An Alley in Chicago

“God You Know, They Finessed Us”

The University of Chicago Urban Renewal debacle was “terrifying” for Jack Egan because he had stepped outside the clerical culture. He’d left a safe, familiar and edifying place for a forum that was fairly much untried, unedifying, and unsafe—for a priest. In some quarters that testimony on behalf of the city’s poor lent Jack Egan a mythic aura. Father Patrick O’Malley, first president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, recalls hearing of Jack’s testimony as a seminarian. “Of course Jack Egan’s name was a household word even then among us priests-to-be.”

Father John Hill, acting pastor at Presentation Parish, knew of Jack Egan’s social concern before Jack arrived to take over as the new pastor. “I admired him when he came because of Hyde Park-Kenwood. I thought Jack Egan was on the side of the angels, and the only one who was—aside from Monsignor Kelly who printed all the articles in the New World. The entire Catholic liberal establishment did not support Jack.”

To Jack Hill, Father Egan fought Hyde Park-Kenwood on his own. “He didn’t win the day. He won some concessions. He conducted himself honorably although he didn’t have an ally.” As a result, what Jack Egan “won more than anything was the respect of the young priests of the archdiocese.” Jack Hill thinks Jack Egan changed as a result of the urban renewal battle, as attitudes toward him changed. He gained some “charisma that wasn’t there before, a new dimension. People could gravitate toward him automatically.”

The camaraderie at Presentation was still seven years into Jack Egan’s future the Monday morning after the Notre Dame game with the O’Briens and Father Imbiorski. That Monday, he had to come to terms with the basically lonely life he’d chosen. Even though a conviction he was doing the right thing helped him survive the rebuff delivered by the City Council, he’d felt so vulnerable. So exposed. There’d been so much power arrayed against him.

How could he apply to this situation the Saul Alinsky principle of reflection? he asked himself. Could he defend his position as a priest in a public forum? Were Monsignor Cantwell and Tom Foran right? Jack agreed with their general stand that opposing society’s ills was a lay job. In fact, he was fiercely supportive of that principle. However Jack always left himself an out, “There are certain circumstances. . . .”

Working out his rationale, Father Egan decided that clergy should step into the political arena only in emergencies, “for if the laity have the right kind of training and formation, they are going to take the initiative and then the priest will take his proper role.” As Jack Egan pondered all this, he had a call from Mayor Richard J. Daley inviting him to his office at City Hall. The two Irishmen, one a subtle, experienced dispenser of Chicago clout (he controlled 40,000 jobs, representing 400,000 votes), the other a cleric freshly reminded of the reality of Chicago power politics, faced each other. Mayor Daley was kind, if somewhat patronizing.

It was a revealing confrontation between two men deeply linked by roots and rites, deeply divided on social issues. Both men were sons of pious parents born on the old sod. As a child, Richard J. Daley went to daily Mass accompanied by his parents. He kept up the practice throughout his life. Both had paper routes as kids and started at DePaul University toward degrees in the law. Daley finished. It took him four nights a week for eleven years of night school. Neither man was a scholar, but both were shrewdly smart about how one pressed ahead in the city, and each was skilled in picking the brains of sources with pertinent information. Of the two routes to power open to city Irish, Daley chose politics, Egan the Church. Even there they were not that different. Egan was freely referred to as a religious politician.

Psychologically, the two men who faced each other over Mayor Daley’s desk that morning in October, 1958, were not unlike. Although the people in Bridgeport generally had the bad habit of badmouthing everyone, according to Len O’Connor, author of Clout: Mayor Daley and His City, close-mouthed Daley did not indulge in this neighborhood practice. Rather, he “was eager to please everyone and seemed keen to learn whatever anyone else might teach him.” These were also determining qualities in Jack Egan. Both men were studious and applied themselves to any task they were assigned. Bridgeport, according to O’Connor, saw Daley as trustworthy and not too smart, not a heavy drinker or a big talker, and eager to be fair to one and all.

Mayor Daley was only three years into his regime as “duh mare.” He’d first been elected April 5, 1955. He was still consolidating the power that the election theoretically gave him. This meant juggling all the possible power centers. With the resolution of the urban renewal vote in the council, the mayor had taken care of the university for the time. He could afford to be gracious. “You fought a good fight, Monsignor,” Mayor Richard J. Daley assured Monsignor Egan from behind his impressive desk that October morning. “I know your side was defeated, but I promise you your voice was heard. We will put in a decent relocation program for the people. I promise you that there will be at least 200 units of housing for the poor in Hyde Park.” There was no doubt in Father Egan’s mind that Mayor Daley was most sincere. “But neither one of those things happened. The University of Chicago and the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago were just too powerful.”

Already, as Mayor Daley was taking his measure, Monsignor Egan was mulling mentally new strategies for confronting the city’s power bases on social issues. When the first articles on the University of Chicago’s urban renewal plans had appeared in the New World, Julian Levi had arranged a luncheon meeting of the local Protestant and Jewish clergy to suggest that they should “counteract the Catholic attack,” according to Rossi and Dentler. “Partly growing out of this meeting and partly on his own initiative, Kenwood Rabbi Jacob Weinstein wrote an open letter, which the Sun-Times published, sharply criticizing the New World‘s attack on the plan.”

To Jack Egan, clergy of every faith should have been his natural allies in his testimony for housing for the city’s poor. He resolved that he would never again go into public combat without the support of his fellow clergypersons. That wasn’t his only misstep, he realized. He hadn’t contacted the Catholic pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church who let it be known that he was disconcerted. “That pastor was absolutely right,” Jack concedes. Jack had allowed himself to be separated from his natural constituency. He would not repeat that gaffe.

He’d learned enough about community organizing by this time to respect the power of coalition. If the voiceless in the city needed spokespersons until they could voice their own case at City Hall, he now knew how to produce them, how to concentrate on what people had in common, not what separated them. He would organize Chicago’s religious leaders to articulate the concerns of the inarticulate. Jack Egan called both Rabbi Irving Rosenbaum, director of the Board of Rabbis, and Edgar H. S. Chandler, executive director of the Church Federation of Greater Chicago, directly after the City Council decision. He admits he sought out the other religious leaders because “I was hurting. God, you know, they (the urban renewal planners) finessed us.”

Jack chose a meeting place in the lion’s den, a restaurant across from St. Peter’s Church on Madison Street where Mayor Daley attended Mass every morning. Jack Egan’s blue eyes shine tinsel merry as he recalls the scene. “Rosenbaum and Chandler and I were eating our breakfast. This was the first meeting of the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs. As we are going about our business, Mayor Daley goes by. He recognizes a few of us, `Good morning, Rabbi, good morning, Monsignor,’ and goes to the back table in the back room to have breakfast.”

What did the interreligious coalition work on? “Everything,” Jack Egan says. “Everything that was important for the city. Transportation, streets and highways. Race. Housing. Urban development.” Much of their agenda grew out of the ferment of the times. Civil rights led the headlines as blacks in North and South risked their bodies to free their souls. Chicago had known racial segregation since the race riots of 1919 when Mayor Daley was seventeen and Jack Egan three. At that time there were 109,525 nonwhites in Chicago. Forty years later, when there were 5l9,437 nonwhites in the city, pressed into roughly the same territory, the pressure to explode was growing as fast as the population. The Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs plugged into the life of the city by supporting blacks struggling to gain their civil rights. They also worked to create neighborhood organizations in Chicago based on the Saul Alinsky principle that people rally around their own causes, their own needs, their own priorities.

Early in their association, Father Egan, Rabbi Rosenbaum and Edgar Chandler joined a large group integrating Rainbow Beach on Chicago’s South Side, a beach tacitly understood to be off-limits to blacks. Jack Egan, who felt well protected by Chicago police, suffered more from the reaction from his fellow priests. “They had all sorts of comments. `Why don’t you mind your own business?’ `Did you wade in with them?’ `Did you get wet?’ and all that damn baloney.”

The Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs was financed by Chicago’s three principal religious bodies. For each $2,000 contributed, a religious group had one representative on the board. Because the Catholic Church gave $24,000, they had a large contingent. The Protestant churches had an equal number, and the Jews had three representatives. With that funding the council could hire “three of the finest people” in the city, according to Father Egan: Kris Ronnow from Edgar Chandler’s staff at the Church Federation, and Douglas Still and Stanley Hallett to assist Ronnow part time.

When the Most Reverend Albert Gregory Meyer, archbishop of Milwaukee, came to replace Cardinal Stritch as archbishop of Chicago, directly after the urban renewal hearings, he met with the Archdiocesan Conservation Council. It was Jack Egan’s first meeting with the new archbishop, and “one of the most embarrassing days of my life.” Two members of the Archdiocesan Conservation Council, “really, really took me to task in front of Archbishop Meyer. (Their attack) was vicious. It was brutal. It was personal.” The two pastors complained that Jack Egan had embarrassed the Church in the archdiocese of Chicago by entering into a fight about the University of Chicago “when we had contact with Mr. James Downs, a member of the Board of Trustees, and we knew exactly what was happening.” They protested that Egan had created a terrible controversy and made enemies for the Catholic Church in Hyde Park-Kenwood, even though “he didn’t know what he was talking about.” They suggested to the newly appointed archbishop that Egan “should have his wings clipped and be prevented from continuing” this sort of activity. Archbishop Meyer sat silent throughout the attack, thrust as he was into an internecine controversy he hardly understood. Later, when Archbishop Meyer had an opportunity, he asked Father Egan whether he had to get embroiled in any of the urban renewal controversy. “Absolutely not,” Jack assured his new archbishop.

About this time, Saul Alinsky asked Jack Egan if he could go full-time into community organization work. The idea appealed to Jack. During his summers training with Alinsky and during the months he devoted his entire energy to the urban renewal battle, Fathers Walter Imbiorski and Larry Kelly had taken charge at the Cana Conference even though Jack was still technically the director. Now it was time to legitimate their ascendency. When Egan and Father Bill Quinn had taken on their jobs at Cana and Catholic Action in 1947, they’d made an informal pact to serve about ten years and then let younger men take over. “In those days all the jobs were filled with people who’d been in them years and years. We agreed we’d like to change that. Not only that, they were all Irishmen,” Jack remembers.

When Jack Egan approached Archbishop Meyer about creating an Office of Urban Affairs to focus the Church’s power on the problems of the city, the archbishop naturally asked, “What about Cana?” He knew Egan’s national reputation as the innovative Chicago Cana director. Statistics in the Chicago area were startlingly high. By 1956 most of the 410 parishes in the archdiocese sponsored Cana Conferences. More than 39,000 married couples had attended 803 Conferences since 1944.

“I’ve been in it ten years and we’ve developed it all over the country,” Jack said. Figures for 1956 showed that in twelve years Cana had spread to ninety-two dioceses in the United States, to Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Australia, Japan, Malta, South America, and the Philippine Islands. Road show teams from Chicago had gone into many of the ninety-two U.S. dioceses to demonstrate a typical Cana and Pre-Cana Conference.

Almost 36,000 engaged couples had attended a four-session Pre-Cana Conference since 1946. An extra evening session provided information for parents of engaged couples. Cana also sponsored a weekly high school marriage course in twenty-eight Catholic high schools, a Lenten marriage series on dating and courtship, and a speaking service for colleges, Newman Clubs, seminaries, and other interested organizations. All this was accomplished by a small administrative staff augmented by a dynamic, self-starting, Egan-ized volunteer staff of sixty-eight priests, sixty-four doctors, thirty married couple speakers, and 112 couples to do the organizational work. In the 125 parishes where there were Christian Family Movement sections, those groups assisted the Cana staff.

Reassured by Father Egan that this important national marriage movement would continue to flourish in his absence, the archbishop questioned Jack about his replacement. “I think that Father Walter Imbiorski should take my place,” Jack said. “Does he have seniority?” the archbishop asked. Father Egan explained that while Father Larry Kelly had been with the program longer, Father Imbiorski had such an entirely different style that he would bring fresh insights and agenda to marriage education. “Larry Kelly’s style is just like mine. Besides,” Jack added, “we don’t have any Polish priests in charge of any agencies in the Archdiocese of Chicago.”

Father Egan had made a tough choice because the two priests covering for him (with Cardinal Stritch’s permission) both shared fully his dedication to the apostolate of the laity, his views on conjugal spirituality, and his energetic pursuit of any lead or person that could enhance any aspect of Cana. Each of them would have continued the kind of informal education Berenice O’Brien remembers receiving as a Cana board member. Other board members remember hearing Father Daniel Berrigan, Margaret Mead, Father Walter Ong, Father Gus Weigel (peritus at the Vatican Council), Sydney Callahan, Nancy Rambusch, Father Bernard Haring, and Michael Novak—any luminary who came through Chicago—talking to small Cana groups. And so it was arranged. Father Imbiorski came in as director of the Cana Conference, and Jack Egan headed up the innovative Office of Urban Affairs, the arm of the Church set up to put the arm on the city for the good of the powerless. Jack set up a mixed clergy/lay board including attorney Tom Foran, the future Bishop Aloysius J. Wycislo, and Sister Ann Ida Gannon, president of Mundelein College, “to state the position of the Church relative to housing, planning, urban renewal, and all the social issues. Saul and I began working very closely. We were very close to Archbishop Meyer.”

Jack was scarcely into the work when he had a call from Bishop William E. McManus, superintendent of Chicago’s parochial schools, on the first day of December. “There’s a fire out at Our Lady of Angels,” he told Jack, “and I think you should get out there.” Monsignor Joseph F. Cussen had given Jack Egan a room on the third floor of Our Lady of Angels rectory. The location on the near West Side at Iowa and Hamlin Streets was convenient to Jack’s downtown office.

“I put on my hat and coat and jumped in my car and followed one of the fire trucks racing out Chicago Avenue. I couldn’t park within two blocks,” Jack recalls. Archbishop Meyer—only two weeks since his installation—and the pastor, Monsignor Cussen, milled with the thousands of people jamming Avers Avenue. Parents were struggling with the police to get past them to the school doors. A nun inside the building was screaming, “We are trapped. We are trapped.” Children were jumping from the second floor windows. Some had leaped toward firemen’s ladders and missed, falling to ground already littered with children and soaked with blood. Other children were clinging to the ledges. Scores of onlookers fainted at what Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn called “the worst thing I have ever seen or ever will see.” Battalion chiefs wept. “We tried. God, how we tried, but we couldn’t move fast enough. No one could live in that fire.”

Firemen were battling through the flames to bring out the victims. Parents searched frantically for their youngsters as firemen emptied the smoldering building built at 909 N. Avers Avenue in 1904, substantially expanded in 1911, and remodeled in 1951. The Tribune reporter described priests kneeling to give last rites “to canvas covered forms which were once children.” He described a desperate young father yelling at his wife, “Why didn’t you tell her to stay home today?”

Tales of heroism were many. An eleven-year-old mourned his teacher Sister St. Canice, who struggled to get her students out the second story window. “She helped me onto a ladder there,” Thomas Handschiegel told a Tribune reporter. “The last I saw of her was when she went back into the room and disappeared into the smoke. I think she could have gotten out, but she stayed to help the kids.” A nun who wouldn’t identify herself to the reporter made six trips into the building to lead out groups of sixth and seventh graders. She rolled some of her students down the stairs to get them out quickly.

The priests from the rectory had run to save the children at the first alarm. Father Joseph Ognibene, who’d been in the parish ten years and knew many of the children well, was part of a chain of rescuers. A father who’d heard girls shouting, “Save me, save me,” straddled an open window from which he lowered the girls, one by one, through the window five feet down to a ledge above the school entrance. There Father Ognibene and another parent grabbed them and pulled them to safety. A neighbor who heard a priest yell, “There’s children in there. It’s on fire,” made six trips in to lead children out until the smoke and flames made it impossible to enter. Later, a reporter saw Father Ognibene, near collapse, at the morgue trying to recognize the bodies of the children he knew so well.

“It wasn’t a great fire,” Jack Egan remembers, “but the smoke was unbelievable. The fire equipment was poor. The ladders didn’t reach to the second floor. The children suffocated.” Father Egan accompanied a fireman into a schoolroom where forty-four children sat in parochial school decorum, at their seats, heads in hands—dead. And at the front of the room, her head in her hands, sat their teacher, like the children—erect, disciplined and dead. As Jack Egan reconstructed their last minutes, “A lot of nuns asked children to sit there and pray. I’ll never forget it. Everything perfectly orderly.”

The fire had erupted at 2:40 p.m., only twenty minutes before the children would have been dismissed for the day. The alarm went in at 2:42. Fire trucks were on Avers within three minutes. But smoke engulfed the second floor so quickly—the firemen called the accumulation of smoke, heat and flames that coursed through the hall when doors and windows were opened “a hot box”—that three Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and ninety-two children died. Seventy-six children were injured. The school was almost completely destroyed. “I have to admit it,” Father Egan says, describing the firemen carrying child after child out, “I was relieved when they carried the body of a nun out. They carried three out. It would have been a greater tragedy if no nuns had died along with their students.”

The whole city mourned, every citizen able to put him/herself into the position of the parents who had sent bright, lively, uniformed children to learn about the exports of Egypt that morning and now would never oversee another page of their scribbled homework. Chicagoans read about Mayor Daley’s arrival at the scene, about Archbishop Meyer’s visits to the injured at St. Anne’s Hospital, and about the drab, yellow brick building at 1828 Polk where “three hundred mothers and fathers huddled in stricken groups or, crazed with grief, roamed the corridors trying to buttonhole hurrying attendants” at the county morgue.

Priests and Sisters from all parts of the city quickly gathered at the scene. “Thank God I was able to keep my composure,” Father Egan says today, “and thank God for the priests and Sisters of the archdiocese of Chicago. As the firemen put each child into each ambulance, I put a priest or a Sister with the child. `You stay with that child and you stay with that family,’ I said.”

Jack was firm with each of the religious, understanding the stress under which each of them was operating. “This is your family,” he would stress with each one. “Now pay attention to me. You visit the hospital. You go to the wake. You sit with the family. You go to the funeral with them. You come back with them and then you visit them and visit them and visit them. You are their personal chaplain.” He followed the same routine with the families of injured children. “I think that helped the grieving parents.”

Both Fathers Egan and Joseph Fitzgerald quit their jobs and stayed at Our Lady of the Angels for the next month. “We worked morning, noon, and night,” Egan recalls. Archbishop Meyer celebrated a Solemn Pontifical Mass for twenty-seven of the fire victims on December 5 at the Northwest Armory at North Avenue and Kedzie. Funeral Masses continued throughout the day in other churches of the archdiocese for the remaining victims of the fire.

Archbishop Meyer did his best to solace the grieving parents and relatives. He was comforted in turn by a little man from New York. As priests vested for the funeral Mass at the armory, Father Egan saw Francis Cardinal Spellman come up to the archbishop, holding out his hands. The archbishop looked down with gratitude at the fellow religious who’d come to his side in this time of greatest need. The two most powerful prelates in the American Church embraced.

Next Chapter . . .