An Alley in Chicago


Monsignor John Egan is a name I have heard all my life as a priest. We were ordained within two months and 100 miles of each other during May and June of 1943. More important than name recognition is the fact that our lives have crossed on many occasions, but mainly during three time periods.

The first period covers roughly the quarter of a century following our ordinations. We intersected in the early years because we were both involved in Catholic Action when it was quite avant-garde to do so. Young Catholic Students really began at Notre Dame under Father Louis Putz. Young Catholic Workers were midwifed into being by Monsignor Reynold Hillenbrand and his phalanx of eager young priests like Jack Egan. My doctoral thesis in 1945 on the theology of Catholic Action made me part of the scene.

My first assignment as President of Notre Dame in 1952 was to address the first conference of the Christian Family Movement on campus. All of the lay leadership for CFM in those days came out of Chicago, with Pat and Patty Crowley.

Jack Egan was a pioneer. As the chairman of our Theology Department, Father Dick McBrien, puts it, Jack was “a pioneer in the marriage and family apostolate, a pioneer in the urban ministry apostolate, a pioneer in the lay apostolate, a pioneer in the building of priests’ associations, a pioneer in inner city (minority) ministry, a pioneer in community organization, a pioneer in priestly ministry as a ministry to the whole Church and to the whole of society.”

This fascinating book by Margery Frisbie is the story of Jack Egan’s pioneering work in these apostolates, all rather unusual and innovative in the Pre-Vatican II Church. In fact, he and other Chicago priests laid the groundwork for much that was later outlined in the Council regarding ministry.

The second phase of my relationship with Jack Egan began when I met him one day in the Chicago airport. He looked awful: wan, drawn and pale. “Jack,” I said, “you look like my father’s colorful expression `hell hit with a shovel.’” He admitted things were going pretty badly so I came up with a radical suggestion: “Why don’t you come down to Notre Dame for a sabbatical year (a year off)? You can take some theology courses, read a lot of good books, enjoy the exhilarating atmosphere of a front line university, and get generally renewed in spirit.”

He asked, “You mean it?” I answered, “I mean it.” He cleared it with Cardinal Cody. I wrote, too, and the cardinal said okay. He was probably glad to get Jack off center stage in all the racial problems then afflicting Chicago. The second stage began quietly and lasted thirteen years. Great years for Jack and great years for Notre Dame, too. The first year was really rehabilitation, spiritually and humanly.

As the year drew to a close, it was evident to me that Jack could contribute more to making Notre Dame a vital leader in the new Church apostolates than he could contribute to the work of the Church in a fairly hostile Chicago environment. Again, Jack and I wrote Cardinal Cody and received permission for Jack to stay at Notre Dame. This book chronicles all that happened as Jack became my assistant for Notre Dame’s role in all Church affairs, the director of a new Institute of Pastoral and Social Ministry, the national leader of the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry with summer school each year at Notre Dame, and other meaningful endeavors (like a summer school for new bishops) that made the university so much more relevant for the Church. Blessed years, great work on the part of Jack and his indomitable assistant, Peggy Roach. Like my secretary of thirty-eight years, Peggy Roach doubled and tripled Jack’s effectiveness in his national apostolates. Someone said, cynically, that Peggy did all the organizing and Jack got all the credit. It really wasn’t that way. Each had a very important and different role to play. Together, they made it work. It’s called symbiosis.

All good things come to an end. Chicago finally had a wonderful new cardinal, Joseph Bernardin, so it was time for Jack to return to his home city and archdiocese, and to help the new cardinal with his urban and ecumenical challenges. Jack is doing superbly during this third part of his life, still in progress.

In a day when many stories about priests are not all that illuminating and edifying, here is a story of a diocesan priest who started with fairly ordinary talents and by the work of the Holy Spirit built them into an extraordinary priestly life. Jack is very close to thousands of souls he has served unstintingly. He has been support and inspiration to many, especially other priests, always far beyond the call of duty, answering the higher call of love, justice, and social concern.

Father Egan—you’ll be a better Christian for knowing him, and a better human being after learning of the broad sweep of his humanity.

Jack Egan—a priest for all seasons. May his tribe increase.

—Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.
    President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame
    Notre Dame, Indiana
    7 March 1991

Next Chapter . . .