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Egan, John Joseph (9 Oct. 1916-19 May 2001), activist priest, was born in New York City, the second of four children of Irish immigrants John Egan, a bus driver, and Nellie "Helen" Curry, a dressmaker. The family moved to Chicago when Egan was six. Starting at the age of ten, Egan delivered newspapers, rising at 4:00
In 1937 Egan entered the St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. The seminary's rector, Monsignor Reynold H. Hillenbrand, was an advocate of the Young Christian Workers movement, whose followers agreed to "observe" social conditions, "judge" the appropriate response in light of Christian teachings, and "act" (as Jesus would). Egan applied these principles to his work at St. Justin Martyr parish, his first assignment after his 1943 ordination. To improve the care of his parishioners, Egan also studied counseling at the University of Chicago with Carl Rogers, the pioneering humanist psychologist.
From 1947 until 1954 Egan headed the Cana and Pre-Cana programs for the Chicago archdiocese--marriage and premarriage courses that encouraged Catholics to apply spiritual principles to marital life. In 1954 Egan learned about the problems facing Chicago's burgeoning Puerto Rican community. Seeking solutions, he met with the famed community organizer Saul Alinsky.
Egan embraced Alinsky's ideas about empowering ordinary people to challenge their problems. In 1956 Alinsky and Egan convinced the Chicago archdiocese to fund a study of a black South Side Chicago neighborhood where residents were being displaced by highway construction, and to hire Egan as one of the study's investigators. Under Alinsky's tutelage Egan trained as a community organizer, meeting with everyone from barbershop patrons to the area's congressman. The result was a study so thorough that Egan was appointed to head the Cardinal's Committee on Conservation and Urban Renewal.
In 1958 the University of Chicago unveiled an urban renewal plan that would displace approximately twenty thousand people, the majority of them black, yet provide no resources for relocation. Egan's public opposition to the plan alienated powerful interests and failed to halt it.
Egan responded to this defeat by founding the Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs, dedicated to funding community organizers and training clergy to be community organizers. In 1959 Egan was appointed head of the archdiocese's Office of Urban Affairs. The Office became a nationally known center for progressive social action. Meanwhile Egan participated in almost every group in Chicago that was tackling issues of race, housing, or urban life. He worked closely with the Organization for the Southwest Community, a group dedicated to stopping white flight.
In 1962 Egan suffered a near-fatal heart attack but recovered and continued his frenetic schedule of meetings and activism. During his annual three-week vacations in 1963, 1964, and 1965, Egan flew to Rome to observe the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. In March 1965 Egan marched with civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama.
Egan had long enjoyed the support of his superiors, who honored him by appointing him monsignor in 1957. This changed in 1966 when Chicago's new cardinal, John Patrick Cody, decided to rein in Egan's activism by phasing out the Office of Urban Affairs and instead assigning him to Presentation parish, located in Lawndale, a poor black Chicago community. While Chicagoans were outraged at this attempt to silence the city's leading religious activist, Egan saw the transfer as an opportunity. He divided Presentation's neighborhood into one-block "parishes," and told seminarians that if they wanted a true inner city experience, they could take a one-block parish as their own. The priests were to talk to every person on their block and then report back to Egan on problems they uncovered.
Egan's organizers learned that Lawndalers were upset over the high monthly payments they owed on their homes. Almost all had purchased properties "on contract," that is, on an installment plan. Most had been charged about double their property's value. If a contract buyer missed even one payment, the contract seller of the property would repossess it, keeping everything the contract buyer had invested to date. As a result Lawndale's residents worked second jobs, overcrowded their properties, and deferred all maintenance in a frantic effort to make their inflated payments and keep their properties.
Egan knew a great deal about this issue, having learned about it years before from Mark J. Satter, a Chicago housing activist. With Egan's support Lawndale organizers created the Contract Buyers League (CBL) in 1968. Egan hosted CBL meetings, joined the organization's picket lines, and spoke and wrote on the group's behalf. Egan's aid played a role in the group's phenomenal growth and ultimate success in getting the contracts of many members renegotiated. In 1969, in the midst of the CBL struggle, Egan was also elected head of the Association of Chicago Priests, which addressed issues ranging from celibacy to the unilateral power that their archbishop had over priests' lives.
Egan's labors on behalf of the CBL and the Association of Chicago Priests put him on a collision course with Cardinal Cody. In 1969 Cody worked to undercut Catholic support of the CBL while successfully dismantling Egan's Interreligious Council on Urban Affairs. In early 1970 Egan was again hospitalized because of his heart condition. That spring the president of the University of Notre Dame Theodore Hesburgh invited Egan to come to the university for a year to recuperate and to work on the school's new program in pastoral theology.
Egan stayed at Notre Dame for the next thirteen years, returning to Chicago only after the death of Cardinal Cody in 1982. Egan made Notre Dame the base of the Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry (CCUM). The group helped create numerous diocesan and national urban research and community funding institutions. When Egan returned to Chicago in 1983, his career as an organizer continued unabated. He founded the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. He was a major force behind the creation of United Power for Action and Justice, which united Chicago's religious communities to achieve shared goals, and the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, which strengthened ties between religious groups and the labor movement. In 1999 Egan mobilized activists against the payday loan industry, which made predatory loans at interest rates of up to 521 percent. In May 2001 Egan spoke out on behalf of women's ordination. He died later that month. In 2005 the Egan Payday Loan Reform Act was passed by the Illinois General Assembly, a fitting tribute to a man who had devoted his life to social justice.
Egan's papers are at the University of Notre Dame Archives. Information on Egan can also be found in the Margaret (Peggy) Roach Papers and in the Margery Frisbie Papers, Mundelein College Archives, Loyola University Chicago. Margery Frisbie's An Alley in Chicago: The Life and Legacy of Monsignor John Egan (2002) presents a full biography of Egan. For information on Egan's battles against housing discrimination, see Beryl Satter, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America (2009).
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Beryl Satter. "Egan, John Joseph";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.