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Cover Story
Msgr. Egan delivers a speech at St. Ann Parish, 18th Street.
By Mary Claire Gart

sgr. John J. Egan was remembered as a priest’s priest or a layperson’s priest— depending on who was recalling the 84-year-old monsignor whose funeral Mass was celebrated May 23 at Holy Name Cathedral.

Msgr. Egan died at Holy Name Rectory on May 19, at the same time 10 men were being ordained in the cathedral. “He was very weak and he had difficulty breathing,” said cathedral pastor Father Robert McLaughlin. “But he wanted to pray for those being ordained, that they’d be good priests.”

Learning of Msgr. Egan’s death during the ordination liturgy, Cardinal George told those in attendance that “a great priest has gone back to God.”

Though the priesthood and the Eucharist were central to his life, said his biographer Margery Frisbie, he wanted to be known as “a layperson’s priest,” she said.

“At his first assignment, St. Justin Martyr, he introduced himself in the neighborhood, visiting homes and asking people what he could do for them,” said Frisbie, whose biography, “An Alley in Chicago” was published in 1991.

Missed Wisdom:
Tom Sheridan's thoughts on Msgr. Egan, in this week's Observations

“Chicago was his life,” she said, “and he wanted to bring the church to all of the city. When he was pastor of Presentation, he brought in seminarians to help him visit parishioners and that resulted in the Contract Buyers League (which helped end exploitative lending practices).”

Fair housing practices were only one of the issues that concerned the activist priest, said McLaughlin, ticking off a list that included labor, racial justice, support for the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless and Deborah’s Place.

“He was furious that payday loans were permitted when he saw what they did,” said McLaughlin. “He maintained his passion for the cause of justice until the very end.”

Cardinal George echoed that thought, saying, “Up to the end of his life, Msgr. Egan was very concerned for the poor and about the social dimension of the Gospel.”

The man who became so identified with urban issues in Chicago was born in New York City on Oct. 9, 1916. His family moved to Chicago when young Jack Egan was 6 and enrolled him at St. Mel School on the West Side. He completed grade school at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish (North Ashland) and then attended DePaul Academy.

After a year at DePaul University, he left to study for the priesthood at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. He was ordained in 1943 for the Chicago Archdiocese.

In addition to parish ministry during his first years as a priest, then-Father Egan was chaplain to the Young Christian Workers from 1943 to 1955 and the Christian Family Movement from 1947 to 1953.

From 1946 to 1959, he served as the first director of the Cana Conference of Chicago, a ministry established to serve the needs and enrich the marriages of young Catholic couples. The first “pre-Cana’’ conferences that formally prepared couples for Catholic marriage grew out of this ministry.

Named a monsignor in 1957, he became the director of the archdiocese’s new Office of Urban Affairs, a post he held until 1969.

Msgr. Egan was a member of many church-related and communication organizations during this time, including the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race, the Archdiocesean Committee on Poverty, the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs, and the board of governors of the National Housing Conference and the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council. He also served a year as chairman of the Association of Chicago Priests

He was also one of the first priests to march in the civil rights campaigns in Alabama in the early 1960s.

At a 1972 conference in Toronto on urban and social issues, Msgr. Egan said it was “the primary responsibility of the church to be on the side of the poor.’’

“God places himself with the weak, the sick and the ugly,’’ he said. “Christ in his ministry actively sought them out, (but) the time is long past when Christians only help the poor on a one-to-one basis. What we must have now are organized interrelated ministries. The act of social justice is organization.’’

In 1970, he joined the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, and served as a special assistant to the university president and as director of the university’s Institute for Pastoral and Social Ministry.

In 1983, Msgr. Egan returned to Chicago to direct the archdiocese’s human relations and ecu

menism initiatives, simultaneously becoming a permanent archdiocesan member of the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race.

He was founder and former chairman of the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry, and helped form the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.

Rabbi Robert Marx, founder of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, said Msgr. Egan’s work was “much larger than the walls of any church. In the world of action for social justice, he played a role that spanned religious beliefs and influenced an entire nation.”

Msgr. Egan also served on the boards of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Mexican American Cultural Center, the Parish Renewal Institute, the National Catholic Reporter weekly newspaper, the National Center for Law and the Handicapped, and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization.

In a 1976 talk in Cincinnati on the role of the laity in the church, Msgr. Egan said ``priests must be prepared to let their image die’’ and to see that all members of the church must be about the same work.

Among his awards are Notre Dame’s first Reinhold Niebuhr Award in 1973, De Paul’s St. Vincent de Paul Medal in 1979, and a religious leaders award from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in 1987.

At the 1999 Catholic Press Association convention in Chicago, Msgr. Egan said “What it means to be Catholic is to be sacramental, scriptural and social. The social is the way we respond to the gifts and empowerment given to us through the Word of God and the power of the sacraments.”

He retired from active ministry in 1987, and joined De Paul University as assistant to the president for community affairs.

But, according to McLaughlin, “He never thought of himself as retired, just changing careers. He was always working.

“The day before he died he dictated five letters,” he added. “ He was always writing to encourage people.He believed in ‘the apostolate of the short note.’”

Bishop Timothy J. Lyne, a classmate, was scheduled to offer the funeral Mass for Msgr. Egan and preach the homily. Interment was to follow at All Saints Cemetery, Des Plaines.

Msgr. Egan is survived by a sister, Kathleen Egan Martin; nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.


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