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The people’s priest

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, November 16, 2005

In September 1958, a priest of 42 stood in front of the formidable Chicago City Council on the subject of urban renewal to say what no other Chicago leader would – the city’s plan to rebuild and reconstruct a south side neighborhood would displace the poor and mainly minority residents. He stated that the Catholic Church’s vested interest was in the lives of people, especially the poor. Any plan to rebuild Chicago had to be constructed with justice and concern for everyone’s needs, especially the poor. Many criticized his taking public stance, saying it was not his place as a priest to take such a role out front, challenging the city. He stated then explaining his actions “A priest is also a pastor and a teacher. Occasions may come when he is forced to say things that will be regarded as unkind. So be it … stern words and honest ones are frequently spoken in love and charity too.”

That priest was Monsignor Jack J. Egan who advocated for the poor and marginalized throughout his work in Chicago and here at Notre Dame. Without Msgr. Egan many of Chicago’s powerful community organizations, social services and diocese justice programs would not exist, or not have been as effective. The relationships Egan made between the Catholic Church and justice movers were vital. Beyond standing against displacing peoples from urban areas in the ’50s, he helped in organizing civil rights and justice organizations in Chicago to stop racial violence and terrorism, marched with civil rights leaders in Selma, Ala., was a leader in organizing clerics in Chicago for greater democracy within the priesthood and reached out to leaders of other denominations and faiths. Msgr. Egan was a prophetic voice for human dignity, racial justice and workers’ rights, while working in a style that welcomed other faith communities, uplifted the laity and recognized the dignity of women. In his last years in Chicago, he worked with activists to pass restrictions on Pay Day Loan shops who preyed on the poor, charging up to 500 percent interest on small loans.

Egan also blessed this campus with his organizing know-how and public relationships. He brought with him into Notre Dame his network of justice organizations contacts, which were vital in helping the people who started the Center for Social Concerns. He founded the Catholic Committee for Urban Ministry as special counselor to Father Ted Hesburgh.

In remembering Egan, a couple of concerns come to mind. For myself, I grew up in the Chicago Catholic Church, worked for two organizations Egan helped build or worked with and practically lived at the Notre Dame Center for Social Concerns. Through my time in all of these institutions, I never heard anything about Egan. The institutional memory of these institutions is severely lacking. Formation is vital in building community and teaching people. At the Center for Social Concerns, for example, how can they be effectively forming the young people who are active there without providing models for their action? Egan took his faith, beliefs in the value of people and the necessity to work for the kingdom of God on earth into the city. Egan was not afraid to challenge systems in the city he grew up in and lived in. Notre Dame students of conscience are quick to flock overseas to do good work, and we praise them for it. Yet how are we challenging young people to look to their home communities and act where they – as college students of means – have a greater ability to influence the situation? How are students challenged to see and respond to the marginalized “other” in their home cities or here at Notre Dame?

We – clerics, theologians and lay people – need the reminder of Egan to keep us on the path that leads to the kingdom of God. We need him to show us we should be standing with the workers, the oppressed and the forgotten in our arms’ reach.

So, I am calling this University to have a memorial and a summer scholar service program in honor of Egan, fitting for his life. I will work with others to raise the funds and design this memorial until it is finished and also to design a summer program that will bring Notre Dame students to Chicago for the summer to work with organizations Egan loved and worked with to learn about his life and prayerfully reflect on the role of the church to stand tall in struggles for justice. It is my hope Egan’s witness will help Notre Dame’s students and administrators to see this place as more than a football school or a business, but as a community where our actions – especially economic – affect each other’s ability to live dignified lives.

Kamaria B. Porter is a senior and enjoying writing an extended paper on Monsignor Jack Egan. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.