An Alley in Chicago

“How Can They Survive Without the Eucharist?”

Democracy being as messy in the Church as anywhere else, the Association of Chicago Priests early developed its share of problems. Not all the decisions members made were wise. Young priests agitated their new personnel board for raises. Older priests thought raises an inappropriate initiative. Privately, the personnel board collected a list of parishes where they couldn’t in conscience send inexperienced associates. Pastors of blacklisted parishes disputed the priests’ assessments. The young priests had their own list of difficult pastors. They released theirs to the newspapers. Young priests bargained with the personnel board over grievances in a way that infuriated many older men.

The Young Priests Caucus was formed in the spring of 1969 about the time that Jack Egan was elected ACP president. Jack Egan, always a man of the via media, pressed carefully between his ever-deferential respect for authority and an ever-vigilant lookout for opportunities to advance the ACP agenda. He would never bring down his Church to make a point, or to solve a grievance. Nor would he cut off his opponents’ only means of saving grace or saving face. He expected the same from the Young Turk curates. They didn’t share his skill at circumspection. As high-handed and righteous, in their way, as the student activists of the 1960s, they didn’t heed Jack Egan’s suggestion that young priests should try to work out conditions they deplored through judicial processes. Egan was quoted as saying that the ACP board thought the young priests were not acting “according to high standards of responsibility and accountability.” The personnel board that the ACP had fought for was now under fire. Set up to resolve grievances, it now seemed to give rise to them.

“Even though we were all friends, the Young Priests Caucus put terrible pressure on me,” Jack remembers. “Putting out a list of pastors to whom no young associates should be sent! Everything was in the press. Oh, God, they had learned that lesson. We taught them too well. Can you imagine what that did to the morale of the diocese?”

That same age rift operated within the Presentation community where Jack still lived the year he headed the ACP although he shifted his pastoral responsibilities to another administrator. Kathy Pelletier Moriarity looks back on youthful manifestos from her confederates as intemperate then, embarrassing now. She deplores the “lack of judgment. We had such a strong sense of righteousness. Father Egan had brought people together who were searching and questioning, theologically and psychologically.” Kathy sees how every life at Presentation was re-examined and changed. “A lot of mistakes are made when you open a place up. Out of all the religious, only one person is still a priest besides Jack Egan. All the Sisters left religious life.” In the same way, many of those Young Turk priests eventually resigned from the priesthood.

At both Presentation and the ACP, Jack Egan made a place on his agenda for all those come to queue and question. To his ACP office came the priests who both wanted to leave the priesthood and to be exonerated of guilt for leaving. Jack tried to befriend them, even as he befriended associates at Presentation and the Young Priests Caucus. He shared their perceptions and disquietude. He knew they were a bomb waiting to explode in the Church.

When Jack Egan allows himself to think of his term as president of the Association of Chicago Priests, he calls that penitential season “the most difficult year of my life. Looking back, we can’t comprehend what was happening in the Church at that time. We were just coming out of that terrible year 1968, that turning point in history, with assassinations, the end of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War eating us up, the feminist movement.” This was also the year of the great exodus of the clergy from the Church. “While I was chairman, forty-five priests came to tell me they were leaving the priesthood and why.” Mistrusting Cardinal Cody, they were reporting to Father Egan as to a commanding officer.

Concurrently, men staying in the priesthood had an intense interest in the questions about their vocation raised by the Vatican Council. A Bishops’ Synod was planned for 1971 to consider a) justice in the world, and b) the Roman Catholic priesthood. For the first time priests would have a chance to let their feelings be known. “The major question for Chicago priests,” Father Egan remembers, “was optional celibacy. We had many meetings to discuss how we felt about it.”

Jack Egan who had survived the loneliness of the torch-bearer in the Hyde Park-Kenwood confrontation, the loss of his beloved interreligious coalition, and now the torching of Lawndale after Dr. King’s death, seemed to be witnessing the dissolution of the Church and the city to which he had devoted his life. Yet he felt he had to stay strong for the sake of those who looked to him. As Jack Hill says of Jack at Presentation, “perhaps the most appreciated contribution you made was to your colleagues there. You were kind to them all even though their concerns were a distraction from the programs at Presentation. You provided an accepting atmosphere in which your friends could work out their lives.” However, the quiet that Jack brought to those making hard decisions at Presentation brought disquiet to him.

He didn’t want to see anyone leave the priesthood or the Church. Yet circumstances forced him into the position of being responsible for creating safe space where people who were leaving could roost while they contemplated awesome life changes. The decisions of some were so painful to Jack that a suburban couple remembers his begging a table full of dinner guests to write Father Walter Imbiorski (who’d succeeded Jack at the Cana Conference) to reconsider his decision to leave the priesthood for marriage. Peggy Roach tells how he left a workshop in the South early, an action that went against his grain, upon hearing a friend was resigning.

His friend, Father Tom McDonough, made it clear to Jack that he didn’t have the option many of his friends were taking. Even if Jack Egan flirted with the notion of resigning, “Some people are so symbolic that they simply have to remain in the Church,” McDonough counseled his fellow cleric. Jack remembers his own reaction to the resignation of his fellow priests as one of disbelief. “How could they face life without the opportunity to say daily Mass?” Or, if they were leaving the Church, “How could they survive without the Eucharist?”

The turmoil took its toll on every priest, and particularly on those with multiple responsibilities. Parish life was deteriorating at Presentation, from Jack’s point of view, under the administrator assigned there to free up time for Jack during his year as chairperson of the Association for Chicago Priests. Jack winced to hear doors slamming shut that he’d struggled to open. Ecumenical structures Jack thought essential were weakening, as Sun-Times religion editor Roy Larson would note a few years later. Once the leading diocese in the nation, Chicago was heading into the “backwater” Chicago activists like John McDermott would call it in 1975.

If he had looked “small and fragile and pale” to Gordon Sherman in the spring of 1968, Jack Egan looked transparently ill to the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame, when he met him standing in line for coffee at O’Hare Airport in Chicago in the spring of 1969. Jack had recently been treated for exhaustion in Mercy Hospital. Father Hesburgh, who’d known Jack Egan for years through their YCS, YCW, and CFM associations, was shocked. “Jack, you look like the devil. Are you ill or just very tired?”

When Jack admitted exhaustion, having just left a trying meeting with the ACP board and Cardinal Cody, Father Hesburgh did some quick figuring. “Look,” he said, “you have been hitting the ball for twenty-eight years. I know because we were ordained the same year. It’s about time you took a sabbatical. Why not come to Notre Dame for a year and rest up? I have a small bit of money that will pay for your expenses, and you can help us with our new program in pastoral theology. You could live with Father Louis Putz at Moreau Seminary and give him a hand with the diocesan seminarians living there. What about it—just for a year?”

Jack wrote Cardinal Cody, asking for an appointment on a strictly personal matter. Would the cardinal surmise he was leaving the priesthood and expedite the arrangements? The cardinal’s reply was immediate, and Jack arrived promptly for his appointment the next day. The cardinal took a chair and waved Jack to a couch. “He always brought a number of manila folders,” Jack says, reconstructing that seminal scene in his life. “While you were talking, he would be thumbing through the pages of the folders.” Jack figured that Cardinal Cody labored under two misapprehensions about the pastor of Presentation. The first, that Jack was bitter. The second, that he was the spirit behind the Association of Chicago Priests. “He also thought I engineered the public outcry when I was sent to Presentation,” Jack adds.

In Jack’s mind, any disaffection the cardinal harbored against him was no excuse for the folders. Jack didn’t appreciate their distraction. “What I’m going to talk to you about is extremely important to me,” Jack told his superior. “If you’d kindly put that folder away, let’s you and I talk. I have a letter I’d like you to read.”

The cardinal guardedly brooded over the invitation that Father Egan had received from Notre Dame. Finally, he spoke. “I’ve been expecting this.”

“How could you possible be expecting this? It came only yesterday morning.”

“You’ve been trying to get out of the diocese.”

Jack replied fiercely, “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“The answer is absolutely no. I am not going to give you permission,” the cardinal announced. “We need you in Chicago. I am going to send you back to Presentation Parish.”

The cardinal pointed out that if Jack were to go to Notre Dame, other priests would ask for sabbaticals and increase the shortage of priests. Jack volunteered to serve on weekends in a South Side parish. The cardinal grumbled, “If you go there, I want you to stay there and not bring back any of that `bum theology.’ ” He had a further objection: “What will the priests say if you go?” Jack thought his reputation with the priests was secure. The cardinal pressed on. “But what will the people say?” Jack suggested the people at Presentation were quite used to priests being transferred.

Then he bared the nub of his irritation. “But what will the press say? You will get better press than I will.” Jack was too embarrassed to respond. By now it was noon. To end the interview, he asked quietly, “What shall I tell Father Hesburgh?”

The cardinal sputtered a surprising volte-face for which Jack was unprepared. “Tell him I will not stand in your way and you go with my permission.”

Father Egan could take some satisfaction in his five years at Presentation. The Contract Buyers League (although its success may have contributed to the demise of the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs, according to Rabbi Marx) was saving Presentation neighbors some six million dollars through negotiation of contracts into mortgages.

Parents were taking responsibility for Presentation School, attending meetings, making decisions for their children. In May 1969, seven eighth graders won full scholarships to Catholic high schools, and three more earned partial scholarships. Those kids had as commencement speaker comedian Dick Gregory, who’d led marches demanding school desegregation from Buckingham Fountain to Mayor Daley’s Bridgeport home. A program to start up small businesses was in place at Presentation, as well as a Food Buying Club. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill had done the work-up on turning the unused portion of the convent into a center with a small health clinic, a legal aid bureau, and an adult education center. Jack had repeatedly called attention to the violence in the inner city: the violence of slum landlords, the violence of inequitable political representation, the violence of inadequate health facilities, the violence of poor but expensive housing, the violence of inferior food and merchandise in neighborhood stores.

He was leaving a parish where every night he felt he was opening a Chinese fortune cookie to see what the next day would be like. Splitting his days between Presentation and the office of the Association of Chicago Priests during his year as chairperson, Jack had been forced to look daily at the discrepancy between Lawndale’s shortcomings as a environment and the larger metropolitan reality. People in Lawndale still needed homes, jobs, food that was fairly priced, doctors in the community, dentists, a high school, fair rents, to catch up with the rest of the city. He hadn’t waved a magic wand. He was leaving a city where the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs no longer functioned as it had, where the archdiocesan Office of Urban Affairs was closed, where he no longer operated on a national level because of parish demands. In June 1968, Jack Egan had heard from “some of the finest people in the parish,” the early rumblings of the disappointment they would express more forcibly when he left in 1970. “You four priests are our priests. We like you. We want you here at Presentation and in Lawndale. We want to work with you and support you . . . but you don’t know us . . . our problems . . . our children . . . our neighborhood. You have rarely been in our homes . . . We know you work hard, but you have not done the most important thing.”

Mea culpa, the priests had answered in 1968. They knew it was true that Father Hill had been busy about the affairs of the ACP and the National Federation of Priests’ Councils which grew out of the ACP. Fathers George Fleming and Jack Gilligan were on frequent call for Pre-Cana and days of recollection. Father Egan himself served on a raft of local and national boards. The priests had relied on the seminarians and nuns to visit the homes. It seemed that was not enough. The people wanted their own priests to ring their front doorbells, the very thing Jack Egan had done at St. Justin Martyr. It wasn’t enough for Father Egan to walk the streets of a Saturday, saying, “Hello, hello, hello.”

Fortunately, in June 1968, Father Hill’s NFPC organizing work was at an end. Fleming and Gilligan could cut back on Pre-Canas. Jack resigned from six committees and boards, including the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race, the Community Renewal Society, (and for a brief period) the Catholic Community on Urban Ministry and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization. All the priests curtailed “whatever small social life we have had,” as Jack noted in the Friends of Presentation newsletter. Within months, the cardinal would free up more of Jack’s time by cutting funding—and thus cutting the throat—of the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs. In early January 1969, the cardinal reduced the membership from twelve to three, and the funding from $24,000 yearly to $6,000 yearly.

According to the Chicago Daily News, Jack Egan was among the Catholic members dropped. For the cardinal archbishop, IRCUA’s proper—and only—function was researching community groups for possible funding by church and synagogue groups. IRCUA leaders like Rabbi Marx, Edgar Chandler, and Jack Egan had envisioned—and taken—a much more active role in the life of the city. “Our job was to be a constructive moral voice in the city,” Jack says. “We tried to protect the poor and the middle class from some large business, real estate and development interests that had emerged in Chicago, and that, to this day, (as he later told a reporter for the Notre Dame magazine) are people bent on their own profit. They couldn’t care less about the city or its people.” Egan saw the community organizations as means to deal with human and physical problems, “everything from getting a traffic light fixed to improving schools to getting rid of merchants who rip off people. Community organizations are watchdogs on city agencies, buffers between the people and the body politic.”

IRCUA itself was united Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic voices lobbying for voiceless people. They’d spoken out to halt construction of high-rise public housing in the city. “They were vertical slums,” Jack Egan insists, deriding high-rises as inhuman. “There’s no way a mother can raise children on the seventeenth floor of one of those buildings.” He points out that Mayor Daley quietly halted their continued construction after IRCUA’s testimony. IRCUA also worked to modify the haphazard relocation procedure for families caught in the path of urban renewal. Jack admits that IRCUA’s stands were controversial. “But I think we raised the consciousness of the people of Chicago so that they looked at the moral implications of what city agencies were doing.”

With the cardinal’s budget cut, IRCUA’s voice for the people was stilled. Jack rues his docility in the face of Cardinal Cody’s decision. “In the last analysis,” Jack Egan says, “I have to take the responsibility for not mobilizing the Protestant groups there to take a cab to the cardinal’s house. I think we could have won or worked out a compromise to keep the thing in existence. But it folded just after that.”

Jack assesses the cardinal’s “power play” as “one of the most drastic actions I have ever seen. Apparently they (at the Chancery Office) felt (IRCUA) had too much influence, or too much power. Kris Ronnow was out of a job right away and there was terrible feeling.” Jack Egan believes the cardinal’s “unseemly” action affected the work of the churches for years to come. “Ecumenical work was affected very seriously, and also the work of community organization.”

Jack feels, “rightly or wrongly,” that one of the great tragedies of his going to Notre Dame was that there was no longer a champion in the Roman Catholic Church for community organization. “So you have a period of thirteen years in the Cody regime when there was no pressure for their development. It’s also one of the tragedies of Saul Alinsky’s death,” Jack believes, “and Monsignor Edward Burke’s leaving the chancery.” Nothing has taken IRCUA’s place, as Jack sees it. “We moved into the sixties with a lot of strength and it hasn’t been the same since,” he said in 1978.

He suggests that this condition obtains into the 1990s. “Cardinal Bernardin, who has not had experience with real mass-based, responsible, responsive, community organizations which are strong enough to affect change in the policy of the city . . . has to take the advice of some of his advisers who believe that community organizations may be too expensive and/or confrontational.” Jack believes those advisers “refuse to study the history of community organization since 1972 when Saul Alinsky died.”

Three months after the cardinal cut IRCUA’s budget in 1968, he had closed down the archdiocesan Office of Urban Affairs. The notice from the Chancery Office announced OUA’s absorption by the Office of the Co-ordinator of the Inner City Apostolate and the Commission on Human Relations and Ecumenism of the Archdiocese. By this time the cardinal had gutted the Office of Urban Affairs without garroting it. It was no longer a bully pulpit for Jack Egan. As he could no longer influence the course of the city out of that office, his responsibilities having been transferred to other agencies of the archdiocese, Jack Egan had urged the cardinal to close OAU down. “Either you close that office or I am going public because I have my reputation to protect,” Jack Egan told Cardinal Cody. And the cardinal, finally, did.

Sister Ann Ida Gannon, BVM, President of Mundelein College, was on the Office of Urban Affairs board when Cardinal Cody dissolved it. From her perspective, Jack Egan did what he thought was best for the Church at the time. She’d been impressed with the number of persons “in strategic places . . . willing to give their time and insights to providing solutions to the problems (Jack) so clearly identified.

“That made it all the harder to see that you could not obtain freedom to act as, time after time, Cardinal Cody failed to even respond to your initiatives. Most vivid in my mind is the time that you appeared before us with the message that you had finally had a meeting with the cardinal and had discussed our dilemma: much advice, no action.”

Jack Egan reported to the board that Cardinal Cody had coolly advised him: “Just continue what you are doing.” For Sister Ann Ida and the board members, that translated, “Do nothing.” Tom Foran, who had been general counsel in Chicago for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department in charge of urban renewal land acquisition, served on the board of the Office of Urban Affairs. He contrasts the OUA situation under Cardinal Meyer (whom he characterizes as “brilliant, quiet, perceptive, impressive”) with that under Cardinal Cody.

Foran tells the story. “To build 221(d)3 housing, you needed a sponsor. When we couldn’t find a sponsor in Woodlawn, Jack said, `Wouldn’t it be great to get the archdiocese to sponsor some subsidized housing!’” Tom Foran wrote the proposal which Egan took to Cardinal Meyer. According to Foran, Jack “came back jumping for joy.” The cardinal was in favor of the plan. Then Cardinal Meyer died. “We had a good plan,” Foran says, “so Jack and I took it to Cardinal Cody. I remember the two of us going to the cardinal’s residence. It was like talking to a wall. You could talk yourself blue in the face and he just looked at us like we were out of our skulls. He waved his hand to dismiss us. Cody was afraid to do anything.” It followed that the Office of Urban Affairs could do nothing.

Sister Ann Ida recalls for Jack Egan the “general uprising among board members” when OUA folded. They “urged you to `go public’ with your (and our) frustration. It was the time of other headline events and your answer will always remain in my mind, perhaps not verbatim: `Chicago Catholics can’t take another major outbreak at this time; it is better for the Church if I say nothing publicly.’ So we disappeared quietly; no headlines. We took with us an abiding respect for your courage in doing what you thought was best for the greater good instead of your own reputation or achievement.”

When Monsignor Hillenbrand had fired Jack Egan from his YCW post early in his career, Jack had grieved but also noted, “I had plenty of other things to do.” When he was relieved of his duties at the Office of Urban Affairs, Jack Egan still had plenty of things to do. He had more time for his parish and for the Association of Chicago Priests. But he missed the involvement in the wider community.

In his farewell accountability session with the Presentation parish council, Father Egan asked his people to assess his work with them, with a certain confidence that he’d get good marks as a pastor. He got a surprising comeuppance from the people he characterizes, characteristically, as “a great board.” The great apostle of listening had not listened to his people as well as they would have liked, his people told Father Egan.

Jack tries to figure out how that could have happened. “Looking back,” he says, “I can see me driving out, heading for Presentation for the first time. In my mind, I was bringing God to Lawndale. I soon found out that God was already in Lawndale. In my mind, I was going to bring God to the people at Presentation. I soon found that God was already in those people. I brought in Sisters and priests and seminarians and lay people from city and suburbs to develop programs for the people of Presentation. And what did the people of Presentation tell me about that?”

Jack sets the scene. “A superb parish council. Elected. Representative. Old, young, middle years. I gave each of them a sheet of paper and twenty minutes to write: 1) whether I’d served them well, 2) where I’d made mistakes, and 3) what were the good things about the last four and one-half years.” Jack read out the answers to the council as he collected them. Overwhelmingly, the people liked him and what he’d done.

Then they added that he’d worked too hard. “You didn’t trust us to take care of the material aspects of the parish.” In his defense, Father Egan thought of the garbage story. The first time a neighborhood group asked him to prevail with the powers downtown for twice a week pickup because the neighborhood population—and therefore trash—had multiplied, Father Egan had agreed. “The great white father,” as Jack relates the story, went to see Jim Fitzpatrick at the Bureau of Streets and Sanitation. When he’d ascertained that homes in Mayor Daley’s neighborhood had twice a week pickup, Father Egan suggested that there might be trouble if the people on Presentation’s populous streets didn’t get the same service. And so it was done.

However, when an alewife invasion drew the trucks into harvesting millions of tiny fish, the city cut back garbage collection in Lawndale once again. When the people rallied anew, Jack suggested they take steps themselves. And they did, renting a truck, stocking it with fifty gallon drums of garbage for the sidewalk in front of City Hall. It being a slow news day, Monsignor Egan remembers their demonstration getting a big play in the media they had notified. “It solidified a lesson I had been taught for many years: don’t do for people what they can do for themselves. It was stupid of me to go down and see Fitzpatrick the first time. The people are responsible.”

Evidently, Father Egan had forgot that lesson other times, for now his people lectured him on his role in their lives: “Your job was to give us an understanding of God and the Bible, and what God’s will was for us, to develop our spiritual life so that we could better take care of the parish. You did not take enough care of our spiritual needs.”

Even when the “Father” was Jack Egan, it seems, the show was still called Father Knows Best. Vatican II notwithstanding, Jack Egan had continued to run the parish operation. His people had loved and trusted him enough to warn him, mid-term, that he wasn’t priestly enough. He had only half-heard them. “I made a mistake. I hadn’t listened to the lay people,” Jack admits. “I learned a lesson I hope I never forget.”

Next Chapter . . .