e-mail us


Msgr. Jack Egan:
activist, reformer, a ‘city’s conscience’

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Soon after Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Francis E. George, was installed in May 1997, he hosted a reception for the archdiocesan clergy. Although a native of Chicago, George is a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and had spent much time away from Chicago. He knew only a handful of his priests.

When the reception ended, a staff member asked him: “How did you like it?”

“I enjoyed it,” the future cardinal answered. “I met Jack Egan.”

On May 19, Msgr. John J. Egan, the priest whose battles for social justice, racial equality and a strong Catholic commitment to urban ministry made him one of America’s best-known and admired priests, died of the cardiovascular disease that had plagued him for two decades.

While the 84-year-old priest could barely breathe that day, it is typical that he had talked about getting up to attend the ordination of 10 new archdiocesan priests that morning at Holy Name Cathedral where he had lived since 1982.

Though Egan in private would pointedly criticize some church developments or omissions and churchmen’s actions, he was fiercely loyal.

“I’ve survived. I’ve hung in there,” he told a reporter in an interview a few years ago. “I love being a priest. It’s been a great life. I love working the curb outside the church after Mass. I don’t like calculated moments.”

But Fr. “Jack” did much more than work the curb. According to Fr. Robert McLaughlin, pastor of the cathedral, “He was the city’s conscience.” In fact, his influence spread far beyond the vast archdiocese. He cultivated seeds of social activism that would attack and in some cases break down the barriers of racism across the country.

Born in New York City in 1916, he came to Chicago as a child. After a few years of study at DePaul University, he entered the archdiocesan seminary and was ordained in 1943.

During his seminary years, he came under the influence of the legendary Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, who transformed seminary education in America. Hillenbrand in turn admired the work of the Belgian priest, Canon (later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers and Young Christian Students movements. Egan would serve both as chaplain.

Cardijn personally influenced Egan on Catholic social issues. The other main sources of personal inspiration that shaped Egan were Pat and Patty Crowley, founders of the Christian Family Movement, and Saul Alinsky, a maverick community organizer.

Egan and the Crowleys were products of the Catholic Action movement, brought together through the Pre-Cana and Cana Conferences and Egan’s chaplaincy of both.

Alinsky, author of the pivotal book Reveille for Radicals (University of Chicago Press, 1947) contacted Egan through his friend, Jacques Maritain, the famous French convert and Thomist philosopher, who taught briefly at the University of Chicago.

Alinsky and Egan initiated a friendship that would last until Alinsky’s death in 1972.

Alinsky strengthened Egan’s resolve.

“Make up your mind, Jack,” Alinsky said, “whether you want to be a priest or a bishop. All other decisions will flow from that one.”

Not many years later, the priest took on the powerful Richard J. Daley and the University of Chicago, both with deep pockets and media influence. The issue was race. It was a sad chapter in the histories of a great mayor and a great university. Egan was virtually isolated and pilloried. He lost the battle but he ultimately won the war.

Jack Egan was the archdiocesan director of the Office of Urban Affairs from 1958 until 1969. Under Cardinals Samuel Stritch (1939-1958) and Albert Meyer (1958-1965) his work flourished. But when the autocratic Cardinal John Cody (1965-1982) arrived, Egan’s budget dried up. He was assigned to the ailing Presentation Parish on Chicago’s Westside.

In 1965, Egan marched in Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The picture of the two clergymen facing obvious danger inspired other clergy to join the ranks. “It was issues like that which kept me in the priesthood,” he would recall years later.

In 1970, during a chance meeting at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, invited Egan to South Bend, Ind., where he served as an assistant to the president and director of the Institute for Pastoral and Social Ministry. When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1982-1996) was named archbishop, he asked Egan to return to Chicago. Egan served as director of the Office of Ecumenism and Human Relations until 1986. At 70, he retired from that office and went to DePaul to work on urban issues.

Egan served for two terms on the National Catholic Reporter board of directors, and was on numerous other boards until age and infirmity forced his retirement. He continued, however, to speak and to write letters to bishops, politicians, newspapers and other publications. The letters were always pointed, and the phone calls were perfectly aimed. He always gave his targets some wiggle room. At his death, he was organizing opposition to the payday loan sharks who lend money to poor people at exorbitant rates of interest in anticipation of a paycheck. (A $100, seven-day loan can easily cost $140.)

Egan loved his priesthood but often stated that what sustained him in his vocation was the laity. He worked with local and national groups and, with his capacity for remembering names, stayed close to many people. He lived long enough to see much of his work recognized. He was the recipient of over half a dozen honorary degrees -- including one from Notre Dame and one from DePaul. He received numerous awards from unions and other organizations.

“I wanted to succeed,” he said. “I wanted to be wanted. Now that I’ve achieved everything I set out to achieve, I’m left with the question of whether or not I’ve become a holy person. I’m not at all sure.”

The people who came to his wake and funeral were more than certain.

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001