An Alley in Chicago

“We Had Great People, and a Heck of a Lot of Fun”

At Presentation Jack Egan had been frustrated in his attempts to empower the people. He’d preached at the churches from his Chicago pulpit, suggesting that, “People who came from Eastern Europe and Ireland didn’t receive the kind of moral teaching to put the sin of racism into its proper context affecting their lives and the nations.” He’d warned the National Federation of Priests’ Councils in 1969 that many lay organizations were “far ahead” of the Church “in committing their power and money to the fight against racism and poverty.” He had told a lay apostolate convention that parish churches should be using their purchasing power to fight racial discrimination.

He’d even tried to convert Sears Roebuck whose Homan Avenue headquarters was within the boundaries of Presentation Parish. He brought them his vision of how their corporate power together with the generous government programs of the late sixties could turn all of the Lawndale neighborhood around. He thought he had an inside track because Bill Dooley, the president of the Sears bank, had been an active Cana worker. Monsignor Egan did not prevail.

Now the ever-sanguine Jack Egan brought the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry to the Notre Dame campus as a way of continuing community organizing. CCUM, as he and Peggy often said, was ministry to the ministers, ministry to those empowering the poor. In the process, CCUM people were empowered as individuals. Phil Murnion gets back to the charge that Jack did his recruiting in airports. “That wasn’t entirely true, but it wasn’t entirely false, either.” Murnion says CCUM was, “in language that most of the board members would have rejected, a support group.” He agrees it was also “national actions and programmatic stuff.”

Meetings were like family dinners. Board members fought with each other over actions. “At one point,” Murnion says, “when we invited some other people on board and they made a motion, nobody knew what to do with them. A person was scorned for any suggestion that was the way to move the action. You just fought until somebody won.” It didn’t much matter who won anyway if it was true, as Murnion remembers, that in a sense (another half-truth, he says) “we would fight and make decisions and then go home and Jack and Peggy would do whatever they wanted to do. And that was all right with people. There was enough trust that if Jack and Peggy changed something, it was for a good reason.”

After all, “a good bit of CCUM,” Murnion says, “was giving Jack and Peggy a base to do what Jack always does whether he’s at Notre Dame or Chicago or DePaul, i.e., function as advocate/supporter/confidant/encourager. (People outside normal systems) always have to establish their place because there is no place other than that they establish. In urban ministry, expertise is not the issue. Connectedness is the issue, building enduring relationships.”

For Jack Egan, Murnion says, “people are his capital. That’s what he draws on. The key question is, `Who gets the Rolodex?’” Sometimes this backfires as it did when Peggy Roach was sent to Washington with the Rolodex to bring in campaigners for U.S. presidential candidate George McGovern. Monsignor Geno Baroni had told the CCUM board, “Someone has to get George McGovern elected.” There was a lot of sympathy for Peggy on that Quixotic crusade because, as Murnion says, “People who care about them care about them both, and care that Peggy be well respected in the process.”

Murnion describes the urgency and drama that Jack gave to every CCUM meeting. Every meeting was historic, of course, and every participant full of talent. “The board’s reaction,” Murnion says, “was affectionate mockery when Jack would tell each of them that he or she was the most important whatever. Jack has probably told a hundred people that he wants them to preach his eulogy.” But as hard-nosed an activist as Tom Gaudette agrees that even as people see through Egan’s panegyrics, they are grateful to be taken in by them.

Actually, Jack was right about the 1970s being an historic moment in the Church. The whole justice issue was being recognized. It was at their synod in 197l that the bishops declared that action for justice was constitutive to the preaching of the Gospel. This was taken immediately as a mandate for CCUM. Soon, Jack says, “we saw social action and peace and justice efforts become firmly established in most, if not all, of the dioceses as well as in the religious orders throughout the country.” CCUM grew along with this movement, functioning as a network to bring together persons and organizations addressed to human problems and social justice issues.

CCUM trained, in Jack’s estimation, “a whole generation of priests, Sisters, and lay people on the depth of the social teaching of the Catholic Church.” Participants at the annual meetings and summer institutes learned the theological dimensions of that social teaching, and how to use it in pastoral work.

The week-long annual meeting, and the very intensive four-week summer program were the two conduits to offer “the best of teachers, liturgists, historians to bring participants up-to-date on the teachings of Vatican II, newest developments in pastoral theology, implications of Catholic social teaching, affairs of state, and the possible effects of pending legislation.”

As soon as Tom Broden had assigned Jack and Peggy an office in the Knute Rockne building, Jack had begun dialing people like Tom Gaudette. “Tom, I need you now. Could you come down to Moreau Seminary? There’s some great people I’d like you to meet.”

“[That kind of invitation] was always a trap,” Gaudette grins wryly. “After you arrived, Egan would say, `I didn’t tell you why I wanted you to come down here. I’d like you to give a two-hour talk.’” This was part of CCUM’s informality and Jack Egan’s genius for bringing in people from the field to give an accurate picture of the community organizing scene.

For an ad hoc group, CCUM accomplished a great deal. According to author David Finks, CCUM’s brain trust put two members on the U.S. Catholic Conference social action staff in Washington, D.C., and built a lobby to work on church social programming. CCUM developed diocesan urban ministry programs, social action for seminary field education, the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, and the first study conference bringing together social activist CCUM members, the Catholic Theological Society of America, and the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Jack Egan remembers “a few of our people who gathered together in Combermere, Canada, up where the Baroness de Hueck was, after Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty, put together the fundamentals for the Campaign for Human Development. We then met with Cardinal Dearden, president of the American bishops, and sold him on the program. Cardinal Dearden sold the other bishops.”

For the first spring CCUM meeting, the twenty-five originals worked out a program attractive enough to bring ninety-two of their peers—now including women religious—to a March 1971 gathering on the Notre Dame campus. Gaudette who found it all marvelously exciting—“great fun”—describes how, typically, Egan would raise the current issues for the assembly. The Berrigans in prison. A Black Catholic office struggling because it was broke. A famous priest in Cairo getting his rectory windows broken. Another priest “getting the hell beat out of him.”

“By four-thirty,” Gaudette says, “we had everybody pitching in. Egan loved it.” And so did Gaudette. “It was a ball. The atmosphere was fun. Peggy was the creator of the whole thing. Egan was up front; he took the credit. This is where you met everybody, the unions, the gays, the women who wanted to be cardinals—this is twenty years ago when women were just beginning to want to be cardinals—the poets, the workers, the prisoners. This was real Church, working Church. Everybody used their skills. We never went to bed. You could be serious. You could be silly. It was marriage between the Church and the real world.”

Jack Egan worked to keep CCUM within bounds. He agrees with Gaudette that “we had great, great people, and a heck of a lot of fun.” He stresses the lifelong relationships established, and the social development. “Peggy and I brought to the Notre Dame campus extraordinary people, the best of the thinkers in the U.S. and European Church.” He was also careful to keep CCUM respectable. “There was no dancing at Mass, nothing experimental, no consecrating pancakes,” Father Murnion recalls.

Jack Egan could see that the action people were beginning to look at Notre Dame as a mecca. “What we were doing was developing a consciousness in the university that there was a world outside Notre Dame, and opening the university to the needs of the people in the world.”

Dick Conklin, Director of the Department of Information Services, watched Jack Egan become “an important part of Notre Dame” as he carried out Father Hesburgh’s mandate to put the resources of the university at the service of the Church. As the “linkage between Notre Dame and urban ministry,” Jack succeeded, according to Conklin, in developing a sensitivity to social issues on the campus as well as that campus connection with the wider Church. Conklin admits there was tension. “Academics sometimes view advocate people with suspicion.” But he recalls Jack succeeding “well in establishing credibility with faculty people. I think you can look at certain things happening today (that testify to Jack’s influence). For instance, Notre Dame has put $400,000 in a homeless shelter in South Bend in cooperation with the city and volunteer communities. That is a departure.”

Additionally, Conklin suggests that through “Jack Egan and other people like (Father) Don McNeil (who developed the Urban Plunge program with Father Egan), we have got the thread of justice and peace issues woven into the community in a way they simply were not ten years ago, twenty years ago . . . Jack Egan was a very important agent of change in terms of the way the university views its education mission vis-a-vis social justice issues.” Conklin says the “university is more likely to look at (social ministry and urban problems) for Jack Egan’s having been there.”

Jack Egan reached out from Notre Dame to Harry Browne, long-time activist pastor of St. Gregory’s church in the Strykers Bay area of Manhattan. “I wasn’t much for going to national Catholic meetings,” this colorful (later resigned) priest reflected as he looked back on his life when he was terminally ill with leukemia in 1980, “but Jack seduced me out to them. Of course, he had the skills of organizing. He knew if you gave Browne a chance to talk, he’d crawl across the country.”

By that time Browne had done enough work in the Strykers Bay neighborhood that, “I could pontificate on schools, poverty programs, health care systems, and varieties of housing,” Browne says. He describes Jack Egan’s jaunty hyperbole. “It didn’t take long for me to appreciate Jack’s rhetoric and his little old manipulating ways leading you down the primrose path.”

Harry Browne, who christened “Eganizing,” admitted to being Eganized. It was another term for what Father John Fitzsimons characterized as “good” manipulation. However expressed, this was the power behind the success of the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry. At first, Harry Browne reacted by thinking there was some pertinent content not being mentioned. “But then it all becomes a blur of Jack’s presence like a great sun over the shoulder of my ministry.”

Browne could laugh at himself. “I know it is extreme,” he conceded, “to compare anybody in your life with sunshine, making yourself the heliotrope. But the sun was constant and taken for granted. Jack’s warming glow on your efforts, his continual presence . . . when he knew you were into something he’d be there with an encouraging call or a note.” Harry Browne left his pastorate at St. Gregory’s in 1970. “(Jack’s) offer to come and be of any help came as a kind of pleasant shock to me. I didn’t know what he could do, so I did nothing, but just the thought that he was there and would call just to check in was comforting. He has never missed a chance to back a faltering brother or sister.”

As an activist, Browne was a guy who thought he needed no support. “I was too busy browbeating everybody in the field. I had no need to be loved by the bishop or else go into a purple funk.” What he learned from Father Philip Murnion (who lived in Browne’s rectory while a student at Columbia and succeeded Jack Egan as CCUM chairperson) was that, whether Browne acknowledged it or not, he was getting constant support from his reference group, “the people with whom I could compare my successes and failures, and exchange ideas. I never went to a CCUM board meeting or conference without coming back in a high—in a physical and liver low, but a high intellectually and spiritually.”

Peggy Roach remembers Harry Browne greeting Jack Egan with a hearty kiss on his bald pate at every CCUM gathering. That tied into the story she often repeats about Harry Browne’s perennial answer to questions about his concern for the attitude of the New York Archdiocesan Chancery Office toward his social action. “I don’t care what they think,” was Browne’s fixed rejoinder. “It’s what that little bald-headed guy in Chicago thinks that I care about.” Browne guessed that he had referred to Jack Egan hundreds of times as the “Underground Eminence of the American Church.” For Browne, Jack demonstrated that position “in his many ways of connecting the boondock and love-bureaucracy social justice caring ones around the country.”

By the fall of 1975, seven hundred CCUM “change-agents” gathered at Notre Dame for a five-day conference on “Coalition Building: A Strategy for Justice.” By now, CCUM membership was over three thousand. Sixties activists who’d burned out were regrouping. As one religious leader told Father Egan, “Jack, I’ve got my second wind. I’m ready to go again.”

However, the newly formed program of pastoral theology to which Jack had been invited as a Senior Fellow “never got off the ground,” in Jack’s words. Jack Egan had suffered another setback in the area of pastoral theology before Father Hesburgh singled him out to add some heft to Notre Dame’s experimental pastoral theology program. That assignment came from his friend, Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta. Jack was to organize a study of the pastoral aspects in the priesthood in the spirit of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. That constitution states that “the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherliness which allows honest dialogue and invigorates it.” Seemingly, the Church was going to indulge in some honest dialogue of its own.

Other research groups would dig into clerical psychology (headed by author/psychologist Eugene Kennedy), sociology (headed by University of Chicago-trained Father Andrew Greeley), ecumenism (headed by the future William Cardinal Baum), history (headed by church historian Father Robert Trisco of Catholic University of America), and liturgy (Father Fred McManus).

Jack assembled what he considered a “competent team of (Protestant and Catholic) theologians, sociologists, and pastoral ministers” to formulate a questionnaire on pastoral considerations to be sent to priests’ senates and associations. In addition, they compiled a mailing list of seventy-five major superiors of religious orders, male and female, approximately fifty theologians, seventy-five Catholic lay men and women, and one hundred Protestant clergy and theologians. Thirty-two of the fifty superiors of female religious groups returned reports, according to the study. Because most of them conducted group sessions, the number of individuals who actually influenced the final tabulation was over three hundred.

The team billed their report to the bishops as descriptive, not scholarly. Jack thought it was a good, even prophetic, piece of work. Unfortunately, he couldn’t deliver it to Archbishop Hallinan who died during the study. As had happened before when Jack had lost a sponsor during a controversial project, he was now bare to the winds. And he felt their chill. First, from fellow research chairperson Andrew Greeley who denounced the pastoral ministry study. In what Jack remembers as a scathing letter to John Cardinal Krol, General Chairman, and Bishop Joseph Bernardin, at that time Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Greeley called the Egan study superficial and an interference with his own sociological paper.

Jack was also excoriated for his expense account. Having been given the responsibility to study in depth the life and ministry of the priests of the United States, Father Egan confidently spent what he considered a modest $10,000. He knew Father Greeley’s study was billed at $250,000. The comparison did not save him. He had not gotten prior clearance. When he presented his budget, he was roundly criticized. While Father Greeley’s study was widely circulated, Jack’s study was ignored because Greeley had put it down. Again, as when he’d testified alone against the University of Chicago’s urban renewal, Jack was chilled by cold shoulders from his fellow clerics.

However, this time there was a difference. Father Hesburgh continued to be impressed by Jack and Peggy’s abilities. After their first year, he’d called Jack into his cluttered, unpretentious office under Notre Dame’s golden dome where he worked to a great hour every night. He was gratified by the caliber of people CCUM had brought on the campus. “It’d be a shame if you and Peggy should leave now when what you have started is so good. So helpful for the university.” To Father Hesburgh, Jack Egan was an valuable asset. Nationally, “Jack was in touch with anyone doing anything,” Father Hesburgh recalls. On campus, “being gregarious, Jack knew everybody in five minutes. Everybody liked him very much. He found something good in everyone.” For Hesburgh, inviting Jack to Notre Dame was a suggestion that had worked out. “They don’t all.”

Hesburgh and Egan shared a common vision of their use to the world, and the university’s use to the world. “A university is a place where the Church can face problems in full freedom,” Father Hesburgh says. “Everybody around here talks when they feel like it, I think in a responsible way. Freedom is the lifeblood of a university.” Talking to Eugene Kennedy for his book Believing, Father Hesburgh described his life as “on the fringes of the Church. Most of the things that I have been a part of, I have not only been the only priest but also the only Catholic present. And my value to these people on commissions and committees came from trying to bring some deeper dimension of faith.”

Like Father Hesburgh, Jack Egan saw himself on the fringes of the Church, bringing “deeper dimensions” to committees and boards. Like Father Hesburgh, he professed a faith with a horizontal dimension. Jack shared Father Hesburgh’s notion that, “If you really believe in the Incarnation, you understand that the vertical dimension (person to God) is only meaningful if it is expressed horizontally (person to person),” and, “You have to have faith in what man can be if he is cared for.”

This faith undergirded Jack’s work to make Notre Dame the center for Catholic social thinking in the United States from CCUM’s March meeting in 1971 until 1978. Holy Cross Father Jim Burtchaell says that, “Actually, for the activist part of the post-Vatican II Church there was no place like here (Notre Dame), and Jack had a lot to do with that.” He adds that Jack Egan’s ambassadorial work for Father Hesburgh “greatly improved our relationship with the clerical Church. He gave the place credibility.” Father Hesburgh’s reputation achieved the same goal, “but no one ever saw Ted.”

Father Hesburgh put the period at the end of that sentence when he called Jack about eleven one night in the spring of 1976. “I’d like to talk to you about something.” This was another of those command appearances, arranged by phone, with pivotal consequences in Jack’s life. In this case, the consequences would extend to the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry. How would Father Egan have replied to the university president’s offer if he had known how the decision he was about to make would affect his beloved CCUM? That CCUM would be a only a memory in ten years?

Next Chapter . . .