118,800 to Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation for an extensive study of community changes resulting from population shifts.

Jack knew the need for organization through the labor movement and his St. Justin Martyr experience that taught him that for “the voice of a single individual to be heard down at City Hall was an oxymoron. It was inconceivable.” He brought the same enthusiasm to studying the area that included Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores housing complexes that he brought to the suburbs of Paris and Rouen two summers before. As he and organizer Lester Hunt gathered information about the people on the near South Side displaced by the Dan Ryan Expressway, Jack learned on the job. According to Horwitt, Jack “had been almost completely released from his clerical duties.” If a parish census at St. Justin Martyr’s was a baby step into community involvement for Jack, assignment to the IAF to find out how the Dan Ryan Expressway affected people’s lives was a giant step. During the summers of 1956 and 1957, Jack Egan and Lester Hunt visited practically every home and store and church and business between Thirty-fifth and Fifty-fifth streets and from the lake over to State Street. This was the heart of the old South Side ghetto—the Grand Boulevard section of Chicago.

They met the poor and the powerful. Jack made an appointment with “The Man,” Congressman Bill Dawson, who “individually and singly moved the black population from voting Republican to Democratic under Mayor Ed Kelly.” Jack found the office of the most powerful black politician in Chicago (before Mayor Harold Washington) in a ramshackle old building on Forty-seventh Street, “a sort of 1920s office, books around.” Now that he’d talked to all the Baptist ministers along State Street, to real estate operators, to the clients and proprietors in barber shops, “everybody I could find,” Jack was primed to talk over the housing situation with the congressman.

Dawson said to the young priest, “I don’t know what you have on your mind, son, but I want to tell you something and I want you to bring this back to your cardinal. I am very grateful for what he and you have done for my people.”

Jack replied, “Congressman, we thought they were our people, too.” Dawson laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s right.” Jack says now that if you want the honest-to-God truth, “I don’t think either one of us had done very much for the blacks. But that was his perception.” The cardinal had made some good statements in 1954. Jack had given some good talks. “I really hadn’t done much.”

Jack Egan was getting personal training in community organizing from Saul Alinsky, the master. “Every night I had to write out a report. What we did. Who we saw. What was said. Then Saul would take these reports and at the end of the week he would examine them and say, well, you saw these people on Monday. They gave you this information. Did you do anything to follow up on that on Wednesday? It was real training in the analysis of organization.” Jack learned to keep his eyes open. “Did you really believe what these people told you? Did you check this with anyone else?” Alinsky would ask. It was a time of great satisfaction to Jack Egan. He had found a community of simpatico activists bent on bettering people’s lives. First, the organizers did good work on the streets finding out what was what. Then they had good times together while they exchanged, challenged, teased, lampooned each other’s information, perception, and ideas. While Jack had natural gifts of ingenuousness and empathy to bring to his daily interviews, he could see that he needed the training he was getting. To tough it out on Chicago streets—dangerous, devastated, and daunting—took a discipline and a nimble acuity that came only with dogged practice. He’d found a challenging job that called out the best in him, and people who demanded that he give it. They grew very close.

Concurrently, Jack Egan found another ally unafraid of the unknowns in the Church/society equation, this one inside the Church. Father Joseph Gremillion, a forceful young pastor of a ninety-eight percent white parish in Shreveport, Louisiana, come to the attention of priests like Jack because he worked at improving race relations in his church in the Bible Belt. He also shared Jack’s drive to bring laypersons into the action of the Church. “Shreveport is like a town in Texas,” Gremillion says. “Northern Louisiana is as Pentecostal as Alabama.” As a priest working to promote justice for Negroes in the South, Father Joseph Gremillion was walking a lonely road in 1954. To come in out of that isolation, he regularly bolted up to Chicago to seek out like-minded people like Jack Egan who shared his vision that priests should see past their parish boundaries, even their cities, to a national point of view, perhaps even international. It was a galvanic moment for Gremillion and Egan when they found reflected in each other the same zest for widening the horizons of their parochial worlds.

If their meeting could be so reinforcing and productive, Gremillion and Egan told each other, all their friends in creative ministries would profit from meeting each other. They consulted the veteran and respected Father Louis Putz, C.S.C., of Notre Dame. Think what would happen if the people we know in social ministry, in race relations, ministry to farm workers, international issues, peace issues and human rights, got together, they said. Wouldn’t they be turned on—as we are—by finding how many people are laboring in the same vineyards? “It was clear to us,” Father Gremillion says, “that we needed to cross-fertilize so we’d have a sense of where the U.S. church was going as a whole. This was long before Vatican II.” Networking was not yet the social rage it was to become, but Jack Egan and Joseph Gremillion were natural networkers.

With the confidence of a Mickey Rooney saying, “Let’s have a show,” they said, “Let’s get everybody together.” In 1955 they faced daunting obstacles. According to Gremillion, “At that time priests were not free, especially on a national basis.” Few bishops wanted upstart priests exchanging tidings of possible uneasiness in their dioceses. “Who are they?” the bishops would ask. “What are they plotting about?” It was Bishop John Wright of Worcester, Massachusetts—mid-century, the only intellectual among the bishops, Gremillion says—who permitted thirty-two priests, hand-picked by the co-chairs, to gather at his diocesan retreat house and talk about the meaning of the lay person in the United States. Per pattern, Jack Egan, Louis Putz and Joe Gremillion procured “the best talent in the country” as speakers. Egan asked Monsignor Hillenbrand to speak on “The Specialized Movements” and Monsignor George Higgins on “The Economic Scene and the Church Today.” Father Joseph Fichter, S.J., related the layperson’s role to sociologists’ findings. The godfather of the Liturgical Movement, Father Godfrey Diekmann, O.S.B., related lay people to the liturgy, and Monsignor Frederick Hochwalt, the bishops’ chair on education, related them to education.

In off-the-record sessions, participants dared to say the unsayable, dared to beset the unbesetable. In those pre-Vatican II days, the Church rested in the confident unassailability of its infallibility. The Church had all the answers. The church people Gremillion and Egan gathered weren’t so sure. They were asking questions precisely because they knew that they, as priests, didn’t have all the answers. The organizers had provided a safe place where they could admit that. Gremillion and Egan were in their element as the talk went on through the coffee breaks, through dinner, and on into the night. Once the participants had broached the subject there was so much to say (this was 1955) on the layperson’s role, and the priest’s role in helping laypersons achieve their proper status. “It was so exciting,” Father Gremillion remembers. “Finding like-minded people, we would not only talk and understand each other. We could start national programs together.”

Participants were at once limp with exhaustion and lively with enthusiasm. “Gee, Joe, Louie, and Jack, thanks a lot. Why didn’t we do this ten years ago?” Father Gremillion, looking back in the confidence of his lifetime of scholarship, sees himself and Jack Egan and George Higgins as national Church leaders. “We were saying, `Look, Church, this is what you should be talking about.’” In 1955, what they thought the Church should be talking about was the role of the laity. Two years later when Egan and Gremillion organized a second conference at Hinsdale, Illinois, the theme was communication in a pluralistic society.

Participants admitted that the Church was in open competition in the open market of ideas. How was the Church to communicate its message to the countless groups for which it had a message—“a bearing of witness to what it thinks is the Word of God?” As they made up the program, Gremillion and Egan realized how little experience the Church had had with pluralism. “In the past (the Church) has been either the sole officially accepted way of life, or the leading opponent of the established order.” What they saw as changed was the Catholic population. Catholics were “being swept into the mainstream of American life.” The Church would have to adapt, but how?

Two years later there was a third meeting, this one on ecumenism at Oxley, Ontario, in 1959. At the first meetings, Jack Egan and Father Gremillion, along with Father Louis Putz, CSC, of the University of Notre Dame, had quarried their prodigious contacts for the most sound and sophisticated church thinkers nationwide. At Oxley they brought Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University, editor and translator of Luther’s works and dean of American church historians, and the Very Reverend Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, Yonkers, New York, to their hand-picked Roman Catholic activist audience. Their coup advanced the admissibility of ecumenism in the United States, according to Father Egan, before the watershed decrees of Vatican II. Actually, their convocations undoubtedly provided some of the loam for the ideas that would sprout at the council. If projects need seed money, councils need seed studies.

By 1959, Father Gremillion was in Rome studying for a degree in sociology as Putz and Egan arranged the Oxley conference. The Vatican Council was in the offing. Because their national sharing had helped them see the need for an international council, Putz and Gremillion and Egan didn’t share the general surprise when Pope John asked himself one morning (as he was pulling on his socks, according to Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame) what he would say to the cardinals at their meeting that morning and decided to tell them he was calling all the bishops in the world to Rome for a council. In some quarters, that was not good news. For participants at Worcester, Hinsdale, and Oxley, it was their little conferences writ large.

Next Chapter . . .