An Alley in Chicago

“A Beautiful Mosaic of Community Organizations”

In the view of Bishop Arthur Brazier of the Pentecostal Apostolic Church of God, “A Jack Egan comes along once in a lifetime.” In an effort to describe Monsignor Egan’s unique role vis-a-vis The Woodlawn Organization, Reverend Brazier tries different formulations. “He was a priest and he wasn’t a priest.” “It wasn’t, `Monsignor this,’ or `Monsignor that.’”

Finally, he zeroes in on his analysis: “When you get to working with people, they cease to be black or white.” Father Egan ceased to be set apart as a priest or monsignor when you worked with him. He didn’t trade on his skin. He didn’t trade on his collar. He didn’t trade on his title. He was simply Jack. That’s how he introduced himself. He’d thrust out his hand and say, “I’m Jack Egan,” in a friendly, yet forceful, growl. Lest he be misunderstood, Reverend Brazier carefully qualifies his characterization, “But he never forgot who he was.”

Often in his Cana days, Jack Egan was heard to say, “No amount of money could pay me to do what I’m doing.” Brazier understood that sentiment. “He could have been doing something else. The man sacrificed to make the people of Chicago his career.”

If meetings are the hairshirts of the twentieth century, as Alexian Brother Louis Roncoli contends, then driving to meetings is the scourge of the twentieth century. Both exercises take a toll on physical health, however elevating they are to the spirit and necessary to the body politic. Jack Egan was literally beating up on his body as he slipped behind a steering wheel day after day to begin the rounds of community meetings he was making a career of. Before long, that toll was going to tell. Meanwhile, he was energized by a sense that he was the right man in the right place. As the only clergyperson released full-time to serve the city, Jack Egan was the point man not only for the Roman Catholic Church, but also for the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs, the inter-church group he’d organized with Edgar Chandler and Rabbi Rosenbaum to attend area-wide concerns.

The Cana Conference had been a challenging assignment for a young priest four years out of the seminary. He’d had to create a structure for the search for a marriage theology that truly supported contemporary couples in their contemporary world. But that project was limited, limited to one area of life.

In the role of “clergyman as citizen,” Jack Egan was taking on the city for a project, a city whose intractable problems had a century of history and inexact, unfixed boundaries. He’d made a success of the Cana Conference. He wanted another success—for the city’s sake, but also for Jack Egan’s. He was driven by his empathy with the powerless, for the men he’d met without jobs and the women without proper living quarters, and also by an ambition he couldn’t stopper. “Maybe the `little man complex’ Berenice O’Brien (co-chair of Cana in the 1950s) teases me about,” Jack says.

Kris Ronnow, IRCUA executive director, recalls Jack Egan’s pastoral concern. “Father Egan was instrumental in gathering together a growing interreligious group of clergy with a healthy presence of laity who began to articulate . . . a better way to rebuild the city.” They saw “the inner core of the city as the birthplace and the deathplace of the urban poor, living out their lives without dignity, without skills, without hope.” They saw the outer ring as “the final target at which the middle and upper classes are aiming, where they can live out their lives in abundance, indifference, and social distance.” How could IRCUA connect these two cores for the good of each?

At the time, Jack Egan told the Board of National Missions of the United Presbyterian Church, USA, that the role of clergyman as citizen—the role the cardinal had assigned him—was to address that inherent conflict between inner and outer core, and build community within and between these isolated communities. Clearly, Jack needed “confreres”—his word—to share the task. Increasingly, he analyzed ministry as a cooperative, consultative means of replacing indifference with service. “It was always on my mind that anything we (in the Catholic Church) did relating to human questions should always be done in consort with others and to have that inclusiveness as wide as possible.”

Twenty years later, those words could roll easily off many tongues. But before the Vatican Council in the 1960s, bitterness and distrust characterized many relationships between Jews, Protestants and Catholics. The young Presbyterian minister who was a major force in the Organization for the Southwest Community leadership admitted to author Sanford Horwitt that he’d come out of McCormick Seminary in 1954 with the “standard middle 1950s Protestant point of view that, you know, Catholics fought Martin Luther, they played bingo, they had confession, and they weren’t intellectually respectable.” Many Jews knew “good Catholics” as people who didn’t think for themselves.

According to Kris Ronnow, once the coalition of religious leaders that Jack Egan aligned got to working together, the members learned “that what was individually frustrating could be overcome when clergy of various faiths spoke with a united voice. Father Egan was instrumental in helping people of faith work together and (learn) that it was far more difficult for those in power to challenge or dispute a united voice calling for justice.” For Jack, it was “a question of brothers and sisters created by God who are working to bring peace and justice to the world.”

“Whether it is the Community Renewal Society, the Methodist Church, or the Muslims, or the Urban League, no matter who it may be,” he reflects on this period in his life, “I can’t help but feel that there is one God who has created all of us. I have based the last thirty years of my life on the premise that there are no Catholic problems, no Presbyterian issues, no Jewish concerns in the city of Chicago. There are human questions and we all better get together to try to cope with them and to bring about a solution.” To minister to real human needs, Jack would work with any organization, “whoever they may be, to bring about the amelioration of human suffering. So the Chicago Food Depository, for example, will get my full support.”

Jack wanted to strengthen local organizations by his presence. Ronnow says Jack did that. “With Jewish and Protestant support, Father Egan brought a sense of legitimacy to local community struggles and affirmed the right of people to organize and participate in the democratic process.”

To Ronnow, those groups that “struggl(ed) on picket lines and community meetings” were “a beautiful mosaic of community organizations.” He credits the evident spirit and cooperation in large part to “the genius of Jack Egan,” who was “able to say it was all right for people of different faiths and backgrounds to come and struggle together.” Jack Egan could also be relied on for the mechanics of daily organization. When a group needed a parish hall, Jack got the permission. When another wanted announcements in local pulpits, Jack made the phone calls. He put at IRCUA’s call the persuasiveness he’d learned as he ingratiated himself in the city’s rectories on Cana’s behalf.

All the time that Jack busied himself stroking and nurturing reluctant pastors of various religious persuasions, as Ronnow puts it, Jack was haunted by shadows on his efforts. One was cast by Monsignor Hillenbrand’s old criticism of Jack’s interference in the University of Chicago’s urban renewal plans. Jack was working out of Hillenbrand’s vision of ministry without Hillenbrand’s blessing. The other goad he pushed against was the charge that he was usurping the function of the layperson. Even as he poured his energy into the interreligious package, Jack juggled his chronic need to justify his entire dynamic.

He felt firmly fixed in the Church, his two feet like metaphysical poet John Donne’s compass, one steady, one circling. Donne described how “thy soul the fixt foot/makes no show to move/but doth/if the other do.” Jack found the foot he was keeping in the Church was indeed moving “if the other do,” however much he tried to keep it “fixt.” At times he questioned this movement because no one seemed to be following.

“I am quite sure that I show up at affairs that other priests wouldn’t be caught dead at,” he admits. These are places where he feels he “should be present as part of my ministry. But I have never, never once disobeyed an order from my superior. Nor would I ever do so. I keep the cardinal informed on everything I do.”

To show his priestly credentials, Jack underscores his faithfulness to pastoral rubrics. He’s a good confessor. He prepares pertinent homilies. He takes his turns on call and baptisms and standing out front after Mass of a Sunday. He likes pastoral work, participating in the sacramental life of parishioners. Yet he also needs an over-arching involvement “in affairs that affect the lives of people,” the whole community.

Brazier, as president of The Woodlawn Organization, appreciated Jack’s involvement, especially because Father Egan had the sense to root from the wings. He let the TWO officers take center stage. The point was that Jack Egan was present. By his presence, he symbolized the unity in relation to social questions he saw as necessary among religious groups. “Otherwise, I don’t understand Jesus’s words that we must all be one as He and the Father are one,” he says.

“We go to God with others,” he repeats as often as anyone will listen. “Who are the others?” he asks, knowing that in his own mind he’s including Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus and people from every group found in Chicago in increasing numbers. This realization causes him to inveigh, occasionally, against the provincialism of his own Church. “When we talk of ministry, I feel we make mistakes in centering it too much around the altar. That is the center of our ministry, what gives us life and the word to go forth out into the world. But the ministry is to be carried on in the world.”

Jack Egan has never forgot an encounter Monsignor Hillenbrand described to his seminarians. Hillenbrand and a priest friend were pulled up in a large Oldsmobile next to one of the concrete islands on which the city’s working class collected in the days when streetcars traveled Chicago’s streets, “the kind of island against which drivers killed themselves every Saturday night,” Jack says parenthetically.

This was a summer afternoon. The car windows were open. A construction worker sweated on the island, hugging his lunch pail, observing the pair of priests resting comfortably against their plush upholstery in their pressed black suits and Roman collars.

The light changed. The Oldsmobile was ready to move, but the streetcar the workman awaited was still far down the tracks. Before the clerical duo could drive away, the working man pronounced his verdict. “Figures!” he summed up their diverse circumstances. “Fathers, I don’t know how the hell you can afford a car like that, but after all, I support you, huh?”

Whether it stemmed from Hillenbrand’s story or whether the story activated a latent outrage, Jack Egan confesses a lifelong distaste for clerical display of material difference or any arrogance that indicates spiritual superiority over lay people. “God, we’re in this ball game together and most of the help I received as a priest didn’t come from priests. It came from lay people.”

That’s not to say that Jack Egan hasn’t benefitted from his own clerical connections. “I’ve been thirty-two years a monsignor,” he says, “because I had a friend in the chancery office who thought I was doing a good job. A lot of people he didn’t like were on a list to be made monsignor that came across his desk, so he added my name. It’s been useful many ways, especially calling Italian and Polish parishes.” He adds that while being a monsignor has opened a lot of doors for the work of Jesus, it has opened many doors for Jack Egan, too.

Jack also acknowledges that he likes keeping his “one foot in the Church” at Holy Name Cathedral on Chicago’s near North Side. His classmate Bishop Timothy Lyne (“who’s done a superb job in parish work for forty-six years”) was rector there when Jack came back to Chicago. “He has as much interest as I in the race question, ecumenical work, life in the world. He’s respected by many organizations—but they are Roman Catholic organizations.” As Jack sees the Church’s situation, Bishop Lyne represents “one dimension of Church we better have. Mine is another.”

When Jack Egan tapped into the Golden Age of community organizing and interreligious relations in 1958 (he cites as many “Golden Ages” as he does “historic moments”), he was acting on a principle made explicit by the Catholic bishops at their 1971 synod on Justice in the World: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.” When his colleague Father Larry Kelly heard the bishops’ statement quoted at the March 1971 CCUM meeting at Moreau Seminary, he told Father Egan with some satisfaction, “Jack, listen, we were right all along.”

Although he had the influence of Monsignor Hillenbrand’s teaching and the Church’s encyclicals, and Monsignor Daniel Cantwell and the hard workers at the Catholic Interracial Council and Friendship House who interpreted the scene as he did, Egan felt very much alone in the Church in 1958. He felt on the outside, “a particular person outside the ordinary ministry of the Church.” If he’d felt on the inside, as one of the clerical guys, Jack Egan would not have had to do such extensive soul-searching. He could see trauma ahead for the city. His friend Father Farrell was convinced change was inevitable. Certainly Monsignor McMahon was convinced. But there were many in the city who thought they could resist the implacable drive of demographics. Jack felt like a twentieth century circuit rider calling out his alerts.

Mary Louise Schniedwind, his secretary/assistant at the Office of Urban Affairs, observed how Jack involved everybody with a stake in his plans for the city: blacks, whites, churches, businesses, local organizations. He believed, she says, that when the inevitable inflow of blacks and outflow of whites occurred, fighting and riots could be prevented only by strong structures. Blacks active in community organizations would have the same concern for neighborhood preservation as the whites.

“Eventually,” Schniedwind continues her analysis, “as whites became a minority or disappeared from the area, blacks would have a good organization to help themselves. The Catholic Church (which would participate in the transition) would still be there . . . and help stabilize the community.” Schniedwind found Jack’s ability to “organize pastors, who probably never would have done it without his leadership, remarkable.” She saw what great sacrifices the changeover was asking of parish leaders, how hard it was for them to contribute money and ask their parishioners to contribute. She describes Jack as “outgoing, uncomplicated, without affectation, open, and able to make everybody feel comfortable.” At times he made her uncomfortable when he publicly made the case for the opposition better than the opposition voices could do it for themselves.

She watched Jack empower organization people. Where he thought another could function better than he could, he was quick to seek that person out. Community organizer Tom Gaudette, commenting wryly on this knack of Jack’s for gaining compliance from his prey, says he is “an awful man because he decides he wants you to do something and you can’t resist.” Schniedwind observed in amazement: “With every movement he created, with every organization he created, he found the right people.” As much as she admired his political acuity, she couldn’t help being amused when she’d arrive with Monsignor Egan at a public function being recorded for television. “I’d stand at the door and say to someone, `Watch Jack position himself for the camera.’ Then we’d observe as Jack surveyed the site, found some important personage near the camera and strode across to him or her to say, `How do you do, Joe Blow, Mr. Mayor, or whatever.’ Jack thought that was good for the Church, a Catholic priest being seen at the right place with the right people.”

Monsignor Egan put his political skills to work as he made the circuit of the, maybe, seventy-five community organizations at various stages of development stretched throughout the city, each an opportunity. Jack Egan clocked miles as religiously as his parents’ generation had trickled rosary beads. In his Cana days he’d spun the odometer hurtling from rectory to rectory, Cana Conference to Cana Conference. In 1961, his rotation was bringing him from meeting to meeting to meeting. Out Archer Avenue to the Organization for the Southwest Community. Across Division Street to ring rectory doorbells to beg funds for the Northwest Community Organization. South down Ashland to Woodlawn to encourage Father Farrell. Down Jeffrey to the South Shore Temple.

In some sense he was pastor to the city. He saw his job as liaison between the cardinal and the city’s community organizations. The job both freed him up and tied him down. He was spared full-time parish duties, but, being Jack, he felt responsible for legitimizing and educating—as well as inspiriting—community organizations in the city and suburbs. He tried to turn up at all regular meetings. When he was asked to say a few words, he’d have a speech ready, often written by Nicholas von Hoffman. “Nick was my brains,” Jack says. “I was getting an education. I didn’t mind getting an education from a young guy like Nick because I needed it. Nick had a profound understanding of the meaning of democracy.”

As director of the Office of Urban Affairs, Jack preached the goal of service to congregations, neighborhoods, and the metropolis. He’d tell audiences how the political process created community. Then he’d work the room to create a little community of his own as he assured people of his faith in them, his awareness of their dignity, and their importance to the civic health of the city. They scarcely noticed how quickly he pressed from one hand to the next for experiencing the intensity of his personal concern. He never left a person’s side without asking what the archbishop of Chicago could do for him or her.

He told parish priests they should be out walking around, studying their territory, cataloging the rotting outside staircases on firetrap buildings and the smelly hallways in once well-kept apartment buildings. “You’ll find opportunities for service,” he said, if you develop what writer Michael Harrington called “social eyes,” the faculty of seeing many individual misfortunes in poverty instead of a city-wide, indeed a national, catastrophe.

When he talked about ridding the city of its growing slums and replacing them with decent housing, he warned against developers who “get approval for eminent domain as quietly as (they) can, and then move in as fast as (they) can before the people wake up and know what’s going on.” He told stories of a pastor who waked to find a superhighway built between his church and his school, and another who found all the homes in the vicinity of his parish torn down so the land could lay idle five years.

Jack Egan gave community groups facts they could work with. He would quote a Chicago consultant’s estimate that 25,000 dwelling units (home to more than 100,000 people) were demolished in Chicago between 1950 and 1958, that another 25,000 would be a memory by 1961. He could dramatize those figures with the saga of Sandburg Village, “the biggest and the richest of the land grabs. The quaintness of the name would both beguile you and numb you to what was really going on beneath your very eyes.”

Jack suggests there were enough lies told about how this project would bring together wealthy, near wealthy, the middle class and the poor, black and white, people of different cultures, that even the most honorable people would think this would be the spiritual Taj Mahal or Parthenon of Chicago. The Land Clearance Commission used eminent domain to vacate the land and demolish the old buildings on LaSalle and Clark from Division Street to North Avenue. Helped by the most powerful City Hall alderman (“a man of brilliance and renown who later spent some time in the federal penitentiary for mail fraud,” according to Jack), the firm of Arthur Rubloff made a bid for the land now cleared of old, tired mansions and the poor people who’d had rooms in them.

“Representing the Office of Urban Affairs of the archdiocese, I appeared before the Housing and Planning Committee of the City Council to protest this giveaway,” Jack says, “particularly since there was no room allotted for the poor and lower income groups.” Loud roars of disapproval came from the voices of the vice presidents of Arthur Rubloff Company (after Jack’s testimony). “But a knowing man, Alderman Seymour Simon, later a distinguished judge, spoke up in a phrase I shall never forget. Said he, `There is a smell of money in this room.’ It was more than a smell. It was a dirty, dishonest deal and the taxpayers suffered again. The rents went up and up, and are still going up. There was no room in Sandburg Village for lower income people, to say nothing of the poor.”

Jack instructed neighborhood people to take the initiative. Your job, he told them, is to represent the views and needs of your neighborhood to the rest of the city. You are the mechanism by which “neighborhood citizens can formulate the goals and needs of their neighborhood and defend and promote them both to the area planners and to the city at large. Don’t think you can do this without raising a little heat,” he advised, but be “prepared to accept a measure of heat as a necessary adjunct to a vital community life. Your job is to open up issues so the political process can resolve them, and to fight hard to get what you need. You must be true to yourself, cantankerous and tough.”

Jack asked tough questions of the community organizations. How many of them had pressed for more street lighting, garbage collection, and police protection? How many had launched programs for support of increased municipal budgets in their areas? How many community groups, organized in the face of the expanding Negro ghetto, had supported realistic programs to open up housing opportunities for middle income Negroes and take the pressure off the ghetto frontier? How many neighborhood organizations had taken the time and effort to develop a workable and realistic rehabilitation program—one of the city’s greatest needs—and to sell the plan to the property owners and the financial interests? How many had left the entire job, because it is so difficult, to the Department of Urban Renewal?

As Peg Burke and Nina Polcyn had found out, Jack Egan could be tough when he expected performance. He could sound cantankerous when he spoke the truth. When a young acquaintance asked him to speak to a community group at the American Legion Hall at Sixty-ninth Street and Paulina, Jack pulled no punches. He outlined his enthusiasm for the possibilities inherent in a generous attitude toward change. In that Southwest Side neighborhood, change had only one meaning. That audience was not about to participate in the political process by enlarging their vision of city as a place where the stranger becomes the neighbor. When Jack used the word, “integration,” he lanced a pustule. His audience had no tolerance for that concept when it referred to strangers—blacks—buying into their neighborhoods.

Saul Alinsky and Jack Egan were already being called Communists by people of that area who had organized block clubs to keep the blacks out. Jack had felt sure that a group on Sixty-ninth Street, so near St. Justin Martyr, must know he was no Communist. “I talked to them on the race question and this was, God, in hostile territory.” When the young man who had invited Father Egan to address the group realized that Father Egan was advocating integration, “he went to the bathroom and,” as Father Egan drew on his best skills to soften the audience’s resistance to change, “you could hear him retching. He knew he would probably be fired.”

Father Egan hadn’t thought his suggestion of using community organization to achieve an integrated neighborhood was “that dramatic. But it was the last thing they wanted to hear.” Four burly guys—“fellows I’d married or baptized their children”—escorted Jack Egan to his car and warned, “You better get out the neighborhood, Father.” Although they resented his interfering, they didn’t want him to come to any harm. “Otherwise,” he smiles ruefully, “if I’d been totally foreign, it would have been a good bit worse.” Jack got out of the neighborhood.

When the talk was reported in the press. Bill Berry, director of the Urban League, admitted, “One thing about Jack Egan: he says the same thing in the white areas that he does in the black areas.” Jack was no Lyndon Johnson, telling one story in Texas’ rural areas and another at the Petroleum Club in Dallas. That may have made Jack a hero to Bill Berry. In the guys at the Sixty-ninth Street American Legion Hall, it prompted suspicion that the sunny young assistant who’d always smiled when he shook their hands after Mass had turned into a Communist—Roman collar or no Roman collar.

For over three years now, since Cardinal Meyer had given him the city as his parish, Jack Egan had run up against this mentality as he pushed his body to perform. “I was rushing around, the Cana Conference, YCS, YCW, community organizing and everything else, running to meetings morning, noon, and night. I was trying to live three lives at once.” His schedule was no different the March day in 1962 when he told his secretary Fran Hearn, “I’m not feeling that well.” Although he was due at a meeting, he had the sense to lie down on his couch at his Seven-twenty North Rush office.

After a few minutes, he lectured himself. “Oh, come on, Jack, what the heck. Stop babying yourself. You’ll be all right.” Late now for the interfaith social action meeting at the Chicago Board of Rabbis office with several rabbis and CIC’s John McDermott and the city’s director of human relations, Edward Marciniak, Jack jumped in a cab, directing the Chinese driver to Eleventh and State. By this time he knew he was having a heart attack. “It felt like a Mack truck was running over me. Instead of being smart and going to a hospital, I go down to the meeting, I pay the cabbie, I go upstairs to the seventh floor to where the meeting was, and I walk in and collapse. They put me on the couch and called the fire department. No one thought of calling a priest.”

The firemen were prompt. They asked Jack, “When did you eat last?” He answered, “Seven this morning,” through his pain as they bundled him up for the rush trip to Mercy Hospital. “Apparently, I was very grey and not expected to live.” Jack recalls heads shaking over him as firemen brought him into the emergency room. Cardinal Meyer and Bishop Cletus O’Donnell, visiting the hospitalized vicar general, floated briefly through the room where the doctors were wiring Jack to an electrocardiograph.

That was the cardinal’s last chance for many days. As Jack says, “Not even my mother was allowed to see me for ten days.” A cadre of fellow priests, co-workers, and friends sat guard outside his door around the clock for several weeks, denying entrance to anyone but nurses and doctors. Cautioned that any exertion on Jack’s part could precipitate a fatal paroxysm, they meant to save his life. “They did save my life,” Jack says, years later, of the guard that included his brother Jim, Father Imbiorski of the Cana Conference, Tom Gaudette (an Alinsky-trained organizer), and a dozen others. “I was in Mercy Hospital thirty-two days recovering.” Gaudette characteristically remembers the “guards” making book on which of them would officiate when the cardinal was first denied admittance to Jack’s room. “I was it,” Gaudette recalls with satisfaction.

The ever-gracious Cardinal Meyer nodded approval of the policy, saying mildly, “I think that’s a good idea.” On his way to the elevator, he passed another priest of the archdiocese marching down the corridor to the door defended by Gaudette. Without pressing the call button, Cardinal Meyer lingered at the elevator door, watching a reenactment of his rebuff. When Jack’s second visitor of the hour joined the cardinal at the elevator stacks, the prelate smiled gently. “Me, too,” he confided companionably.

It was April 8 before hospital personnel reported to callers that Monsignor Egan was no longer in critical condition. The hospital had to put an extra person on the switch board for the rash of phone calls and messages. Mail and packages were collected in special large boxes. The public relations officer worked overtime to satisfy the media. Even after Jack left the hospital, visitors were rationed.

At forty-five, Jack Egan was too young for a heart attack. He’d prodded his body too far and too fast, pushed his father’s work ethic to the extreme, to serve his city. Once his doctor relented he was back in the Chevy again, only slightly chastened. “My heart attack did slow me down a little bit,” he admits. Only a little bit. The city needed him.

Next Chapter . . .