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Eileen Egan, pacifist, helped start Pax Christi

By ANTONIA S. MALONE Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New York

Eileen Egan, one of the leading U.S. Catholic pacifists of the past century whose friends included two of the most influential women in modern Catholicism, died Saturday at St. Vincent’s Hospital here. She was 88.

Egan was official biographer of and co-worker with Mother Teresa of Calcutta and a friend and close associate of Dorothy Day. She was a contributing editor of The Catholic Worker, the newspaper started by Day, and a co-founder of Pax Christi USA. A prolific author and long-time project coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, Egan was a staunch pacifist and a civil rights activist who participated in the 1965 march on Selma, Ala.

Her death came on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity with whom Egan had close ties.

Among the hundreds attending the Oct. 11 funeral in New York’s St. Stephen of Hungary Church were peace activists and people from Catholic Worker houses, 20 of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and Bishop John Ricard of Catholic Relief Services and Auxiliary Bishop Robert A. Brucato of New York.

Celebrant Franciscan Fr. Vianney Devlin, parochial vicar of St. Stephen’s, called Egan “the enfleshment of the Beatitudes,” recalling that Egan often said, “If only people would read and listen to the Sermon on the Mount, to the beatitudes, how much better this world would be.”

Eileen Mary Egan was born in Protestant Wales of Irish immigrants, Jeremiah and Mary Egan. Throughout her life, she credited her mother as her first teacher of peace. It was from her mother, she said, that she learned Gandhian nonviolence and ecumenism.

When the Egan family immigrated to New York in 1926, Eileen was enrolled in Cathedral High School. Academically advanced for her age, she graduated in 1929 and received a scholarship to Hunter College. There she joined the Newman Club for Catholic students, the Literacy Club, and she befriended Joy Davidson, later the wife of author C.S. Lewis. In 1983, Egan was named to the Hunter Hall of Fame.

By the onset of World War II, Egan was a confirmed pacifist with a desire to do something to help those suffering the scourge of war, while at the same time playing an active part in supporting those who opposed the war. Although she initially felt her efforts would be best served in the offices of The Catholic Worker, the newspaper founded in 1933 by Day and Peter Maurin, Egan became instead a freelance journalist in World War II Europe. This experience led her to want to do more than chronicle suffering. In 1943, she joined the newly formed Catholic Relief Services, an organization started by the American Catholic church to meet the needs of people made homeless and poor by war. She served the organization more than 40 years.

Whenever she was in New York, she wrote articles for The Catholic Worker, served soup and gave talks on her work abroad for the Catholic Worker family at its E. second Street location.

In an interview before receiving the Catholic Women of Achievement Award from The College of St. Elizabeth in 1997, she described her life journey. “My life has had a single strain. To see Jesus in every human being, to realize that each one is inviolable and sacred in the eyes of God, and then to translate that into everything I do. This is the heart of anything I’ve done, the heart of my peace work.”

Because of her fluency in Spanish, her first assignment with Catholic Relief Services was in Mexico, where, in 1943, she worked in the first displaced persons camp of World War II. There she helped resettle Polish refugees who had been released from Siberian forced labor camps. For six months, she recorded the stories of hundreds of orphans whose parents had died on the trek through Siberia and across India, Australia, New Zealand and finally the Pacific Ocean to Leon in the province of Guanajuato, Mexico. The heart-wrenching story is vividly recounted in her book, For Whom There is no Room, Paulist Press, 1995.

In 1944, she went from Mexico to Spain, where she opened an office for Catholic Relief Services in Barcelona and, in collaboration with the Society of Friends and other relief organizations, offered aid to refugees from Lithuania, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Holland, France and Germany. This was followed by a period in the agency office in Lisbon, Portugal.

She returned to the United States in 1945 for surgery and worked for several months at Catholic Relief Services headquarters on the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. She was sick at home on the day in July of that year when a B-45 bomber crashed into the 79th floor, killing 11 of the agency’s staff.

At war’s end, when the Allies entered Germany to liberate the now-infamous prisoner of war camps, millions of German women and children were barely surviving in Germany’s blitzed cities. Catholic Relief Services and other groups applied for permission to assist the starving people. Under the Trading with the Enemy Act, the request was denied, but after an emergency meeting of UNICEF, which Egan attended, and subsequent appeals, permission was granted, and the Council of Relief Agencies Licensed for Operation in Germany was set up. For her part in organizing this effort, Egan was elected chairman of Catholic Relief Services under the Council of Relief Agencies and was later awarded the Medal of Gratitude by the French Government and the Order of Merit, Germany’s highest civilian decoration.

In 1996, Catholic Relief Services honored her by creating the Eileen Egan Journalism Awards. These annual awards are given to journalists, working for Catholic newspapers, who have “helped to educate the people of the United States to fulfill their moral responsibilities in alleviating human suffering, removing its causes and promoting social justice in developing countries.”

Egan’s association with Mother Teresa began in 1955 on a Catholic Relief Services mission to Calcutta, India. At that time, Mother Teresa was not yet well known. Against much local opposition, she had just founded her first Home for the Dying, a place for street persons to die with dignity.

Mother Teresa took Egan on a tour. Egan often recounted her memories of that tour and “the outstretched hands waving feebly, using what infinitesimal strength was left in search for human consolation.” She remembered how she turned away in horror, unable to reach out, and was filled with shame. Returning to Calcutta in 1958 as a representative of Catholic Relief Services, she spent time working with the dying and discovered that in the practical work her horror and shame were lessened.

At that time, Egan began to take extensive notes on the work of Mother Teresa and her sisters, and to travel with them all over the world. These notes were eventually to become her book Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa -- The Spirit and the Work, (Doubleday, 1985), which won for her the Christopher Book Award.

Egan’s horror of war and her religious convictions led her in the 1960s to become a co-founder of the American Pax Association, which under her and Gordon Zahn’s guidance was to become Pax Christi, the American branch of the international Catholic peace movement. Her active involvement with Pax Christi and her dedication to the gospel of nonviolence continued until her death. She was to be a recipient of Pax Christi’s Paul VI, Teacher of Peace Award, and one of the organization’s first Ambassadors of Peace. In July 2000, she received the Pax Christi Book Award for her latest book Peace Be With You: Justified Warfare and the Way of Nonviolence, Orbis Press, 1999.

In 1965 Egan, Dorothy Day, Gordon Zahn, Jim Douglass and Richard Carbrey, all notable Catholic peace activists, had gone to Rome for the last session of Vatican II to lobby the bishops to include in their documents the right of conscientious objection and a strong antiwar statement. Thanks perhaps to their extensive efforts and the fasting of Day and others, the final version of “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” contains a denunciation of any attack on population centers with weapons of mass destruction. It calls such an act “a crime against God and man himself that merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” The document also affirms nonviolence and the right to conscientious objection.

Thirty-five years later, over 100 American bishops are members of Pax Christi USA. In their 1983 landmark pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” Egan is the only woman footnoted. Through Pax Christi’s efforts under the leadership of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, the pastoral affirmed nonviolence as a legitimate, gospel-based Christian response to war. Egan wrote at that time, “The love that Jesus taught was to envelop enemies as well as friends. It is not simply a passive emotion. …The so-called “just war” concept is an alien graft on the gospel of Jesus.”

In the 1970s, as a delegate of the Catholic Relief Services to UNESCO, Egan had prepared a resolution for presentation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission declaring that every human being has the right to refuse to take up arms against fellow human beings, if one’s conscience so dictates. Under the auspices of Pax Christi’s nongovernmental organization status, which she arranged, she continued to advocate for this provision year after year until 1987 when the declaration of the right to conscientious objection was finally placed in the book of U.N. statutes. A firm supporter of the work of the United Nations, she continued to visit and provide support and advice to Pax Christi’s nongovernmental organization delegates to the United Nations until her death.

The list of awards and honorary doctorates Egan received as well as the extensive catalog of her writings and books could fill many pages, but perhaps the true measure of a person is seen more often in their actions than in their words. Eileen Egan proved that once again when in 1992 she made headlines in The New York Times. After being the victim of a violent street mugging that broke her hip and several ribs, she forgave her assailant, a homeless man, at his trial and over the years attempted to follow his progress and extend assistance to him.

Egan is survived by her sisters, Benedictine Sr. Kathleen Egan of Atchison, Kan., and Mabel Egan Gil of Albany, N.Y., a brother, Jerome Egan, of New York, and 11 nieces and nephews. Two other brothers, James Egan and Br. John Mark Egan preceded her in death.

Antonia Malone, a long-time friend of Eileen Egan, is a professor of religious studies at Seton Hall University. She is a member of Pax Christi USA.

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000