An Alley in Chicago

“The Worst Kept Secret in Chicago”

The nurses had dosed Jack Egan for a good night’s rest prior to his 1980 heart valve surgery at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center. Groggy and scared, he was courting sleep’s blessed release when he heard a rustle at his bedside. “I sort of had tears in my eyes thinking about what was going to happen to me the next morning,” Jack says, explaining why he didn’t immediately recognize the black face looking down at him.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” the after-hours visitor said, identifying himself as Rutherford Maynard. “Oh, my God.” Jack was more alert now. “You have grown up. You’re so good-looking. Tell me what you’ve been doing.” And Maynard told the story he wanted Father Egan to hear before he had his life-threatening surgery. His voice flowed as he sketched a playground scene of a Father pastor counseling a black youngster sweaty and tuckered after a parking lot basketball game, exhorting the boy to finish high school, to stay out of gangs and away from dope because he had a great future. “You encouraged me to go to high school,” Maynard said, “and then to the University of Illinois where I became an architect. You got me an entry level job at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill where I studied under Bruce Graham. Now I’m starting my own firm.”

Rutherford Maynard’s was a heart-warming success story out of Presentation. But Presentation was not a clear success story. No pastor could have “succeeded” at Presentation in 1965. What Jack Egan could do—and tried to do—was accept people like Rutherford Maynard where they were in their lives and preach to them, as he persistently did, the “dignity of their person, the dignity of their work, and their calling to a life of holiness and therefore a life of happiness.”

What was chastening was the result of his efforts. Jack Egan had few available models for empowering the oppressed. No matter how sound priests were theoretically, practically they found it extremely difficult to share power. It was their trade-off, in some sense, for their sacrifice of the rewards of home and family. Jack’s mentor, Monsignor Hillenbrand, was so admired that Jack Egan’s associate John Hill used poet Edwin Arlington Robinson’s expression that he “glittered when he walked” to describe him. Yet Hillenbrand could not share his power with the young followers who had once stood in clusters, their faces “fairly glistening,” in Hill’s words, with admiration for him. When one of those followers took a lonely position on the Hyde Park-Kenwood project, Monsignor Hillenbrand couldn’t translate his belief in Jack Egan’s inherent dignity into respect for Jack Egan’s course of action.

Rutherford Maynard’s coming in the night bears out John Hill’s contention that many black people found a friend in Father Egan. Yet Hill counts few structural improvements. A look at Jack’s years at Presentation shows how heavy the issues were. Maintenance of old buildings. Support of the school and the summer programs. Organization of the volunteers energized by need and Vatican II initiatives. Curtailment of the Office of Urban Affairs. The waning of the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs. The rise of the Association of Chicago Priests. And, pervasively, the restless, turbulent tremors of the national friction over civil rights.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had parleyed resistance to that Southern racism incarnated in Eugene “Bull” Connor and Sheriff Jim Clark into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was time in 1966, by their lights, to throw their weight against the racism in northern cities. Encouraged by reports about the supportive religious community in Chicago, Dr. King rented a four-room, $90 month apartment in an aging building at 1550 S. Hamlin Avenue, down the street from Presentation Church. He moved in with his wife Coretta on January 26, 1966.

King found himself butting a wall of putty in Chicago instead of the wall of granite his co-marchers grazed against in Birmingham and Selma. Mayor Richard J. Daley was as adept at dodging empathy-mobilizing confrontation as Bull Connor had been lead-footed in creating it. The mayor’s Director of Human Relations, Edward Marciniak, had met Dr. King at the airport the previous July. The Mayor himself gave orders that Dr. King’s neighborhood should be spruced up. Mayor Daley carefully acknowledged the worries of ghetto dwellers and promised to remedy any evils brought to his attention.

Typically, Jack walked down to welcome his new neighbor to Lawndale soon after Dr. King arrived. He accomplished more for Dr. King’s movement, however, as an archdiocesan consultor than as a neighbor. As a consultor, Jack Egan harried Archbishop Cody into agreeing to take a part, however removed from the scene, at Dr. King’s July 10, 1966, rally. This gathering at Soldier Field was planned as the kickoff of the Chicago movement’s action phase, an attempt to call attention to urban segregation and make Chicago an “open city.” Dr. King pledged a peaceful campaign. “I’m trying to keep the movement nonviolent,” he told a questioner, “but I can’t keep it nonviolent by myself. Much of the responsibility is on the white power structure to give meaningful concessions to Negroes.”

To get any concessions, King had to forge alliances. Churches were his natural allies. The Catholic Church in Chicago, indigenous and influential, was indispensable. Jack Egan knew that. He pressed the case for supporting King even though he was aware of opposition, even within the Church. Citing the bishops’ 1958 statement on race, he told his archbishop, “You don’t have to be (at the Soldier Field rally), but you’ll endanger the city if you don’t support Dr. King.” John Hill remembers Archbishop Cody as ticked off at Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Remember how he vilified King?” he reminded Jack Egan. “The FBI fed him some stuff.”)

Hill believes the speech Jack Egan wrote, and persuaded the archbishop to have Bishop Aloysius Wycislo read in the archbishop’s name at Soldier Field, strengthened Dr. King’s position. “If Cody had sat on his hands,” Hill surmises, “all those Catholics who were racists would have said he supported them. And the gains made in Church/black community relations by Friendship House and people like (Monsignor) Dan Cantwell and (Father) Doc Farrell would have been rolled back. King’s influence in Chicago would certainly have been affected.”

Blacks recognized the importance of the archbishop’s statement that Jack Egan wrote. Disappointed when the rally turnout fell short of their projected one hundred thousand, they were heartened by “a surprisingly strong message of support from Archbishop Cody,” according to David Garrow in Bearing the Cross. Some people in the Chicago religious community were proving to be supportive, as blacks had hoped.

But not supportive enough. By August 10, Archbishop Cody was advising King to suspend the marches designed to demonstrate the injustices of residential segregation. What the marches were bringing to the surface was the white/black rift in the city. Black leaders, for their part, thought Archbishop Cody should be addressing racist real estate professionals, not the marchers.

At the time, Michael Schiltz of the National Opinion Research Center faulted not so much Archbishop Cody as the Catholic pastoral ministry that “took no steps of any consequence, during the migration and resettlement of the fifties, to help its flock separate the class aspects of their experience from the race aspects, nor to preach, `in and out of season,’ understanding and charity.” He ascribed the ugliness that accompanied Dr. King’s marches into segregated areas when “mobs of loyal Catholics in Gage Park turned not only on the Chicago Freedom marchers but on their parish priests and pastors” as symptomatic of “a growing moral cancer of the fifties.” Schiltz also lamented Archbishop Cody “could find no space” in the Chancery Office for men like Monsignor Jack Egan and Monsignor Dan Cantwell who’d been in constant touch with the civil rights struggle.

About this time, Chicagoan Peggy Roach, who’d been spearheading social action issues at the National Council of Catholic Women in Washington, planned a move back to Chicago where her mother had only a few years to live. Like Jack, Peggy had been interested in race issues early on, influenced by Father Martin Carrabine at CISCA and Summer Schools of Catholic Action at the Morrison Hotel. “What Hillenbrand did for seminarians,” Peggy suggests, “Carrabine did for lay people,” for Chicago students. As a St. Scholastica High School student, Peggy had had to accept her mother’s insistence that she couldn’t visit Friendship House at Forty-third and Indiana in a black neighborhood all by herself, however strong her interest in exploring black/white relationships.

Later, Baroness de Hueck initiated a Friendship House Outer Circle that met at that battered old schoolhouse at Three East Chicago Avenue where Peggy’s sister Jane would later scrub floors as a Young Christian Student. (“She never has time to scrub them at home,” was Mrs. Roach’s—“everymother’s”—comment about her daughter’s apostolic activities.) When Peggy still couldn’t find a friend to accompany her, Mrs. Roach agreed to a series of monthly treks to hear the Baroness boom out the story of her spiritual journey. An ample matron of forceful mien, hair drawn up in a bun, the Baroness romanced her impressionable listeners with tales of her pilgrimage from privileged child in Russia to advocate for North American blacks. Peggy was impressed, although she didn’t take up the Baroness’ cause during her early work years after graduation from Mundelein College.

Wherever Peggy was working, however, at Mundelein in alumnae relations, with Nina Polcyn at St. Benet Book Shop, at the naval station at Glenview, she was part of the activist John A. Ryan Forum group. Founded by Monsignor Cantwell as a fund-raiser for the Catholic Labor Alliance, the John A. Ryan Forums were the ne plus ultra of the Chicago movement. Four times a year a speaker, perhaps a Walter Reuther out of labor circles, would preach to Chicago’s converted and catalyze transactions between Chicago’s Catholic Action “Four Hundred,” those who shared the action and passion of their times with no risk of never having lived. These were the live wires of the Catholic Church’s electric moment in the city.

Peggy had been part of that circle as executive secretary of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women before she went to Washington. Drumming up volunteer slots for ACCW members, she’d come to know the people at the city’s social service agencies.

Peggy got directly into race relations at the Catholic Interracial Council where she organized the fund raisers honoring Sargent Shriver one year and Lyndon Johnson the next, fund raisers that provided sixty percent of the CIC budget. The CIC was on the third floor of Twenty-one West Superior, above Matt Ahmann’s National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice on the first floor of that Catholic Action axis. When Russ Barta, a major force on the Catholic scene as director of Archdiocesan Adult Education, got a query from Margaret Mealey, executive director of the National Council of Catholic Women, about a staff opening for a social action and legislation person, he told Mealey, “You need a Peggy Roach.” Margaret Mealey wooed Peggy to Washington. Without Matt Ahmann’s advice to look up NCCW member Hope Brophy, however, Peggy might not have made the NCCW commitment. Hope persuaded Peggy that only someone with her CIC background could “raise awareness of Catholic women over the country about race. Only if we get someone out of a CIC can we get that to happen.” Peggy went to Washington hoping that she could raise the social consciousness of the thousands of NCCW women in the country.

Only a saving remnant of NCCW women, women like Hope Brophy, were ready to move as fast as Peggy. Hope, who couldn’t go herself, paid Peggy’s airfare to the Selma march when Matt Ahmann called for volunteers. Peggy went with the Chicago NCCIJ group. In an all-night session with her Selma host family, Peggy got “the greatest education of my life” from the three black couples responsible for billeting her and other members of the group. Their personal stories exposed the subtleties and horrors of segregation. Their openness didn’t make it any easier to face the clustered rednecks the next day. “I was frightened to death,” Peggy admits. “You didn’t know what you were in for,” even though the marshals put women in the middle of the line.

Peggy’s Selma experience jolted her into her more strenuous efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights Bill. “People were so afraid of what was in it.” Peggy had a difficult time persuading Margaret Mealey, NCCW executive director, to spend ten cents a member to mail out the text. “Isn’t justice worth ten cents?” Peggy demanded of Mealey, who finally agreed. After the Civil Rights Bill passed, Peggy and Jane O’Grady of the AFL/CIO were crying tears of joy when Monsignor Frank Hurley, assistant general secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, called. The three of them arranged an impromptu Mass of thanksgiving at the NCWC chapel. Later over a celebratory drink in Peggy’s studio apartment, Monsignor Hurley removed a small package from his pocket. “When I was at the White House today, I got pens used to sign HR 7165. I wasn’t the one who worked on it. You were,” he said, giving Peggy a little box holding a pen. (Peggy carried that significant memento in her purse for ten years until President Richard Nixon sacked Father Theodore Hesburgh as head of his Civil Rights Commission. Then she thought Hesburgh should have it.)

When the charge Peggy got from her Selma experience and her participation in a “Wednesdays in Mississippi” program that introduced her to the problems of women in the Deep South proved too galvanizing for the basically conservative NCCW ranks, Peggy returned to Chicago. She joined Matt Ahmann at the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice at 1307 S. Wabash in Chicago. Matt, who was setting up national programs for addressing specific black/white issues, assigned Peggy to health care. Temporarily disoriented after four years away, Peggy looked for the action that she’d associated with the John A. Ryan Forum group in the past.

Like Mary Dowling, Presentation’s principal, she perceived the West Side as the nexus of the big social issues of race and peace. The Sunday liturgy at her home parish, Queen of All Saints in the Sauganash area, seemed regressive by the standards of her Washington experience. Joining the Presentation community at the noon Sunday Mass in Lawndale was an effective intake mechanism into the community as well as an alternative for the Sauganash rite. Peggy had known Jack Egan since he’d burst into her office at the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women years before, announcing typically, “I’m Jack Egan. May I use your phone?” They’d got to be friends as part of the John Ryan Forum network. Any time Jack had let her know he’d be in Washington, Peggy had crowded ten or twelve activists privy to D.C. developments into her tiny apartment to bring him up to date.

Now that she was back in Chicago, Jack couldn’t afford to hire Peggy as the secretary he desperately needed. Nevertheless, he was busy as the ants in a colony newly spaded up, trying to keep up his interreligious and city contacts, his work with IRCUA and the Association of Chicago Priests, without slighting his parish. At the invitation of Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta, he’d additionally agreed to chair a group to research the “Pastoral Ministry and Life of the Priest” for the Episcopal Committee on Pastoral Research and Practice of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. This meant circulating an original draft to stimulate response and then collating and analyzing the response from a wide sample of priests, religious, laity, and non-Catholics who “share a concern for the life of the Church.” If Jack couldn’t afford to hire Peggy, he’d had a lot of success suggesting people volunteer to aid his worthy schemes. Peggy was a natural for that kind of appeal. Peggy knew he needed someone like her. As she said of him, “He was sort of taking care of the world.” Or trying to.

Peggy’s whole career had been service over and above the call of duty. When Jack adverted to the piles of correspondence in his room, she agreed to have a look, happy to have a role in the action. “Jack had an idea that coping with his correspondence was impossible,” Peggy recalls. “He answered everything. He still does.” In effect, he was throwing up his hands—and they full of letters.

Peggy promptly displayed the coping-with-Jack mechanisms that caused the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, to call Jack and Peggy “the most symbiotic pair he’d ever met.” She told Jack simply, “If you would organize it, it wouldn’t be so bad.” Then she proceeded to organize it. “A lot of the letters were one-liners,” she recalls. “You can zip those off real quick.” He was the steam in the engine, spitting out visionary schemes, subtle maneuvers, political firestorms. Peggy was the steel in the engine that contained the explosion, keeping his drive focused and his projects on track.

Every Saturday morning she rolled down Pulaski Road and over to 758 S. Springfield where Jack would have his correspondence sorted in piles on his office floor. He’d dictate dozens of letters at his breakneck pace. When Peggy came back to Mass the next morning from her parents’ home on the Northwest Side, she’d have the typed letters ready for signatures and the envelopes stamped. In some sense, their co-ministry started with that cooperative effort. Jack Egan couldn’t have kept up with his “fresh entries in fresh folders in fresh filing cabinets” without Peggy to sift and sort, categorize and systematize. As he added to his portfolios, Peggy made it possible for Jack to continue to be Jack.

Peggy’s involvement in Presentation practically took over her life when one of Jack’s young Jesuit seminarians initiated the innovative Contract Buyers League. Jack Egan describes Jack Macnamara as very bright, a man always angry for the right reasons. “I want to see you alone,” Macnamara told Egan after one of his Operation Saturation sorties to his block “parish” west of Pulaski Road. Macnamara had collided against “something I don’t like,” he told Jack, a basic injustice strait-jacketing Lawndale residents.

A brave parishioner on his block had confided in Macnamara the terms of the contract governing the sale of his or her house. The Lawndale area was redlined by the local banks, barring blacks moving in from getting regular mortgages. As a result, black buyers were forced to deal with one of five or six real estate speculators who bought properties and then sold them on contract. In a contract sale, interest was high and buyers had no equity in their property until they had made the last payment. A payment missed because of illness or job loss could put a family on the street. “That is the worst kept secret in Chicago,” Egan told Macnamara. “City Hall knows about it. Real estate firms know about it. The Chicago Title and Trust knows about it. The people involved know about it. But no one is saying anything about it because the power behind contract buying is so great some people have been killed who have tried to correct the situation. I’d like you to talk to Saul Alinsky about it.”

Alinsky was equally direct. “If I were you I would leave it alone. You’re not going to do anything about it,” he told Macnamara, adding a friend of his had died trying. When Macnamara still stubbornly insisted he wanted to challenge the lenders, Alinsky warned him their practice was legal. “What they are doing may be legal,” Macnamara retorted, “but it is immoral.” Alinsky persisted, “You can’t win on a single issue if it’s legal.” Macnamara made it clear he was going to try.

Next Chapter . . .