An Alley in Chicago

“The Weak Were Not Meant, by Some Divine Decree, to Remain Weak”

Jack Egan can let things go, even things he loves. He presses that useful knack on others. When Nina Polcyn was wooed in post-Vatican II days by a Minnesota widower she’d known in her undergraduate days at Marquette University, she fretted about the fate of St. Benet’s Book Store. How could she leave St. Benet’s for married life in Sinclair Lewis’ hometown? Once he met the warmly human Thomas Eugene Moore, Father Egan counseled against any delay. “I was so impressed with Tom I called Nina the next day after meeting him and said, `You should marry him.’” Nina wanted to talk about the several loyalties tugging at her. “What about the store?” she asked.

Jack forcefully dismissed the store’s importance. “Nina, the store is irrelevant. You got it free. Give it away free. Go out on Wabash Avenue tomorrow morning and hand the key to the first person you see. Say, `The store is yours.’”

Jack knew Nina would survive and prosper because, while she was giving up a life she loved, she was going to another life that would draw on other parts of her generous nature. She was ready for the next step because she’d readied herself for it. In the same way Jack had worked at marriage education while a curate, worked at community organizing while he was in marriage education, formed close friendships with blacks before he pastored them, and organized a national group of community organizers while he was still at Presentation. He, too, was always ready—and prepared—to move on.

A few weeks after that airport encounter with Father Hesburgh, Jack Egan had received his formal invitation from the Reverend James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., chairperson of the Notre Dame Department of Theology. He invited Jack to be a Senior Fellow within his department for one year, starting August 1, 1970. The university was inaugurating a new doctoral program in pastoral theology. “We would particularly like to draw upon the Chicago apostolate’s experience in the first days of the program, and know of no better way to do that than to ask your collaboration.”

Burtchaell added that Father Louis Putz, Rector of Moreau Seminary, was offering Jack Egan room and board in return for serving as chaplain to the diocesan seminarians at Moreau.

Since 1966, when Peggy Roach had started dealing with all his mail and virtually organizing his life, Jack Egan had thought of their relationship as a co-ministry. He was comfortable in the consultancy and Moreau chaplaincy roles offered him by the University. But comfort did not create satisfaction in Jack Egan. He needed a more demanding, more insistent, challenge. He couldn’t manage that without Peggy. Father Hesburgh had understood. “You can bring Peggy along,” he’d said when he invited Jack, “so you’ll have all your bases covered. Spend a year doing what you want to do.”

At some level, Jack Egan already understood that what was billed as his year of reflection and study was going to project him into the national leadership he and Father Gremillion had experienced at Worcester and Hinsdale. This wider role would not be possible without what Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater some years later described to a New York Times reporter as the “indispensable” person behind every powerful public figure. The Times called those persons behind-the-scenes buffers, alter egos, early warning systems. Peggy Roach was all these for Jack Egan.

It’s helpful if the indispensable ally is a jack-of-all-trades as well as aide and confidante, the Times reporter noted. The reporter quoted a former press secretary to both Nancy Reagan and George Bush who said, “Trust, that is the key.” Another source cited honesty as a sine qua non. To a lobbyist, the one hard and fast rule for spear carriers was steering clear of the limelight themselves. “They understand it is their boss who makes the ultimate decisions.”

That’s how Rabbi Robert Marx came to see Peggy Roach’s role in Jack’s working life. “I never understood your relationship to Peggy,” he confided to Jack. “She always seemed to be in the background.” Eventually, he came to see her as Jack’s inspiration, “someone you could trust. You were not out there all alone.” Peggy was the maintenance person behind the operation. “You had a diocese,” Marx amplifies, “that was not terribly sympathetic to what you were trying to do, a cardinal who certainly didn’t appreciate what you were trying to do. You needed somebody you could talk to, somebody who could tell you whether you were full of it or whether you were on the right track. Peggy was your touchstone to bring you back from the clouds, to say, `This is what you can do, this is what you can’t do.’ She was as close to being an honest true friend as anyone could have. A prophet needs someone to say, `You’re going in the right direction.’” Or wrong.

Jack Egan’s CCUM ally Father Harry Browne (celebrated for harboring Philip Berrigan in his rectory where the FBI found him in a closet) credited Peggy Roach with writing Jack’s stuff, keeping him straight, and putting him on the right planes. “Her role and contribution to the American Church, I suppose, is like that of so many great women who will be less honored than the great monsignors.”

If Jack was going to contribute to Notre Dame’s Institute of Urban Studies and Pastoral Theology program as well as get rest and rejuvenation, he needed the sustaining power of a Peggy Roach. Nor did he intend to fade from the Chicago scene as he took his year-long sabbatical. He would continue to nourish his close ties to the Association of Chicago Priests and to his wide circle of supporters, people like the Friends of Presentation. Jack had mastered the lesson Monsignor Hillenbrand had never learned: touch base to keep your place in the hierarchy. Attend the wakes and funerals. The anniversary dinners and jubilee fetes. Important liturgical functions like Forty Hours Devotion. To preserve his closeness to lay people, Jack Egan burned gasoline royally on the Indiana Toll Road for weddings, baptisms, funerals, and friendly get-togethers of the old John Ryan Forum folks gathered for refreshment, reflection, and re-charging. Additionally, he answered his own phone, and all the mail that came in. Written communication was crucial to him. Like Father Andrew Greeley, he often reflected that his parish was in his mailbox. He needed Peggy for his “apostolate of the short note” as well as the organizing of his multiple enterprises.

While Jack Egan dates his co-ministry with Peggy Roach to 1966, it was at Notre Dame that their combined leadership was legitimized. The way Dick Conklin, university Director of Public Relations, puts it is, “When you think of Jack, you think of Peg. Jack had the titles, Peg did the work. If you wanted to deal with Jack,” he adds, “you ended up dealing as much with Peggy as you did with him. I’ll say this for Jack: he tried to deflect as much gratitude, thanks, and praise to Peggy as he could in public and private.”

Conklin doesn’t think co-ministry is a “hyperbolic term to describe the way the two of them went about things. Peggy was the detail person; Jack, the story-teller. He was Mr. Outside, she Ms. Inside. They compliment one another very well. Not long after they came here, Peg won a special presidential award, unusual for someone who had been part of the Notre Dame community for a relatively short period of time.”

Holy Cross theologian Jim Burtchaell agrees that when he wants to make arrangements with Jack/Peggy, “it’s quite enough to do it with Peggy. She may put me on to talk to Jack, but I do the business with Peggy.” He also gets a straighter story from Peggy. “Jack, even in private, can’t talk unpolitically. Peggy formulates the truest account of the state of affairs.”

Burtchaell assesses the symbiosis Father Hesburgh labeled, finding each of the pair less effective without the other. “Peggy, left to herself, wouldn’t have the constant positivity toward people. She would suffer fools less gladly. On the other hand, Jack would fly off into fantasy without her. He would fret about logistics. Now he never frets about them at all.”

Father Burtchaell, who was appointed provost of the university the fall that Father Egan arrived, describes Jack Egan seeking his help toward “some refreshment theologically and a rest. As I later came to learn, Jack was so hemmed in by Cardinal Cody’s checking him at every point that he was exploring a new base of operations.” That explained some of the “tenseness” Father Hesburgh had seen in Jack at O’Hare Airport.

Of that August when Jack Egan and Peggy Roach moved to South Bend, Jack says, “I never questioned the fact that I would go back to Chicago a year later as a parish priest.” Peggy rented an apartment, and Jack moved into Moreau. In some ways, Jack was diffident about the move to South Bend. “Your reputation goes before you. I didn’t know what to expect or what was expected of me.” Jack admitted to Peggy that he was afraid of being chewed up by academia. Would he be able to create a group there like the group he’d created at Presentation, all those marvelous people who had signed the walls in the common room on the second floor?

In spite of flitting misgivings, Jack was in his element. All his life, Jack Egan had harbored an indefatigable awe of the great university founded by Holy Cross Father Edward Sorin in 1842 before Florida was a state, while pioneers were still trundling their hopes across the Oregon Trail. “There is something about the mystique of Notre Dame,” Jack says, “which crawls into your soul and spirit and occupies your mind. You love being there. You’re proud of being there.”

He never lost the thrill of spotting the Golden Dome across the miles as he approached the campus on the Indiana Toll Road, or crossing the campus under the splendid canopy of mature trees, passing the statue of Holy Cross Father William Corby giving general absolution and a blessing to the troops before the Battle of Gettysburg. Jack would often remind an audience that the sturdy yellow-brown bricks in the early buildings like Brownson Hall (where he later moved from Moreau) were shaped “a century ago from the marl of campus lakes.” Out of his corner window in Brownson, Jack looked down on a monastery garden seemingly lifted out of an Old World setting where St. Francis would have felt at home.

For Jack Egan, Moreau Seminary in August, 1970, was “an absolutely idyllic place to renew myself intellectually, spiritually, physically, and emotionally after a rigorous twenty-eight years in Chicago.” His host, the intense little Holy Cross Father Louis Putz, was a legend in his time. To the wondering new chaplain from Chicago, Putz’ heavy German accent, his monumental role in the Catholic Action movements, was linkage and bond to all the European lore and activism Egan had sought in France in 1953. Hadn’t the storied Canon Cardijn himself taught Putz those Jocist principles so crucial to Jack Egan’s personal development? Putz had come to Notre Dame as a refugee when war forced him out of Europe. Now Putz and Egan, chaplains to the Holy Cross seminarians and the diocesan seminarians, would be in daily contact. Putz would prove to be a good friend to this new priest coming in wide-eyed with newsboy adulation of the great Catholic university and butterfly-stomached before the academic stars on campus.

Jack recalls taking an art class, a Church history class, and a Bible class—“which I needed badly”—that first semester, under “master professors” like Holy Cross Father James Burtchaell (university provost) who developed into a “dear, dear friend,” even a “protector.” As Father Burtchaell sized up Jack’s position vis-a-vis Burtchaell as provost, “for the only time in his life Jack had perfection.” Burtchaell explains that Jack Egan needs “to be in touch with the boss, which he had with (cardinals) Stritch and Meyer.” At the university, Jack’s “boss” was Father Burtchaell. He had “me day and night,” Father Burtchaell says, “and as far as power goes, I had as much as anybody here. Jack was completely protected. If he came to see me and I said something would be done, he never had to fret about it. In Chicago, no one could deliver for sure. And then he had Ted (university president Theodore Hesburgh), not every day and every night, but in a sort of casual and grand way, although not easily scheduled. He had Ted to work with him on the geo-political order out there off campus.”

The backup of these two powerful men was extremely important to Jack Egan. Most priests who diverge from the narrow clerical paths stay out of their superiors’ way. The freedom they appropriate includes freedom from permission-seeking. Jack Egan, primed by his father to obedient submission, made a lifetime career of clearing every initiative with a superior. At seventy-three he wouldn’t write a letter for newspaper publication without consulting Father John Richardson, the president of DePaul University, whom he was serving as assistant. Jack Egan could resolutely push against the Church’s restrictions, but he could never breach them.

Jack Egan can describe his first years at Notre Dame as some of the happiest of his life because there he got total support and consummate approval. This was the ratification he had sought all his life. “Jack works hard to keep his relationship with the person in power clear, open, and benevolent,” Father Burtchaell says, “but he hardly had to work at it with me. I’d get occasionally annoyed when he’d come at me and obviously had a little plan to work carefully toward the point. I could always call Peggy afterward and say, `What’s going on?’ Peggy and I have always had a wonderful relationship.”

What Burtchaell and Hesburgh gave Jack Egan was a new freedom, a reversal of his situation in Chicago. Community activist Harry Fagan described Jack’s new billet as “an oasis Hesburgh created so Jack could have some independence.” In that freedom Jack Egan could concentrate on the community organization that was the love of his life after 1956 because it was a tool for retooling the conditions of the weak. In Jack Hill’s words, Egan believed “that the weak were not meant by some divine decree to remain weak.” Jack Egan had faith “that through community organization, as through a kind of secular sacrament, the weak can get power to make their lives whole. And that God will not mind at all.”

Jack Egan can’t pinpoint the moment he realized an individual alone can’t change the fabric of society, that individuals have to be organized to hold authority accountable in government—and in the Church. But that understanding is the source of his devotion to community organization. People who don’t have money or position have to use their numbers to get what they need. Jack knew which priests across the United States were helping people organize for this kind of change. He would create a refueling station for them at Notre Dame.

The Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry was already in place. Basically, it was a group of Irish priests (with the exception of Geno Baroni) who headed up the few justice and peace offices or diocesan offices of urban affairs there were in the country. According to one of them, New Yorker Father Philip Murnion, these priests “tended to have created their jobs or organization in connection with urban ministry. Very innovative types, very creative types, the first of whatever they were, the first urban ministry office directors, first heads of neighborhood organizations.” Jack Egan, as the very first diocesan director of an office of urban affairs, had “godfathered” many of them, “going around to different cities where they were trying to set up such an office and helping them.” Once he’d worked with them, according to Murnion, Jack never “felt any reluctance” at pulling them together for a seminar on interracial work or community organization or urban affairs. This is what he’d always done with the people he surrounded himself with.

The Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry had got its start in March 1967. About that time, black activist James Forman was pursuing the Protestant churches, particularly Riverside Church in New York City, for reparations for blacks. Forman made some Protestants and Jews nervous. To relieve the pressure Forman was putting on them, Protestant and Jewish church leaders organized a conduit to funnel money collectively into black community organizations. They invited Jack Egan to join the first board of their Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization. It was clear to Jack that there should be a Catholic on the IFCO board, but each member was expected to contribute a thousand dollars. Where could he find that amount?

When about seventeen of the people whose urban ministries Jack had godfathered met together at a convocation in Evanston, Illinois, in March 1967, he consulted them about an IFCO presence. Their response was to create the Catholic Committee on Community Organization to raise the money for the IFCO seat. Peggy Roach, also present, agreed to serve as CCCO secretary. Geno Baroni came out of the hotel room, banging his head with his hand, saying, “My God, I can’t believe we have started another Catholic organization.” Not Monsignor Baroni, nor any of that first seventeen, could have imagined what a sustaining scaffolding this fragile reed would prove to be.

When the group met in the summer of 1967 in conjunction with the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice in Kansas City, they changed their name to the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry. For the first few years their meetings were small, ad hoc, and piggybacked on other meetings these few urban ministers would be attending anyway. In 1970 there simply weren’t that many priests in social ministry, although a cadre of veterans of the civil rights movement—people who’d marched at Selma or with the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez—had awakened to the necessity for social ministry. However, New York activist Harry Fagan said of them that they had no place to plug in, “no place for support or sharing ideas, nothing like what we have today with the United States Catholic Conference and Catholic Charities and the Roundtable [an association of diocesan social action directors founded by Fagan].” Where they existed in 1970, social action types tended to find toleration, not solid support, in their chanceries.

They needed that place to plug into, some historical perspective, knowledge of wider communities, encouragement, reinforcement, and—as an important part of the package—joie de vivre. Now Jack (with Hesburgh’s help) could give them place at Notre Dame. Being Jack, he made it his business to put the other desirable elements in place.

Tom Broden, a law professor who directed the Institute of Urban Studies, remembers the first CCUM meeting at Moreau Seminary in the fall of 1970 as “twenty priests, Peggy, and me.” Jack challenged the group to have a big party and dissolve, or to make something of CCUM. Those present agreed on their general desire to continue. They were divided on whether they should expand. Some agreed with Jack that membership should be extended to all the community activists in the country, that together they should explore the theological underpinnings of urban ministry.

Others like Texas Father John McCarthy, later bishop of Austin, opposed growth. “Jack Egan, you will ruin CCUM if you open it up to everybody.” Jack compromised, consenting to two groups. The original members would constitute the twenty-person board to set policy and organize the agendas for the annual meetings and summer institutes. The larger group would be those who attended the programs.

The board was Jack’s construct, highly personal, idiosyncratic. “He played elder statesman,” fellow board member Phil Murnion says of Jack Egan, “even when he was a younger statesman.” A nun from Houston characterized CCUM types as outcasts. “We’re here,” she said, “to pat each other on the back and say, `What a great job you’ve been doing.’” If there wasn’t much outside support for what more traditional church types called rabble-rousers, they would provide support for each other. Jack, of course, was a master at bolstering people’s sense of self-esteem.

Jack was ready to recast anyone who felt like an outcast as an outflanker, outdistancer, outthinker, outsmarter. He would assure individuals that they could outshine, outrun, outspeak, outlast anybody. Weren’t these the people he expected to turn the Church around? Wasn’t this an historic occasion? Weren’t the people in this room the greatest community activists, quite possibly the greatest organizers, in the whole world?

Each person listening to his pitch felt it beamed directly at him or her. Aware as they were that Jack’s contacts and zealots ranged from Atlantic to Pacific, each of them construed his or her intimate personal relationship with Jack Egan as unique. Harry Browne (pastor of St. Gregory’s Church in New York City until 1970) tagged Jack’s mode of making people feel wonderful about themselves and their work, “Eganizing.” All CCUM members were Eganized. “The group that became the board,” Phil Murnion says, “while fighting and fussing over issues and strategies and stuff like that, had an enormous amount of personal care for each other. That tone was set very early.”

Part of Jack’s incisive thrust toward a person’s psychic jugular was his ability to hone in on need. Father Phil Murnion suggests that Jack Egan picked new board members as much for what CCUM could do for them as for what they could do for CCUM. It was something of a joke with the board that Jack Egan tended to find their new associates at airports. When he’d come back with his suggestions, the board would consider his candidates’ merits. According to Murnion, board member Pat Dolan capsulized the necessary qualifications for people joining the board: “The main quality is do they love us?” It was that kind of organization.

Harry Fagan loved them. He was director of the Commission on Catholic Community Action in Cleveland when he got a phone call from Jack Egan about joining the CCUM board. “It was a group of people I immediately felt very close to,” Fagan says. “It was odd. They were all where I was on social action, social justice, community organizing, in terms of Church.

“They had a kind of loyalty that was like family. It was okay to criticize because you knew deep down everyone had the same love for the Church.” The meetings were loose in the extreme. “No real elections,” Fagan says. “No votes, no Robert’s Rules.” He describes Jack (“I say this lovingly”) as the godfather of a “happy Mafia system.” When the group came together to plan something like the annual meeting in the fall or the summer institute, he was “the kind of godfather who would get us in a motel room for a couple of nights and we’d plan one of those things. We’d figure what courses, who would teach them.”

Jack made a point of mixing the academic intellectuals with the men in the front lines, stimulating both with the interchange. Historian David O’Brien describes how the CCUM experience “transformed my understanding of the intellectual life” after Jack Egan found O’Brien at an airport and put him on the board. O’Brien learned “enormous respect for the shock troops working in the Church’s most difficult ministries. I continually learned from them about faith and culture and politics, about power and its uses, and about the tough work of building democracy among real people.”

Jack meant the transformation should work both ways, and it did. O’Brien organized conferences (in those motel rooms in the middle of the night), taught in the summer training program, and traveled around the country giving talks and workshops for the eight years he was on the CCUM board. “I was awed by the experience of being told (by activists) they found my work useful and affirming, that they appreciated the critical lens I tried to hold up to their language and symbols as I tried with them to understand how to translate religious meanings and moral values into public practice.”

For O’Brien, dialogue with experienced, mature adults made abstract ideas real. He found this especially true when the dialogue was “moderated by the healthy, unromantic Catholic realism of the older generation . . . people like (Monsignor Jack) Egan and Monsignor George Higgins.”

O’Brien wrote in Cross Currents in 1990 that the experience awakened in him “a vision of academic intellectuals . . . enriched and empowered by serving the Church, which in turn was serving the human community.” Jack’s linkage had worked once again.

Another side of Jack at CCUM is revealed in Peggy Roach’s story of Sister Marjorie Tuite’s irritable reaction to it. Once huge sheets of newsprint listing speakers, times, phone numbers, for the “best annual meeting (or summer institute) the world has ever known” came out of the smoke-filled motel room, it was up to the Peggy Roaches and Jack Egans and Marjorie Tuites to divide up the list and make the calls, checking off carefully each acceptance on the newsprint. This was enough of a routine that Sister Marjorie Tuite was popularly known as “the newsprint lady.”

Each acceptance was followed up with a letter. That would seem to settle the matter, but Jack Egan always had an additional agenda. “You’ve got to find a place for Father Worthy-As-Can-Be.”—All right, we’ll give him this liturgy. “Sister Never-Gets-Credit would be so disappointed.”—Okay, she can chair this session. The list would lengthen and Marjorie Tuite’s irritation would grow.

Finally, perhaps when Jack was called to the Morris Inn on a pastoral matter, Marjorie would turn to Peggy, imitating Jack. Pursing her lips, she’d huff, “Can’t hurt this one. Can’t disappoint that one. Be nice to this nun. Peggy, do you realize we are working for a marshmallow?”

Peggy was well aware, but it amused her enough to repeat the Tuite remark to Jack when he came in from his pastoral luncheon, asking, “How are things going?”

“Jack,” she said, “Marjorie says you are a marshmallow. Can’t hurt this nun! Mustn’t disappoint that priest!”

Laughing, Jack would answer from the high that he experienced when he—and the work—was on a CCUM roll. “Jesus was a marshmallow,” he would allow, checking the newsprint sheets to be sure that Father-Must-Be-Included was on the roster. At times like this, Jack couldn’t be put down. Jack was happy. He had his new group.

Next Chapter . . .