An Alley in Chicago

“You Have to Fight Injustice Wherever You Find It”

All this time Jack Egan was keeping up with his friends from the seminary. Once a month on Sunday night at seven, after they’d finished their parish duties and had a visit with their families, a small group of priests gathered at Annunciation rectory, centrally located on the North Side at Paulina and Wabansia where Father James J. Killgallon was an assistant. They were still “Rynie’s young men.” They’d started meeting regularly with Monsignor Hillenbrand soon after they got their parish assignments—once they’d come to appreciate how much they were going to need mutual support. In some sense, they were a clerical counterpart to the Alinsky group.

“It was a comfortable room in a great old rectory,” Jack Egan recalls. “High ceilings, fitted out in good taste. Jake Killgallon was the artist in the group, a singer, piano player, devotee of the theater. A man of great integrity. A risk-taker. He couldn’t abide any cant or phoniness.” That they were risk-takers with short tolerance for phoniness might have been said of any of “this few, this happy few, this band of brothers.” Like Henry V’s soldiers before the battle of Agincourt, they were bound to each other, they believed, “from this day to the ending of the world.” It wasn’t going to work out that way.

It was their mutual mission that bound them, their determination to be a support group for each other as they teetered at the cutting edge of change in the Chicago Church. “We came together for play,” Jack says, “for gossip, sure, but basically because we knew we needed each other. We were always concerned about how we were going to implement what we had learned in the seminary, how we would respond to new needs. We were feeling our way.”

On those Sunday nights at about seven, Jake Killgallon opened the rectory door for Fathers Jack Egan, Gerry Weber, Dan Cantwell, Larry Kelly, Walter Imbiorski, Thomas McDonough, and Bill Quinn. They were the regulars, along with Monsignor Hillenbrand. At some periods the group included Fathers Leo Mahon and Andrew Greeley. After they’d settled down with a drink and joshed around some, they began to tell, like Catholic Action cell members, where they’d walked that week, what they’d found, what they’d thought, and what they’d done. Actually, they constituted the premier Catholic Action group in the city, although they didn’t think of themselves in those terms, observing their city, judging how its needs were being met, and taking action to fill those needs.

In some rectories, of a Sunday night, the talk would circle around past victories and losses. But this group was interested in current circumstance and happenstance. What are new needs? How will we respond? What problems are we facing with the chancery? With our pastors? With our organizations? How can we relate to each other? Support each other? Support the lay people?

When they wanted feedback they got it. No one, except perhaps the gentle Dan Cantwell, held back. Certainly not the redoubtable Monsignor Hillenbrand who, however much he theorized about equality, continued to trail a protective garment of infallibility. Not the upfront, controlling, innovative Gerry Weber nor the thoughtful, hard-working, dependable Larry Kelly, both young priest regulars of the Annunciation group.

Hillenbrand still demanded strict allegiance—and got it. This spirited lot of young priests deferred to him even though they now had experiences of their own to toss into the Sunday night hopper. They had opinions, too, strong opinions. They had a mutual mentor, Hillenbrand and his young firebrands, in the great Canon Cardijn. As Hillenbrand preached the Mystical Body of Christ in season and out, the Belgian founder of the Young Catholic Worker movement preached the dignity of the young worker. “He had only one talk,” says Jack Egan. A single powerful theme. Hearing Canon Cardijn in Brussels in 1935, a close priest friend of Father Egan’s, Father John Fitzsimons, later chaplain of the English Young Christian Workers, thought to himself, “This must be what Hitler is like.” Fitzsimons, like everyone in Europe in 1935, knew the Fuehrer’s reputation for mesmerizing dispirited throngs hungry for affirmation. Fitzsimons could see that Cardijn shared Hitler’s command of an audience. He also recognized how divergent were the goals of the two spellbinding personalities.

According to Father Fitzsimons, Cardijn never set out to create “Catholic Action.” He simply wanted to help young workers solve their problems “because he believed in the apostolic potentiality of the simplest working man.” The four men who conveyed Cardijn’s conviction of the worker’s innate dignity into the Western Hemisphere were Father Fitzsimons, Father Tomislav Kolakovic, Patrick Keegan, and Eugene Hopkins. In 1947, Jack Egan, Edwina Hearn Froelich and Mary Irene Caplice Zotti were part of a Chicago delegation initiated into Cardijn’s insights at a ground-breaking Young Christian Worker Convention in Montreal.

Jack Egan assesses that Montreal meeting in 1947 attended by a large contingent of Chicago YCW people “as a watershed because we met all the people who were doing YCW in Europe. People like Canon Cardijn made it clear how action for justice was the work of the Church. It was the first time those young people we took with us knew what it was to be a Catholic. Their lives were transformed. Their lives were different from that time on.”

All the young priests at Annunciation on Sunday nights were using Cardijn’s principles in Catholic Action ministries: McDonough working with young persons at the University of Chicago; Dan Cantwell with the Catholic Interracial Council and the Catholic Council on Working Life; Kelly and Imbiorski with Egan at Cana; Quinn and Weber and Killgallon with CFM, YCS and YCW; Mahon with the Woodlawn Latin American Committee. Like Cardijn, they worked with groups that applied specialized Catholic Action techniques to societal problems. Jack Egan wasn’t looking for a social apostolate when he was appalled at the housing problems of the young married people at St. Justin Martyr or when he solicited funds from Cardinal Stritch for the Puerto Ricans, any more than Cardijn was. He was looking for houses and money as solutions to needs. That’s what Catholic Action had trained him to do. But Catholic Action didn’t give him sufficiently effective tools for confronting entrenched injustices. That’s where Saul Alinsky’s community organizing tutelage came in.

In the 1950s, most Catholics were held back from an interest in social concerns by their traditional religious practices. They’d been trained to seek a person-to-God relationship over a person-to-person relationship. They knelt before the altar, beads trickling between their fingers, “Glory Be to Gods” on their lips. Like Jack Egan’s parents they faithfully turned up at novenas—weekly pleas to, usually, Our Lady of Perpetual Help or Our Sorrowful Mother for the petitioners’ intentions. Novenas were as popular as free dish nights at the movies. Religion, as popularly practiced, was vertical—me to God. To these new-breed priests, that kind of spirituality was not Christian at all. They’d learned in their seminary days with Hillenbrand that an individual can have a personal relationship with God, but never an individual relationship.

Each of the priests who sat back and put his feet up at Annunciation on Sunday nights had a particular agenda out of his experience. Father Killgallon and Father Weber would pioneer what Father Koenig’s A History of the Parishes of the Archdiocese of Chicago described as “a new religious education program that eventually revolutionized the teaching of catechetics in the United States and was adopted in dioceses all over the world.” Father Imbiorski would write The New Cana Manual incorporating the most powerful psychological, spiritual, theological, and biological insights available at the time.

Father Tom McDonough would get a law degree—“to join the club,” according to Jack Egan—at the University of Chicago where he was chaplain to the Catholic students at the Calvert Club. Monsignor Cantwell was the sustaining presence behind the lay people working for interracial justice and the rights of the worker. Father Larry Kelly (“if you have a man on second, you’d put Larry at bat”) worked with Jack Egan at the Cana Conference and then followed Father Quinn as Director of the Catholic Action Federation in the archdiocese. Their varied contributions drawing on their experiences made for a exuberant Sunday night stew.

During this time in the early fifties when the group met regularly, Jack Egan’s experiences were leading him away from their consensus. At first the division was imperceptible because he was identified so closely with the Cana Conference. However, as the crack widened, the experience was painful in the extreme. The way Jack Egan expresses it, “I entered into city government in a way which surprised and angered Mayor Richard J. Daley.” The way he entered—and stayed in—city government was also to surprise and anger many priests, including some in the Sunday night group.

Jack went public when the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council (of which he was a member) asked him to testify before the Chicago City Council for a new housing code in the early 1950s. Jack knew that he was being used, in some sense. He didn’t have any special expertise in housing. What he had was a Roman collar. A little ecclesiastical clout. “I was never, never fooled by the fact that I was being used and I didn’t mind being used for the appropriate purpose at the appropriate time,” Jack admits. There was no doubt in his mind from his experiences at St. Justin Martyr and his study of the Grand Boulevard area that the city needed new housing built as expeditiously as possible. He was willing to do what he could.

But he wouldn’t make a fool of himself. Before he testified, he wanted his mental file cabinet loaded with the particulars of city living. What was it like for people out there in substandard housing that couldn’t be replaced because of antiquated regulations? By now Jack Egan had made a lot of friends in the body politic; among them, policemen, firemen, realtors. He turned to them now for a cram course on housing in the city. First, to black police detectives working a squad car at night who squired Jack around three or four nights to areas “where it was rough and tough, where there were whorehouses and where drugs were sold in neighborhood basements.”

The detectives made raids for gambling, prostitution and drug use with Jack in their back seat. They’d shush him when they sent out calls for other squad cars, “Just keep your mouth shut and look like a detective.” An easy assignment for an Irishman in a city of Irish police. “I saw the real city,” Jack says. “Those police knew I wanted an education and they gave me one.”

Next Jack approached real estate men he knew. “If I was going to talk about the housing code I wanted to know conditions. Some of them trusted me, although I must admit I didn’t much trust them because I thought the almighty dollar was the thing that was keeping them moving. However, I cajoled them into bringing me around to see some of the homes where there were code violations. I was appalled at what I saw. If there was a fire, a family couldn’t get out if flames should block the one door.”

His best teachers were the fire inspectors because they had unconditional carte blanche authority. “They were marking down violations so they had absolute access to every home. They’d root out the owner or manager and go through every apartment. I thought it was very disgraceful. They’d open bedroom doors on couples having intercourse. I was with them three, four, five days, all over the city.”

Armed with that firsthand information gathered on the streets, Jack wore his Roman collar to City Hall where he testified for the 1956 housing code along with other citizens interested in improving the city’s housing stock and making the city more livable. That legislation passed. For Jack, that opportunity was a dress rehearsal for his testimony in the Hyde Park-Kenwood urban renewal battle two years later. That experience would change his life. That time he didn’t do enough homework, and his side—the side of the poor at whose expense the neighborhood of the University of Chicago was going to be renewed—would lose. It wasn’t only that Jack Egan could have been better prepared. It was also the meager number of advocates for the poor who figured in the contest.

In taking on a public role, “putting one foot outside the Church,” as his friend Father Gerry Weber would say, Jack Egan threatened the bonds that held the Sunday night group together. In the abstract, everyone in the Sunday night group agreed that the task of the priest was, in Jack Egan’s words, to find the right laypeople to fight injustice, to “encourage them, mentor for them, train them, build bridges for them, so that they will do the job.” Monsignor Dan Cantwell held rigidly to that prescription. But Jack Egan included a mental reservation in that formula, an added caveat: if there weren’t any laypersons ready to do the job and the need was immediate, he was willing to step to the front and fill in until his lay associates were available.

The Rev. Richard McBrien, Chairman of the Theology Department of the University of Notre Dame, suggests that form follows function in theology as it does in architecture. He insists, however, that it’s the function that is important. If the form gets in the way of the function, then “we have to have the freedom to abolish the form.” That was Jack Egan’s position. Good clerical form might mean seeing that laypersons did any necessary public testifying. Good civic functioning meant that informed people testified on public matters whether they were clerics or lay persons.

Jack took on a public role, in a sense, as soon as he began training with Saul Alinsky. After Jack reported to Cardinal Stritch on the results of the Grand Boulevard area study that he and Lester Hunt did under Saul Alinsky, Cardinal Stritch told Monsignor Burke, “I think that Monsignor Egan should be appointed to the Archdiocesan Conservation Committee.”

“So I was appointed,” Jack recalls, “without any consultation with any of the people on the committee. And I was put in almost as director. It was badly handled.” Jack describes the pastors on the committee who questioned his appointment as “very fine men who were trying to determine how best they could prepare their people so that their neighborhoods could be integrated when blacks moved in.” The movement of blacks into new areas was a foregone conclusion. Their numbers had increased dramatically during World War II when they had been invited North for jobs, the second great migration from the South described by James Grossman in Land of Hope. Blacks could no longer be sandwiched into the corridor between Lake Michigan and State Street south of Chicago’s Loop known as the “Black Belt.”

Coming under the influence of Saul Alinsky as he was, Jack believed the intransigent problems developing in the city demanded community solutions and intrepid intervention. What was needed was community organization. The committee members didn’t think of that, of course, for they had no understanding of organization. “Nothing in our training enables priests to be administrators or organizers,” Jack points out, “although those are the two skills that, in a certain sense, we are expected to know in a parish. We’re also not trained to be counselors and yet one of the crucial things a priest has to be is a counselor.”

Jack, eager to ply his new-honed skills, was “dumped in the center of these men and they resented it very, very much. They were all a generation older than I, Monsignor William Gorman at St. Columbanus, Father John Gallery, Monsignor Vincent Moran, Monsignor Jack Fitzgerald, Monsignor Tom Reed.” These priests identified Jack Egan as Director of the Cana Conference and questioned the appropriateness of his appointment to their committee. Used to getting together at Marshall Field’s for lunch irregularly, at Father Gallery’s convenience when he was downtown, they had combined sociability with a mutual determination to shore up their churches against change. They were influential at City Hall. Now Monsignor Burke, with his plenipotentiary powers, had delivered them this interloper. Worse, this activist.

About this time, Jack Egan experienced another potentially damaging rejection over another stand divergent from accepted orthodoxy. From his point of view, the Young Christian Worker women whom he chaplained had made tremendous strides in achieving autonomy. Edwina Hearn Froelich and Mary Irene Caplice Zotti endured real hardship, actually going hungry at times, during their epochal European sojourn with YCS people in various post-war countries. They’d risked their business careers to take up Catholic Action work full-time. A good group of women had taken Canon Cardijn’s faith in their dignity as workers to heart after the international meeting of Young Christian Workers in Montreal.

Up to that time only a movement formally mandated by the bishop could be designated Catholic Action. Much spiritual energy was sapped by arguments over which group had that mandate. As Jack Egan explains, “Following false premises, before Vatican II, it was believed the laity, at their very best, were helpers of the hierarchy in the apostolate instead of having an apostolate of their own coming from baptism and confirmation.”

From Canon Cardijn’s “practical, down-to-earth application of theology at Montreal,” as Jack Egan describes it, participants took to their hearts the message that the role of the priest is “to open the Word of God, tell the story, break the bread, feed the people so that they may go out and bring the bread of Christ, broken and wounded, to the world.” Priests had their role. Lay Christians had their own. Having internalized Cardijn’s assurance that lay persons bore Christ out into the world, the group that came back energized by Montreal kept Three East Chicago Avenue jumping with programs to bring Canon Cardijn’s theology to other young Catholics.

From Jack Egan’s point of view, the men’s group wasn’t nearly as active and effective as the women’s. When the men (supported by Monsignor Hillenbrand) agitated to unite the two groups, the women objected. They liked their autonomy. Father Egan supported them, respecting their effectiveness and doubting the men’s competence. Monsignor Hillenbrand sided with the men. Already irked that Jack Egan didn’t put the major portion of his energy into Catholic Action, Monsignor Hillenbrand decided that Jack Egan needn’t put any energy into it at all. Having made the decision that unification was the next step, Monsignor Hillenbrand brooked no opposition. He was deaf to this young priest who’d worked tirelessly with the women’s group and understood their concerns.

After more than a decade, the YCW women were a big part of Jack Egan’s life. He was still in the seminary when he started recruiting young women students for Catholic Action groups. Working with YCW women was so much a part of his self-identification that he’d risked his health by giving up his free days over the years to their development. He never regretted a moment of his commitment. He wanted to continue it. But now Monsignor Hillenbrand summoned Jack Egan to YCW’s new offices at Jackson Boulevard and Paulina. Jack was at his most vulnerable. Before him stood the man who represented what Jack Egan believed best about the Church to which he had pledged his life. Monsignor Hillenbrand had held up for his boys, Rynie’s boys, an ideal template, and Jack had stepped into it, meaning to become Monsignor Hillenbrand’s kind of priest. He had not succeeded. As Jack had disappointed his father, now he had disappointed his father figure. Monsignor Hillenbrand was forcing Jack to chose between faithfulness to him and faithfulness to the vision that Monsignor Hillenbrand himself had commended to Jack as a seminarian.

Jack’s stand for the women was interpreted as opposing Monsignor Hillenbrand’s will for unification (although Jack was following the women’s preference). Monsignor Hillenbrand’s eyes behind the glasses with their heavy corrections were fixed and flinty. He told Jack Egan that he was fired as national chaplain of women Young Christian Workers. Theoretical proponent of the dignity of every woman and every man as he claimed to be—and wanted to be—Monsignor Hillenbrand saw no need to ask Jack Egan or the women how they would feel about this high-handed decision.

The women were deeply hurt. They felt their accomplishments diminished, rejected, by this man who was everyone’s ideal. How many times they had heard him tell how Christ did His work through them and that he wouldn’t get His work down without them! How hard they had tried to do Christ’s work! And now they were to lose not only their autonomy, but also their devoted chaplain. Jack himself was in a state of shock. He reeled internally as he felt an important part of his identity wrenched from him. He would miss the women, he would miss the work. At a deeper level, he was wounded by this deep personal rejection by his long-admired mentor. “Here was a man I idolized asking me to stop doing work that was so much a part of my life and was so important.”

He didn’t question Monsignor Hillenbrand’s ecclesiastical competence to make this decision. “He was my superior, with a mandate from the cardinal. For me to say no or to start a rump movement or boycott it or create opposition would be unseemly, improper, and unpriestly.” Jack accepted the bald power play. That, too, was part of his training. “If that’s what he wanted, I had other things to do. But I was hurt.”

And so was the YCW movement.

As it turned out, the unification progressed and the Young Christian Workers regressed. The men, as Jack saw them, were “unbelievably peculiar chauvinists” who looked on themselves as the leaders of this new coalition. Not as theologically advanced as the women, the men looked on them as “the hewers of wood and the drawers of water,” as Jack recalls. “They wanted them for secretaries.” The women rebelled. There were a number of battles. The decline of the Young Christian Workers as a potentially effective Christianizing force was inevitable. The women were changed personally, as they generally testify today. But their potential to “change the water,” to effect changes in their community, was aborted. In Europe, two decades later there would be former YCW workers in many governments. In South and Central America, YCW people would have influenced the rise of the “base communities,” liberation theology, and the advances at Medellin. In the United States, the effects were not comparable.

Jack Egan had finished his apprenticeship with Monsignor Hillenbrand. Bolstered by the self-confidence gained by his therapeutic sessions with Father Charles Curran, he had the psychic and spiritual muscle to exercise some independence. He would never go beyond authority, any more than he did with Monsignor Hillenbrand. Like Canon Cardijn who ingratiated himself with the Vatican to promote his apostolate, Father Egan would stay carefully within the confines of authority. At the same time, he’d keep pushing at authority’s limits to serve the laity to whom he’d promised his allegiance.

He’d plotted himself a lonely course.

Next Chapter . . .