An Alley in Chicago

“If He Can Do It to Egan, He Can Do It to Anybody”

When Chicago priests first got word that John Patrick Cody was to be their new archbishop, “a malaise affected the archdiocese,” as one activist priest put it. Monsignor Egan heard from his friend Monsignor George Higgins in Washington. He immediately invited “all these great guys who were doing everything in Chicago” (pretty much the old Sunday night group at Annunciation) to Father Tom McDonough’s place, the Calvert House at the University of Chicago.

The hope of these priests who wanted to advance the Vatican II agenda was to contain Cody. They knew his reputation as authoritarian. A New Orleans priest had told them, “We are sure glad he is there and not in New Orleans.” On the other hand, the bishops in Rome had shown how effective collegiality could be. Working together, they had “contained” the Curia (the Church’s entrenched bureaucracy). These Chicago priests thought they had a good chance of making Cody bend their way if they, too, organized. They were to be stopped short, and not by Cody.

“Before a bottle of booze was opened,” as they tell the story, sociologist/priest Joe Fichter (of New Orleans whence Cody was coming) was yelling at them from the shower in McDonough’s quarters. “Go on home, fellows, forget it. You can’t do a thing. Daddy’s going to take care . . .” When Fichter walked out, drying himself, into the room where the young priests were gathered for sustenance and strategy, he offered them neither. Having lived in Archbishop Cody’s archdiocese and analyzed his operation, sociologist Fichter gave this clerical group a devastating picture of what they could expect from their new ordinary. They realized as they listened how accustomed they were to the permissive style of Cardinal Meyer. How could they possibly retrench to a pre-Vatican II, 1930s, Tridentine autocracy?

“Father Fichter so demoralized us,” Father James Killgallon reported, “that we went home without ever having a party.” The first effort to implement Vatican II collegiality in the Archdiocese of Chicago had fizzled.

That left Archbishop Cody a clear track when he arrived. Immediately, he replaced existing chancery personnel. He took over decision making. He summarily fired several dozen elderly pastors. He closed several parishes. He took “troublemakers” out of key jobs.

Younger priests, who felt like the junior members of the liberal priestly establishment, initially looked to their seniors like Egan and Killgallon to throw up roadblocks in front of Cody. They waited impatiently, contenting themselves with griping, until Archbishop Cody made his move on the “five troublemakers.” For them, that action bared the archbishop’s calculated intent to show an iron fist. Around a small card table in the St. Frances Xavier parish hall after Father Gerry Weber’s father’s funeral on March 27, 1966, Fathers Frank Slobig and Jack Hill shared coffee and the fear their peers were all harboring: “If Cody can do it to Egan (their most visible representative), he can do it to anybody.” Their new archbishop was re-instituting the one-man rule voted out of the Church by the bishops at Vatican II. The young priests stared somberly into their coffee cups, ruing the irony of a post-Vatican II archbishop taking them not back to the future, but forward to the past.

Was Fichter right? Was there nothing the priests could do? Jack Hill “couldn’t imagine that with the activism bred in them by Reynold Hillenbrand the priests wouldn’t take some action, but they didn’t, they didn’t.” He and Slobig brooded about what they could do. Slobig suggested, “Let’s expand what we’ve got here, and get representation from other classes.” In their minds, it was time to act. Vatican II had blessed the people as the Church. If Archbishop Cody was not to be an absolute ruler, someone had to organize a countervailing force. Like the people in The Woodlawn Organization, young priests didn’t have money or power. Maybe they did have numbers. They wouldn’t know until they polled their peers. Possibly, with numbers, they could get a hearing for their agenda, their needs, their complaints, with the archbishop.

Hill had heard the carping: “You guys talk, but you never do anything.” Challenged, he told Slobig he’d see what he could do. Back at Presentation Parish where he had been the temporary administrator between pastors Monsignor Frank McCarthy and Monsignor Egan, he approached Jack that night. Which of Jack Egan’s friends, he asked, would be likely candidates for an organizing luncheon at Madame Galli’s on East Chicago Avenue, a clerical hangout next door to the chancery office? Hill figured this was one of those “fresh files in fresh file folders in fresh filing cabinets” Jack Egan relished. (Jack Egan’s version differs: “Cardinal Cody felt I was the one who engineered the ACP, but I had nothing to do with the origins of it. I do not remember Jack coming home from that meeting and consulting me. In fact, I felt there was a conspiracy of silence. It wasn’t until later that Jack Hill began speaking to me about it.”) Jack Hill firmly insists, “I know I asked that question.”

The archbishop was right to fix on Presentation as the venue, in any case. Father Patrick O’Malley remembers meeting at 758 South Springfield Avenue often “with the sense it was a `safe house’—a place where the ideas we were dealing with were met with understanding and acceptance.” Jack Egan says, “Jack Hill gave practically his full time to the development of the Association of Chicago Priests that first year, and immediately after that to the development of the National Organization of Priests’ Councils.”

Thus, Father Gerry Weber’s father’s funeral ride stirred a group of young priests to launch a historic turnabout. They broke through ingrained clerical barriers in the spirit of Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, and Ruth Wells of the Contract Buyers League in Lawndale. “That was our Selma, Alabama, the beginning of a movement,” one of them said of their first organizing luncheon at Madame Galli’s. With that luncheon they opened a window, in Pope John XXIII’s parlance. By dividing class lists and getting directly to work, Frank Slobig and John Hill had rallied sixteen like-minded priests for a gathering just one week after Weber’s father’s funeral—Easter Thursday, 1966.

In spite of the collegiality ordained by the Second Vatican Council, the Church in Chicago was still a patriarchy. Any one of those young priests who sprinkled Parmesan cheese on his spaghetti that day could have suffered the fate of a Jack Egan sent to a parish that could do in a lesser man—and would almost do in Egan—or a Monsignor Hillenbrand dismissed from the rector’s seat at one of the world’s largest seminaries to a small, if distinguished, parish, without a word of explanation. Any archbishop’s decision was law. As Jack Egan was icily informed when he asked Hillenbrand why he lost the Mundelein rectorship, “They never told me, and I never asked.” In 1966 in the Archdiocese of Chicago, that story still conveyed the clerical climate. Into that climate had moved an archbishop contemporaries described as mistrustful of priests, an initiative-depressant, a Captain Queeg in both his ability to charm and his knack for vindictiveness.

Ideas flowed with the coffee at Madame Galli’s. Were other curates as concerned as they were? Should they try picketing? Father Jake Killgallon suggested using the legitimacy conferred on him and John Barlow as assistant consultors as a legal ploy for assembling associate pastors. The sixteen priests around the table at Madame Galli’s appointed Jack Hill and Patrick O’Malley to organize three regional meetings for associate pastors on the North, West and South Sides. Organizing large numbers would be a protection against retribution, they thought, as well as a power base to balance the Corporation Sole (Archbishop Cody’s legal status). They’d find out what their peers were thinking. How else could they harness that tide in the affairs of the Chicago Church they believed could lead on to a Vatican II-inspired fortune?

What made the meeting electric, according to Jack Hill (now a resigned priest), “what gave it a charge, was that we were not going to ask permission. If you go back to 1966, that was something. There was an umbilical cord then between the bishop and his priests. (We were like) someone who’s always been under the thumb of a tyrant mother or father.” Hill describes the fear/hope relationship as umbilical in nature because Archbishop Cody’s authoritarian power could land a disobedient priest in the sticks or with some pastor widely acknowledged to be impossible. Conversely, he could “make you a pastor or head of the school board.”

Father Peter Shannon, a canon lawyer in the chancery office, expressed the edginess palpable at Madame Galli’s, in this haven where clerical conviviality usually eased clerical pain. “If those people upstairs knew where I was, I would be dead.” He went on to say that if this was a move to get Cody, he wanted no part of it. “But if this is a move to prevent the development of any more Codys, I’m all for it.” The group agreed, and repaired to the chancery office phones to begin the hundreds of phone contacts they’d make to get out the numbers at their regional meetings. They knew they had to work fast. They’d ascertained from Dan Ryan, the archbishop’s secretary, that Archbishop Cody would be in Europe. They planned the assistants’ meeting before he returned. (Aware of the movement from its inception, Cody called the diocesan editors to suggest they not cover the story of the priests’ meetings. “I’ll take care of all that when I get back.”)

As they started the dialing which would consume much of their free time for the next week, the young priests asked themselves how many curates it would take to make a credible showing at their three meetings. At this point they hesitated to ask pastors. They fixed on a figure of four hundred of the archdiocese’s twenty-two hundred priests. By doing what Jack Egan called “a hell of a lot of work” in a very short time, they got out their numbers. Getting the halls alone was a prodigious effort. Jack Hill spent a full Saturday calling rectories. Most of the pastors were friendly, saying, “It’s a great idea for you guys to get together.” Then they’d float the zinger: “What does the boss think about all this?” All Hill could answer was, “We haven’t asked him.” It was suppertime before he got a pastor, Monsignor James Hishen at St. Gall Church at 55th and Kedzie, on Chicago’s Southwest Side, with enough chutzpa to agree to host a meeting of those disaffected by Cody’s arrival. Later, St. Frances Xavier and St. Leonard’s were added.

The Madame Galli group were meticulous planners. Aware that the tone set at the first meeting would be extremely influential, the coordinating committee’s detailed planning reached even into the bathrooms at the first site, St. Leonard’s in Berwyn. They paid the janitor extra “to have the place spotless for that day.” Their efforts were rewarded. Again, that first meeting at St. Leonard’s was “very electric” because “this was a meeting held without the permission of the ordinary.” Several of the young assistants spoke up about their frustrations and fears for the future. John Barlow and Jake Killgallon, as the consultors, promised they would bring the curates’ concerns to the archbishop.

Their concerns were two. Feeling, as Jack Hill says, that authoritarianism kept them at an immature level, the young priests proposed an experiment with democracy in the Chicago Church. “We were trying to lateralize the priesthood, make it collegial.” The changes they proposed were a personnel board to make future clerical appointments in the archdiocese after consultation with those to be appointed, and a retirement package for older priests. Archbishop Cody had immediately on arrival forced the retirement of some priests who had no resources, nowhere to go.

From the start, the coordinating committee meant to include the archbishop in all their plans (they sent him all their minutes). All they asked was a head start in their organizing so the archbishop could not stamp out their seedling before it sent up shoots. When the two assistant consultors asked for a meeting to bring the priests’ views to Archbishop Cody, he suggested a meeting with the entire coordinating committee of the clergy on Saturday night. Fine, Barlow and Killgallon thought, they’d be a stronger force en force.

Looking back, those committee members compare the meticulously planned strategies necessary to deal with their archbishop to the intricacies of Chicago ward politics. They told themselves a resistance like this could develop only in Chicago. Part of their strategy was to recruit early some priests not on the radical fringe, including Father George Herdegen, the most popular priest in the archdiocese. “His name blessed everything.” His allegiance would help with their first priority for the meeting, “to come out alive,” as they put it. If Archbishop Cody forbade any priests’ meetings at all, “we couldn’t organize against that.” That would put off the more conservative priests.

On Saturday night they meant to tell the archbishop about the large meeting of the archdiocesan priests they were planning at McCormick Place, the enormous girdered convention site on Lake Michigan at Twenty-third Street. Meaning always to include him in their post-Vatican II collegiality, they would ask Archbishop Cody to address the gathering.

As they parked their cars at Quigley Seminary and started the warm summer evening ramble through the archbishop’s posh neighborhood to 1555 N. State, members of the coordinating committee knew they were breaking a clerical barrier. They allayed their trepidation by reviewing their plans. They’d assigned note-taking in fifteen minute blocks. They wanted to take minutes, but they didn’t want to be conspicuous, to scare Archbishop Cody off. They intended to ask that pastors be allowed to join the association.

While they would ask the archbishop to speak at their first big meeting, they had no intention of asking his permission to have the meeting. In fact, they were so paranoid (their word) about the archbishop’s intransigence that they couldn’t bring themselves to post all the priests’ invitations together. They stuffed them into different mailboxes around town. Only when the archbishop’s opportunity to forestall delivery of the priests’ invitations was scuttled did they hand-deliver the archbishop’s bid. They could assure their archbishop that he got his invitation ahead of anyone else. They could reassure themselves that his would not be the only invitation delivered.

Over the strawberry cake and coffee in his handsome residence, Archbishop Cody made light of the meetings his guests were planning, saying they were nothing. Maybe not, they replied, but many of the priests are so afraid that we had hard times finding pastors to host the first meetings. The archbishop was smoothly helpful. “You could have asked me because you could have used the seminaries.” As they exited the Gold Coast neighborhood for Quigley and their cars, the committee was exultant. They’d “hoped to come out alive.” They’d done better than they hoped. The archbishop had himself suggested pastors be added to their group, and he had offered Quigley North and Quigley South as meeting places. What remained for the committee was the drudge labor of defining a purpose, selecting a name, and writing a constitution. A prodigious task, as it turned out.

Father Peter Shannon had a summer place on the south end of Lake Michigan. There the committee repaired to suggest and reject, pace off and brood over, the building blocks of their constitution. Long summer days faded into spectacular sunsets as they debated the mechanics of organizing the first priests’ association in the country. What should it be called? How would they elect officers? What terms would they have? What was the archbishop’s role?

Permitted to invite pastors, the group got nine hundred priests to their two Quigley meetings. The big test of the association’s viability would be the McCormick Place meeting to which all the priests in the archdiocese, including priests in religious orders, were invited on October 24, 1966. The lures were the possibility of a personnel board and retirement policies. The pastors whom Archbishop Cody had fired since his arrival had got only two weeks notice, a fact which worried priests even though they knew people past their competency shouldn’t continue to serve. According to Father Charles Dahm in Power and Authority in the Catholic Church, those Archbishop Cody fired had “to find (their) own place(s) to live, at a time when no retirement benefits were yet available.”

The archbishop played the reluctant gallant, holding off on any firm commitment to speak until the meeting day itself, suggesting he’d be out of town. Meantime, he belittled organizing efforts as he got wind of them. You won’t get five hundred priests, he warned the committee, deprecating—as he had from the start—any possibility that this organization would fly. At the same time, he didn’t take any chances on losing his starring role if there was indeed to be an audience for his performance. About nine forty-five on the morning of the meeting, Father Tom Fitzgerald got a call at McCormick Place from one of his friends in the Chancery Office. “How are things going?” came the studiously casual query. “I don’t have any time for you,” Fitzgerald answered, telling the caller all he wanted to know. “We’ve got nine hundred chairs and they are all full. I have to find a couple of hundred more chairs before anyone else gets here. Call me back.”

Five minutes later, there was another phone call for Fitzgerald. The voice was formal and incisive. “The archbishop has changed his plans. He will be down to speak at the time you asked him.” It was clear the archbishop respected numbers. During the day, just short of thirteen hundred of the twenty-one or twenty-two hundred priests in the archdiocese voted on the by-laws. According to Jack Hill, it was “an organizational achievement in that we got everybody, eighty-nine, ninety percent. In each parish one priest stayed home and watched the shop. Everybody else came to the meeting.”

Cardinal Cody arrived in time to hear Scripture scholar Father Barnabas Mary Ahern describe a bishop without his priests as powerless, a man without ears, without hands, without feet. These priests who wanted to be Archbishop Cody’s hands, his ears, his feet, gave their ordinary a standing ovation when he rose to speak. However, Archbishop Cody did not pick up on Father Barnabas Mary’s forceful image, although he did initially express his pride in his priests for implementing the dictates of Vatican II. He called their meeting an “historic gathering” and “epochal,” and spoke of himself as primus inter pares (first among equals).

Having made these necessary obeisances, however, Cody was “patronizing, discouraging, and dispiriting,” according to Jack Hill. “All you have recommended (in your previous meetings), I have already put in the hopper and I intend to act on it.” As the committee interpreted their ordinary, his message was, “Fellows, get lost. I don’t need you.” He deprecated their numbers: “If I had all my priests, I suppose I would need Soldier Field.” As far as the priests could tell, he was saying, in effect, l’eglise, c’est moi loud and clear. They were not the Church. He was.

The press, held at arm’s length by the committee, interpreted the Association of Chicago Priests as a priests’ union. At a press conference after the morning session, the organizers quoted Father Barnabas Mary saying the association was not independent, not autonomous, not hostile to superiors, and therefore not like a union. As Jack Hill explained later, “We felt a union would solidify this almost parental/filial relationship between bishops and priests. That had to go. At the ad hoc meetings, there was little talk against Cody. That kind of talk made him responsible. It really was a congress of peers.” Hill reflected later that the priests put off the newspeople at the press conference, citing only the positive aspects of Archbishop Cody’s remarks, the primus inter pares bit. “We who mouthed First Amendment rights manipulated the press. We told them little things that were absolutely true, but truly misleading.” He regrets that.

Nonetheless, the press knew a clerical Rubicon had been crossed. The Association of Chicago Priests dominated front pages across the country. After the McCormick Place meeting, the organizers were interviewed on radio and television. Jack Hill related the establishment of the ACP to Vatican II initiatives on the Today show. As the priest organizers celebrated at Presentation rectory after their successful October 24, 1966, priests called from all over the country. “Please send us your constitution.” Hill estimates forty or fifty dioceses had priests’ associations or priests’ senates by the end of the year. Once again, as in Cana and CFM, the Chicago archdiocese provided much-needed leadership.

Whether or not it was a union forming in Chicago, Archbishop Cody endured considerable teasing from his fellow bishops. He was having a hard enough time adjusting without that additional indignity. Some of the original ACP board recall an early meeting with the archbishop at the cathedral. Until the third point on the agenda, Cody sat quietly. At that juncture, he announced, “This is what I want.” Chairperson Jack Hill thanked his archbishop for expressing his opinion before he turned to ask, “How do you others feel?” Cody’s jaw dropped. “I’ve never seen him so nonplused,” a board member remembers. For the first time, a decisive expression by an ordinary was put to the pares, those “equals” he was first among.

In some ways, the “equals” found that the archbishop could be brought around. After the priests at McCormick Place voted unanimously for a personnel board, Archbishop Cody announced at the next meeting of the ACP board, “We don’t need a personnel board. I know all the priests.” Board members looked at one another, trying to intuit their next move. Cody turned to Bishop Cletus O’Donnell, a very popular bishop whom most priests of the archdiocese would have liked to see in Cody’s job. “Isn’t that true, Bishop O’Donnell?” he asked. Bishop O’Donnell deflected the question with urbane skill. “I’ve lived here all my life (Cody had been in Chicago only months) and I don’t know all the priests. It would be a great weight off my conscience if we had a personnel board.” Cody appeared impressed. “Let’s go out to dinner and come back and talk about it.” When he came back, “a different man,” and asked some lead time to implement a personnel board, the committee members had their opportunity to be gracious and grant the time. A personnel board was established, as well as retirement policies.

Another time, the encounter was less smooth when Father Hill showed Cody a press release on a McCormick Place meeting. Archbishop Cody wanted changes made. “We did not intend you to censor this,” Father Hill said. “It’s our release. We dropped it off as a matter of courtesy.” It was one of the few occasions when Archbishop Cody could not control his irritation: “What the hell do you guys want me to do?” he demanded. “Quit?” Father Hill, determinedly restrained, answered evenly, “I wish you would accept the fact that we are trying very hard to make you look good.” A hard pronouncement for a bishop who wanted to be assured his word was law.

Jack Egan credits Archbishop Cody for coming to every single meeting of the ACP board for the first year. The board checked the agenda with the archbishop ahead of time. He got a chance to express his views. Jack Egan was elected member at large to that board for the first two years. He was off the third year, a stipulation of the by-laws. He was elected chairperson for the ACP’s fourth year. The group was working on issues of a personnel board, authority in the Church, pensions, sabbaticals, and retirement. “They were interested in things affecting their lives as priests,” Father Egan says. “It was the first time they were both allowed and had the inspiration and courage to look into their own lives and to feel they might have something to say about it. That’s what the ACP was: an opportunity for priests to have something to say about the life they lived.”

Next Chapter . . .