An Alley in Chicago

“I Understand There Are Troublemakers in This City”

Like Martin Luther King in 1965, the movement priests in Chicago had been to the mountaintop. They were exultant. Vatican II gains were beyond their expectation. The Chicago moment had towered into the American moment. Again, like Dr. King, they would suffer grievous reverses.

Twenty years later, Jack Egan would designate the beginning of the Golden Age of the American Church to 1940, about the time Monsignor Hillenbrand’s first seminarians were ordained. He’d date the Golden Age’s termination to that time in 1965 when the Vatican Council ended. But that’s hindsight. From their mountaintop in 1965, no Chicago priests would have guessed how quick their fall would be. Their general euphoria had boded a New Age, not a Dark Age.

When Cardinal Meyer returned from Rome after the passage of the decree on religious liberty, Chicago priests greeted him with a sustained ovation at the Resurrection Parish Hall. America’s lived experience of religious liberty was now Church doctrine. The Holy Spirit had worked through American Catholics (probably the lay people best prepared for the Council, according to Jack Egan’s observation), their priests, and then through their bishops.

“The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” Poet Rainer Maria Rilke could have been describing Chicago’s priests—especially those on the leading wedge of change—who considered themselves vessels, in Rilke’s sense, of the Vatican II transformation. The document on the Church in the modern world validated their work. Their insights on marriage. Their ecumenical contacts. Their experiments in human relations. Their explorations of liturgical change. Their actions for justice. They shared a gratified feeling that Chicago had been a model, a workshop, for the Council. Hadn’t they tried out many of the initiatives that the bishops had debated? Would the Council have been the same if Chicago hadn’t been open to the future entering into it?

What possibilities were there in that future whose transformation they’d shared in making? How willing was the Church to embrace the world? How high could they climb? Where could they go from the mountain top? At that peak moment, few of them would have answered, “Down.”

It was not unexpected that curial forces in Rome jockeyed to recapture control of the Church once the world’s bishops jetted back to their flocks. As Jack Egan came home with the priest friend who’d sustained him after the Our Lady of the Angels fire, Father Tom McDonough predicted chillingly that the Curia would get on with its running of the Church, dismissing the Council as “those bishops putting out some—not very important—papers.” Jack Egan preferred John Courtney Murray’s assessment. On the one occasion when the four priests forbidden to lecture together at Catholic University did get together, the author of the religious liberty document spoke hopefully. He looked forward to, maybe, fifteen years of confusion after Vatican II. “Then,” he assured the thirty-two priests gathered to say goodbye to their Roman carnival, “I think we are going to see the development of a glorious Church.”

Courtney Murray saw green lights ahead. So did Chicago’s priests. They’d grown used to their cardinals as a visible—and whole-hearted—means of support. What with episcopal encouragement and the Council’s breakthroughs, future Church seemed close as the next intersection.

It wasn’t going to work out that way. In surprisingly short order (so much does traffic turn on the traffic manager), the Church in Chicago went into shock. On March 16, 1965, Cardinal Meyer survived a four hour and twenty minute operation to remove a malignant tumor on the right side of his brain. The sixty-two-year-old Cardinal died at Mercy Hospital on April 9, 1965, months before the wind-up of the Vatican Council at which he’d made history. The chronicle of Holy Name parish notes that his untimely death “was looked upon as a severe loss not only for the people of the Church of Chicago, but for the people of the Church Universal.” Chicago priests would have reason to mourn that loss.

On June 15, 1965, the Most Reverend John Patrick Cody was appointed Archbishop of Chicago. He was installed August 24, 1965, as head of a diocese with 447 parishes, 278 in the city of Chicago and 169 in the suburbs of Lake and Cook counties. Forty-one percent of the combined population of those two counties were Catholics, making Chicago the largest diocese in the country at that time. Rumors about changes abounded—the clerical rumor mill is always spinning—as the city awaited the new archbishop busy in Rome as the Vatican Council wound down.

As archbishop in New Orleans, Cody had gained a reputation as an able administrator and a staunch upholder of civil rights. He’d directed the integration of the Catholic schools. According to the Chicago archdiocesan history, “his unequivocal stand on racial justice was a model for educators throughout the Deep South.”

Nonetheless, to the priests of the archdiocese, the mode of governance Archbishop Cody manifested in both Kansas City and New Orleans, and replicated when he arrived in Chicago, was not in keeping with the finest of the traditions of Vatican II. “That may be unkind,” Jack Egan admits, “but that was the impression we had. He would have been a great archbishop in the thirties, but after two bishops who were encouraging, cooperative, permissive, progressive . . .” Jack’s voice slows and limps away like an disheartened runner.

Mary Louise Schniedwind, who manned the Office of Urban Affairs office, puts the case more bluntly. She calls Cody’s ascension to the Chicago archbishopric a tragedy. “We’d laid some good groundwork,” she says. “There seemed to be hope for the city. But Cardinal Cody proceeded to destroy what anybody else had created up to that point. If he didn’t think it up or if he wasn’t in charge, it was no good.” Unfortunately, the new archbishop had not thought up the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs which Mary Louise characterizes as “a powerful voice making statements in City Hall.”

Jack had reason to take an interest in Archbishop Cody’s governance, because Archbishop Cody, once home from the Council at the end of November, thought he had reason to take an interest in Jack Egan. The archbishop’s first priority was appointing Father John Fahey pastor of St. Luke’s Church in River Forest so that influential parish would have a priest for Christmas. Through the clerical pipeline—Fahey to McDonough to Egan—Jack learned he was next. “I understand there are some troublemakers in the city and I should go to work and put them in their proper place,” the archbishop told Father Fahey. The “troublemakers” were Rynie’s boys with familiar names: Jack Egan, Jake Killgallon, Gerry WebeWr, Bill Quinn, and Dan Cantwell. They were all to get large, poor, black parishes to keep them from troubling their new archbishop.

Jack Egan got the first phone call—as fateful in its way as the life-changing call bidding him visit Cardinal Stritch almost twenty years before—from Monsignor Francis Byrne, Chancellor of the Archdiocese. It was January, 1966. “The archbishop would like to see you.” Assuming the appointment would be for the following day, Jack asked the time. “The archbishop wants to see you right now,” Monsignor Byrne advised. Jack headed out immediately for the Chancery Office, newly located in the American Dental Building, 211 E. Chicago, “where I waited two hours to see Archbishop Cody.”

The archbishop, his jowly face unresponsive, didn’t glance up from the letters he was signing when Jack was shown into his office. He seemed incurious at this first encounter with one of the city’s most controversial priests. Jack remembers Archbishop Cody must have “signed about twenty letters while I was sitting there, commenting as he did, `Well, people will have to get used to this signature.’”

When the archbishop finally raised his eyes from his task, Jack rose to his feet to shake his hand. The pleasantries were minimal. “Monsignor, sit down,” Archbishop Cody directed. “Monsignor McCarthy at Presentation is resigning and I would like you to accept the pastorship of that parish. Is that all right with you?”

“Your Eminence, is that what you want?” Jack asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“Then it’s perfectly acceptable to me.” Jack spoke out of a lifetime habit of obedience. Nonetheless, he felt compelled to express his loyalty to the work he was doing. “What happens to the Office of Urban Affairs?”

“Well, you can keep that job,” the archbishop said, dismissing any importance it might have to Jack Egan by adding, “I understand there’s not much going on in that office anyway.”

Jack saw his interfaith work ground underfoot like a cigarette butt under a private’s heel. “I don’t know where you got that information,” he insisted stoutly, “but that is not true. We are doing a lot of things.”

Archbishop Cody was unmoved. “Well, we are going to have to double up on a lot of things in the Archdiocese of Chicago. I think you’ll be able to do both jobs.” The archbishop’s sardonic dismissal indicated a disrespect for Presentation as well as the Office of Urban Affairs. The archbishop was asking Jack Egan to continue as the OUA director, already an exhausting responsibility. Additionally, Jack was to function as pastor of a church changed from completely white to completely black in a decade and a half. Jack was to be only the third pastor of a church described by Monsignor Koenig in the archdiocesan history as once “a source of protection, strength and love for all those who claim it as their parish.” That’s when it was “a bon ton Irish immigrant parish,” in the words of the priest then acting pastor, “if those aren’t contradictory concepts.” Established in 1898 to serve West Side Irish Catholics, its 1,574 families were less than one percent black in 1950. By the time Monsignor John J. Egan got his appointment as pastor from Archbishop Cody in January, 1966, the area was almost 100 percent black. Only 400 families were coming to Mass of a Sunday in the heavily ornate Spanish Renaissance style church.

The city of Chicago immediately served notice that giving two draining jobs to a priest who’d had a near-fatal heart attack four years before would not go unnoticed. When the archdiocesan newspaper, The New World, carried a routine announcement that the Very Reverend John Joseph Egan, formerly director of the Office of Urban Affairs, was transferred to Presentation Parish, the city’s blood boiled. Jack confronted the archbishop about the “formerly” at a Palmer House luncheon celebrating Monsignor Malachy Foley’s retirement as seminary rector. Archbishop Cody was unabashed. “Apparently there are people in this town who just don’t get the message straight,” he said. “We’ll have to make some adjustments.”

It was too late. Even Jack Egan was taken aback by the uproar provoked by his transfer. “And I think Archbishop Cody was, too. He was just overwhelmed to read articles, with pictures, three days in a row in the Chicago Daily News.” The religion editor, Dave Meade, posed Chicago’s question: “To Pastor or to Pasture?” Meade speculated on the possibility that the Church was pulling back on interfaith and interracial cooperation. “People deeply involved in the sensitive work of urban renewal, race relations, and interreligious action—at least those willing to talk—are of the opinion that Monsignor Egan’s pastoral appointment is the first step in `phasing out’ the influential archdiocesan Office of Urban Affairs,” Meade wrote.

He quoted two religious leaders shaken by the news. Rabbi Robert Marx, director of the Great Lakes Region and Chicago Federation of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, looked for reassurance that the appointment did “not mean the end of the work of the Office of Urban Affairs, which has been such an asset to the city.” The Rev. Edgar H. S. Chandler, executive director of the Church Federation of Greater Chicago, noting Egan’s “unique competence, vast knowledge and great commitment,” expressed his hope that “his appointment will not be the last of his tremendous leadership in urban affairs.”

Immediately, there were repercussions in the neighborhoods. The Austin Community Organization steering committee discussed disbanding because several local priests reneged on pledges of funds to the ACO because “they regarded the recent reassignment of the outspoken urban affairs specialist, Msgr. Egan, as a policy shift on the part of the archdiocese.” The Austin Organization would get the $22,000 Father Egan had committed before Archbishop Cody’s appointment (although the archbishop fought that disposition of the funds). However, that was the last hurrah, “the last money the archdiocese as an archdiocese ever gave to a community organization,” according to Jack Egan.

The letters began to rumble in from Jack’s friends, from community organization people, and from the interfaith network. “I think Archbishop Cody got five or six hundred letters,” Jack recalls, from people as exercised as Tom Gaudette who wanted to throw a picket line around the archbishop’s residence when he heard the news. Jack Egan nixed that notion on the grounds that he was not going to protest his bishop’s decision. However, Jack did protest when his archbishop pelted the stacks of letters back at him with a note suggesting that, since he, Jack, had organized the letter-writing campaign, he could very well answer the letters.

“I was hurt very, very much,” Jack admits. “I wrapped them up and sent them back with a note of my own, disavowing any campaigning on my part.” These were “sent to you by the citizens of Chicago,” Jack wrote the archbishop. “They are yours to answer.” Looking back, he realizes that Archbishop Cody probably threw them away because nobody got any answers. “I should have kept them for a mailing list.”

It was obvious that prior to Archbishop Cody’s move into the Victorian manse on North State, Father Egan was already something of a symbol in the archdiocese. He was the priest in the front lines of integration. Widely quoted, he was known for his ringing denunciations of “chicanery with numbers” or “calculated obfuscations.” He disparaged the “ruthless renewal” urged by a city planner like Robert Moses. He lashed out at the Hyde Park plan. He upbraided the real estate industry for its opposition to open housing. He opposed the Chicago Housing Authority’s “high-rise row.” He called attention to the suburbs’ lack of compassion for the city. He campaigned for the participation of the poor in policy planning. He was a rallying point for those working for the poor in the city. And an irritant to those who profited from the status quo.

In the black community Jack Egan was credited for standing beside the Reverend Ralph Abernathy at Selma, Alabama, at the turning point in the civil rights struggle. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the books, blacks were pushing for a Voting Rights Act. Out of 15,000 blacks of voting age in Dallas county (Selma was the county seat), only 333 were eligible to vote.

On March 7, 1965, television viewers across the country witnessed Alabama state troopers beating Hosea Williams and hundreds of marchers at the Edmund Pettus bridge. Jack Egan watched from Sea Island, Georgia, where Dr. Robert and Marion McCready, long-time friends from the Cana Conference, had taken him for much needed rest. Jack felt personally summoned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nation-wide call to ministers of all races and religions to come to Selma. Always careful to stay within his superior’s sanction, Jack Egan called first for Cardinal Meyer’s blessing on his mission, then apologized to his gracious hosts, and took off. In spite of his doctor’s warning not to take part in stressful activities after his 1962 heart attack, Jack flew to Montgomery, Alabama, rented a car, and drove to Selma with his damaged heart in his mouth. “I was scared. I was all alone and going down the streets of Selma with the rednecks standing on each side and me with the Roman collar on.”

Once he’d found Mathew Ahmann, director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, at a local Catholic rectory, the two began phoning contacts from the coast of Maine to Los Angeles. They stayed up all night, entreating, “Come, please come to Selma.” At the time, Dr. King was keeping vigil at the hospital bed of a Unitarian minister from Boston, James Reeb, who’d sustained massive head injuries from a single blow of a club when he and two other white ministers were attacked on a dark street in Selma walking past a Klan-infested juke joint. Taking Dr. King’s place, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy called for an immediate march, although marches were illegal at night. “I’ll never forget it,” Jack says. “Abernathy said tonight priests and ministers and religious will march and the lay people will follow behind us, and we’ll confront the authorities down the street.”

Abernathy continued the instructions: “On my right hand will be a confrere of Jim Reeb who is dying in Birmingham, and on my left hand will be Monsignor John Egan of Chicago.” As the march began, another priest offered to take Jack’s place, saying, “I know you’ve had a heart attack.” Jack rejoined, “No, you won’t,” as they marched out of Brown Chapel, down the street and perhaps five hundred yards to confront Wilson Baker, Selma’s newly hired director of public safety; two hundred troops, and photographers from all over the country.

“Behind the two hundred troops were about two thousand rednecks, and we were there all night, face to face, with Abernathy talking to Baker, Baker talking to Abernathy, we kneeling down and praying, we standing up and singing. Then it began to rain. We were all arm in arm, C. T. Vivian on my left, Dr. Abernathy on my right. As some of my classmates say, `They were holding you up, Jack.’”

Jack claims his paramount contribution was getting his picture sent out by the wire services. When it arrived at the Chicago Daily News office at five or six that morning, “some reporter recognized me and sent someone to St. Angela’s to get Father O’Brien to identify me. They put the picture on the front page and that opened the door. `If Jack Egan can be there then I can be there,’ people said. Remember it was 1965, the Council was still on, there was all that fear we wouldn’t have today, the question of whether we could participate.” Once fellow religious saw Jack Egan was at Selma, buses and planes were mobilized. Jack’s picture was all the imprimatur civil rights sympathizers needed. By the time they started to arrive, Jack Egan was on his way home. He’d done his part toward making the voting rights act a reality.

All but the most committed racists admired the courage of the rabbis, ministers, nuns, priests, and lay people converged at Selma, including this white Chicago priest who marched into an ambush of Alabama state troopers arm in arm with King lieutenants, Reverend Ralph Abernathy and the Reverend C. T. Vivian. At the time, Jack told a Sun-Times reporter that Selma was the “first time that I’d been afraid, wearing a Roman collar, to walk through a white neighborhood. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen hate in the eyes of my fellow brothers, or heard a policeman say, `I’d like to put my club through that priest’s skull.’”

Impressed by the “restraint and real love shown by the Negro people there,” Jack Egan expressed the hope that, “a steady stream of priests, ministers, and rabbis” would join the Selma marchers. And that happened. As newspapers across the country picked up the wire service picture of the Chicago priest with Abernathy and Vivian and New England ministers Edward Blackman of Boston and Frank Anderson of Braintree, Massachusetts, at the head of the march, religious from across the country converged on Selma to support the blacks demonstrating for the opportunity to vote.

Selma was a success. Four days after the Unitarian minister from Boston died from blows inflicted by Selma racists, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a voting rights bill to Congress. On August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Chicagoans reacted strongly to Jack Egan’s being sent to pasture in 1966 because, as Jack says, “they have never forgotten Selma.” Widespread knowledge of the seriousness of his 1962 heart attack was also a factor. Archbishop Cody, a connoisseur of power, even the power of popular opinion, was forced into a gesture of reconciliation. Within two weeks of his Presentation appointment, Jack received a letter appointing him a consultor of the archdiocese for three years. “In those days,” Jack Egan says, “the consultors were very, very powerful men. There were only twelve of them. Canon law demanded that the archbishop couldn’t make any important decisions without consulting them.” Whether he wanted to or not, the archbishop was forced to share his power. Sharing power, however, was another thing from allowing underlings to have separate power bases. That Archbishop Cody could not tolerate.

As Jack Egan puts it, “We had a new bishop who found it difficult to deal with anyone with a power base. He did many wonderful things in the city of Chicago. He led the way in seminary development. But he had to exercise control over any organization under the Church’s name, particularly those which got financial support.” Jack saw Archbishop Cody’s strength, and also his weakness, in his ambition and his total distrust of anyone. Evidently with his disposition of the troublemakers into parishes subject to failing boilers and dependent on his generosity (“I am your banker,” as he once told a North Shore parish), Archbishop Cody felt safe. Activist priests wouldn’t have the energy for creating mischief in the social action sphere if they had to fill in often enough as janitor. Jack smiles ruefully. “Archbishop Cody had an unbelievable power of underestimating people. I think he underestimated the people he put in those five jobs. We were Chicagoans. We understood power. We were survivors.”

Looking back, Jack Egan relishes the turn of events. “I’m living with black people for the first time in my life. Archbishop Cody couldn’t have given me a greater gift. I don’t think he thought of it that way. I think he thought he was getting rid of me.”

The archbishop assumed that Father Egan would be dependent on the archdiocese for supplementary support. Although he may not have had the exact figures in hand, he probably had a fair picture of Jack’s predicament: a payroll coming up, a school to maintain, the usual monthly bills, and an uncertain boiler. The former pastor Monsignor McCarthy had watched his parish dwindle and his budget careen through the difficult years of change from healthy Irish parish to impoverished ghetto parish. He left behind a cash balance of about three hundred and eighty-two dollars, according to the new pastor.

What Jack Egan had in his “bank” was not money, but people willing to rally round. Volunteer Ann Coe Pugliese, whom Jack Egan knew from the Adult Education Center at Twenty-one West Superior, rallied around the money issue. She suggested to Jack a fund-raising program called Friends of Presentation. A monthly newsletter, a 1966 version of Just-in Passing, would alert the fifteen hundred people on Jack’s mailing list (and another several hundred from his associates’ lists) to the needs of Presentation Parish, the needs of its boiler, its school, its people. The suggested monthly response was two dollars to take care of those needs. No more. Jack would accept more, but he didn’t ask more. Who could refuse two dollars?

Jack Egan got volunteers from outside the parish (“who didn’t have the home responsibilities of our people”) to print, address, and mail the newsletter. Their efforts reaped an average four thousand dollars a month. That was sufficient—along with the generous support of Presentation’s four hundred families—to run the parish, but it was never enough to replace the boiler. That megalosaur was a constant concern. When it went out, as it regularly did, the school got cold, the church got cold, the rectory and the convent got cold. “When the hell are you going to get that boiler fixed?” his brother Jim wrote Jack Egan from Darien, Connecticut, months into The Perils of Dyspeptic Boilers saga.

Volunteers from city and suburbs came regularly to aid the “wonderful” (Jack’s assessment) BVM Sisters in Presentation School. When Gertrude Snodgrass from the neighborhood alerted Jack to neighbors’ need for clothing, Jack alerted his contacts. Clothes pelted in. “Good clothes,” Jack says. “My friends always did well by our people.” Mrs. Snodgrass set up a clothing shop in the church basement tended by the “finest women in the parish,” according to Jack. She herself was one of “those people of every age and race who reduce you to silence in their presence because of their natural goodness,” Jack adds. When her husband grew ill and she had to take care of him at home, she opened a food pantry from her house. “I just couldn’t stand people being hungry. That’s why I did it,” she said. She helped found the Greater Chicago Food Depository in 1979. Another appeal brought in books along with Mary Louise O’Shaugnessy and Betty Boyle to set up a library.

For personnel, Father Egan visited six seminaries, promising rectors that any of their students bussed to Presentation every Saturday morning at nine o’clock would get an inner city church experience. Jack assigned each of the sixty weekly seminarian/volunteers his own “parish,” a square city block for which he was responsible. They called the program Operation Saturation. Privy as he was to the value of person-to-person contact, Jack Egan coached the seminarians on their responsibilities. “You’re to get to know every person in every house or apartment. You’re to find out who is ill. Who is out of work. Who has housing problems. Whose kids aren’t in school. At the end of the day you’re to report to me on every problem you uncover. We’ll discuss then what we are going to do about it.”

Word got around that something was happening at Presentation. Religious from around the country appeared on the doorstep. Jack welcomed them all, promising free board for two nights, and then a farewell handshake for anyone not prepared to work. For Jack Egan, “work” meant visiting all those troubled, impoverished, sickly, people inventoried by the Saturday seminarians.

There were some surprises for Jack, even in himself. “I’ll never forget the first night. I went up to (Father) Jack Gilligan’s room. Father Tom Millea and Father Jack Hill were there. I can’t imagine myself doing this or saying this. They were having a drink and there was a bottle of Scotch on the top of the dresser. Now we’re on the third floor of the rectory and here’s the new pastor, saying, `Fellows, do you think we should have a bottle out in public like this?’ I turned them off. I remember them looking at one another, thinking who the hell let him in. They had just got rid of Monsignor McCarthy, an old conservative, and now this guy comes along, Jack Egan, whom they know!”

Jack describes his reversion to prototype domineering Irish tyrant as “a certain type of rigorism that did occupy my life when I was given positions of authority up to the time I was at Presentation. I think I’ve lost it, I hope I’ve lost it,” he says now. He had exploded at his surprised young associates in their own rooms on their own time. “Here was a man trained in YCS, YCW, the Christian Family Movement, and in community organization all through the fifties and sixties. Now I go into that parish as a pastor. I practically forget all my training. Why? Because I was scared,” Jack admits. He was scared by the huge responsibility he’d been given. Driven by that fear and by his gut hankering to succeed, he momentarily parodied himself. But he didn’t please himself. His bona fide style was eliciting cooperation, not demanding conformity. Jack Hill, now resigned from the priesthood, doesn’t remember the Scotch story. He remembers Father Egan greeting his new associates, “Well, guys, I’m home.”

Jack had another compulsion: to clean out the storehouse/basement. Calling a chaplain friend at the Great Lakes Naval Station, he recruited a busload of sailors to heave out generations of junk furniture and scrub down the boiler. Later, that reamed-out basement would house Presentation’s most dynamic program, the Contract Buyers League.

Jack Egan advertised his mecca all over the city, knowing from his experiences with Cana and community organizing how many people in the city craved the opportunity to serve the city. The notice he put up at Mundelein College on the city’s North Side drew Kathy Pelletier, then a young BVM Sister in training. From her point of view, her community hadn’t yet responded forcefully enough to the race question in the city. When she saw an ad suggesting that she could learn something, be useful, and have simultaneously a great weekend, she turned up at Presentation.

“It was like an ad for Florida,” she recalls. “We need your talents, your competence, your compassion. Come, live with us, and learn from the people. Let your self be touched and let your heart be opened. Feel the deep joy here.” The young Sisters and their students read the job descriptions: cleaning streets, sweeping basements, painting doors. Nonetheless, Kathy says, “when I heard that rallying cry, I was going to go.”

She was initially put off by Jack’s growly, “Hey, you missed something over here,” as she was sweeping up glass in front of the church. “I turned around. Father Egan looked very stern. He had a briefcase in one hand. He was pointing to weeds coming up between the cracked concrete.” Kathy thought he was crazy. There was glass everywhere. What was he fussing about? “With that, he gave me this big grin. He grabbed me, gave me a hug, and said, `Welcome to the team. I’m glad you’re here. I’m Jack Egan.’”

That night at dinner Kathy had her first experience of the exciting community that Jack Egan had already drawn to Presentation. “There were twenty or twenty-five of us,” representing the two realities of Presentation. First, that community of people energized by the ferment of the times to donate their talents to Chicago’s West Side. Second, the residents of the Lawndale neighborhood where, “I don’t think there was a day that went by there wasn’t shooting,” according to former Presentation principal Mary Dowling.

Kathy Pelletier describes changes Jack made. “Before Jack came, there was this tight little group of white people who had this exclusive community. Some privileged black people came in to go to school. Some came to go to church.” But the rectory “was an island unto itself. It operated by itself,” as far as the black community was concerned. When Jack came, he opened the windows. He opened the doors. He planted flowers. He pulled down the wrought iron fence with the gate that intimidated visitors. To Kathy the mix of people that streamed in from the neighborhood and from all over the country was phenomenal. “From PhDs to Willie Nelson down the street.” The dynamic was: “once you got there you wanted to come back, you wanted to stay there. It was a family in the sense that you argued—there were a lot of people you would never choose to live with—fought, disagreed. There was a lot of learning from the people in the neighborhood. All fall and summer, it was like a lid had just popped off something.”

The realities were daunting. Streets and parkways littered with old paper and broken glass. Apartments with no screens on windows or screen doors. Sick children. Rats. Housing inadequate in every aspect. Hundreds of high school dropouts. Fifty percent of the residents crowded into the area under fifteen years old. Abandoned buildings. Joblessness. Kathy Pelletier describes a parish worker bringing groceries into a kitchen with what he thought was one dark wall. When he switched on the electricity, the “darkness” wriggled to life. It was a whole wall of cockroaches. Kathy had no trouble believing his horrified story because she’d encountered similar moving walls of insects. “Landlords simply weren’t taking care of places,” she says.

At first, Kathy remembers, tenants were hesitant about letting this army of white people into their homes. “There was reluctance to talk,” she adds. Yet, in the end, “there weren’t very many people told they couldn’t come in.” And the effort did bring in a corps of people from the neighborhood. What was disheartening was the enormousness and enormity of the problems. It’s Kathy Pelletier’s sense that Presentation teams made “only a tiny beginning” on using the information they culled in Operation Saturation. The results were limited.

Yet, while it lasted, the Presentation time was electric with excitement. Jack’s clarion command was, “If we’re going to do it, let’s have fun while we’re doing it.” Jack would expect everyone to work hard, to do his or her best, Kathy Pelletier recalls. “There was no fooling around about that.” But they had to laugh to get through the day. “Just looking at the devastation around us. The suffering. The incredible hardship. The institutional violence. We had to make fun of ourselves and each other or we’d all be crazy. We couldn’t take ourselves too seriously because we knew our efforts were pitiful” against the need.

It was Kathy’s job for Caravan: Operation Balloon to get a daily tank of helium donated so she could put on her blue “Presentation” tee shirt, gas up the Presentation van, and set up at a vacant lot near the church. The kids attracted by her helium balloons were set to work at art projects or organized into volleyball and baseball games. Every morning and afternoon thirty of them boarded the Presentation bus for a field trip to a museum, the beach, maybe the Garfield Park swimming pool. Many of these kids had never before run through Lake Michigan sand or splashed in the water. Another worker was back at the rectory phoning around for free instruments for the drum and bugle corps. Some teachers were doing remedial work with kids who needed it. Others were painting the schoolrooms bright orange, blue, yellow, and green with paint they paid for from their own pockets, and hanging up huge murals of Martin Luther King.

In the evenings, there were educational opportunities for adults, GED courses for those who wanted to pass high school equivalency tests. A volunteer taught boys carpentry. Neighbor Sam Flowers taught others the tool and die trade, and then tried to get them jobs.

The people who lived and worked at Presentation, like principal Mary Dowling, were attracted to the West Side because—in a country up for grabs—“everything important going on in the country was reflected on the West Side of Chicago, civil rights, peace.” Mary Dowling had “never seen anything like this, a parish where things were happening.” Politically active in college a few years before, she felt she was “coming home” to these politically and socially active people.

To her and Kathy Pelletier, the eye of the storm was the rectory dining room. Meals meant “ideas feeding off ideas.” People hardly knew what wonderful victuals Maria Jones was feeding them in their hunger for new understanding of the world about them. Many of them were in personal identity and power struggles with their religious orders. “The first year there were nine Sisters in the convent. The next year there were a couple of old Sisters. The rest paid rent to live in the convent, and kept the same jobs, but they weren’t nuns any more.” They hung around Presentation because they were committed to poor people and to education. They quit their communities and set up their own structures because they were not allowed to serve poor people and education as Sisters under the dominion of Cardinal Cody. When they tried to respond to people’s needs as they saw them, Cardinal Cody got in the way, a “consecrated obstruction,” as English economist Walter Bagehot said of King George III. For instance, when Martin Luther King, Jr., brought his campaign to empower blacks into Chicago, the Sisters who supported him took responsibility for rounding up local people for a big King rally at Soldier Field. The cardinal insisted they desist. They rallied participants, anyway. Then the cardinal forbade the Sisters themselves to attend. How could they show solidarity with the people of Lawndale if they stayed away?

Father Egan assured his associates struggling with personal decisions that they could still provide their expertise to the people of Lawndale. And they did, sometimes in extravagant ways. To make the Easter liturgy meaningful one year, those in charge strung a garden hose up the center aisle of the nave and forty feet into the air to create a fantastic fountain sprinkling water and new life. Jack Egan’s teasing protest that he couldn’t read the Gospel because his glasses were all wet was the only complaint. What people talked about was the compelling force of the wonderful old Negro spirituals of resurrection sung under this incredible symbol of new life that Father George Fleming and Father Jack Hill had Rube-Goldberged together. “Who would expect that wonder in the middle of Lawndale?” Kathy Pelletier asks. “Or the restraint and respect and taste with which it was created?”

Rectory dinners were like ping pong matches. “We’d all tease and go after each other. Then we’d talk about how good it all was.” After the Holy Saturday garden hose liturgy, everyone repaired back to the rectory for good talk until two in the morning. That was expected. At times like these, Kathy Pelletier began to examine “the familiar, the values my family had passed on, what I had learned in school, and the fragile beliefs that had not yet been tested at the age of twenty-one—all in the light of what I was seeing, hearing, doing, and thinking in the Lawndale community on the West Side of Chicago right after Selma and right before Martin Luther King’s assassination. The sense I have of that time at Presentation is that I was in some way `broken into.’”

One of Mary Dowling’s first surprises was the wall in the common room signed by all the guests who’d come to share Maria’s coq au vin. As she studied the signatures, Mary realized, “Everybody I’d read about in college had sat on that sofa.” Jack Egan liked to recall the night he invited Dorothy Day and Saul Alinsky for one of Maria Jones’ conveniently stretchable meals. He warned the other guests to hush their tongues and listen to these two great advocates for the poor. “You’ll learn a lot,” he told the regulars, reminding them of his trip with Saul Alinsky to a Bakersfield, California, rally of the United Farm Workers where Jack met Cesar Chavez. Pressed by Jack Egan about his motivation for getting into community organizing, Alinsky had told Jack “almost in a whisper, as if he didn’t want anyone else to hear, `Jack, I got in it and stayed in it because it was fun, and also because I hate to see people get pushed around—by government, by big business, or even by your big Church.’” The questers hanging around Presentation, wrestling with authority problems, easily related to that view.

Exciting as things were in the rectory, and devastating as they were in the neighborhood, neither was preparation for the incredible destruction to come. Helium balloons, rap sessions at the rectory, and garden hose fountains could not contain the breakdown after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But before that breakdown, a former priest at Presentation, John Hill, remembers Jack Egan keeping “a light of hope shining for a few years in an otherwise bleak ghetto. Specific programs didn’t fulfill their promise, but they gave a bit of hope to a population sorely in need of it.” Hill adds that during those years the liturgy “was appreciably better.” More important, he told Father Egan, “in you many black families met the one white person they could call a lasting friend.”

Father Egan, once he’d leapfrogged over the “no Scotch in your rooms” hurdle, gave his associates and parishioners a lot of respect. He subscribed to Leon-Joseph Cardinal Suenens’ exhortation to the Council Fathers that Baptism gives charisms “of vital importance” to each and every Christian, “lettered or unlettered.” Suenens said, “It is the duty of pastors to listen carefully and with an open heart to laymen and repeatedly to engage in a living dialogue with them. For each and every layman has been given his own gifts and charisms, and more often than not has greater experience than the clergy in daily life in the world.”

Jack Hill was amazed how carefully, with what an open heart, Jack Egan listened not only to his associate priests, but also to lay parishioners. He truly shared responsibility. “Jack acquitted himself very well at Presentation,” Hill says. “He was sort of like an equal of us.” Egan gave Hill the impression “that he thought it was going to be a good ride and he wanted to be there for it. Smack dab in the middle of the sixties,” Hill says, the idea of team ministry, “the idea that a pastor would sit down and talk things over,” was novel. “The idea that you bring laypersons on parish councils and let them make decisions was even more novel.

“This wasn’t a do-gooder thing,” Hill add. “Jack didn’t call parishioners by their first names. He treated all parishioners with respect. They respected him and loved him.” Hill doesn’t prettify the difficulties. “It was a time of emotional and pastoral chaos, but it was creative. I look back at it fondly.”

Cardinal Suenens could counsel open-hearted listening and shared decision-making. He didn’t describe the wear and tear on pastors inspired by his ideas, the pastors who faced up to need. At Presentation, more than anywhere Jack Egan had been, the needs in the rectory, in the Church, in the school, and in the neighborhood, were overwhelming. Although needs were Jack Egan’s shtick, the needs he found at Presentation came close to overwhelming him.

Next Chapter . . .