Go in Peace

Remembering Eileen Egan

Eileen Egan, the irenic, indomitable Catholic pacifist who first coined the term "seamless garment" to describe the unity of Catholic teaching on "life" issues, died in New York on October 7. She was eighty-eight.

A modest, unassuming woman, often photographed wearing a scarf and glasses at the side of Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day, she was small of body but brilliant of mind. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "the just man justices." Egan, the peaceful woman, "peacified." She spent a lifetime actively serving the victims of war and promoting alternatives to armed conflict.

Born in Wales, she moved with her family to New York in 1926. A graduate of Hunter College, she was drawn to the Catholic Worker movement in the early 1940s. But Dorothy Day felt that Egan’s vocation lay elsewhere, and Egan began a career as a freelance journalist. In 1943 she joined the staff of the U.S. bishops’ War Relief Services (later known as Catholic Relief Services, or CRS). Her first assignment was in Mexico, where she worked with displaced Polish war refugees. The following year she was posted to Barcelona, where she ministered to victims of the Holocaust. She then headed the CRS office in Lisbon. Back in New York briefly in 1945, she was out of the office the July day a B-45 crashed into CRS headquarters on the seventy-ninth floor of the Empire State Building. Ten fellow staff members were killed. The following year, Egan was back in Europe helping to resettle waves of displaced persons. She later received the highest honor awarded civilians by both the French and German governments.

In the course of her work, Egan visited Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Chinese exiles in Hong Kong, and displaced civilians in Pakistan, Korea, and Vietnam. Her vivid account of these adventures is chronicled in For Whom There Is No Room (Paulist, 1995). In 1955 she met Mother Teresa in Calcutta. The two became lifelong friends and collaborators, Egan helping to introduce the latter’s work in the West. Commonweal called her 1985 biography of Mother Teresa, Such a Vision of the Street (Doubleday), "luminous and exhaustive."

Egan combined CRS’s practical work of providing economic assistance, food, housing, and transportation to war victims with speaking, writing, and demonstrating against the causes of war. In 1962 she co-founded the American Pax Society, which under her leadership evolved into Pax Christi USA in 1972. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, had a major, behind-the-scenes hand in framing the "peace" statements of Vatican II, and promoted the work of Jean and Hildegard Goss-Mayr, crucial to the peaceful ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. One of her major achievements was the 1987 UN recognition of conscientious objection as a universal human right. She traveled widely with Dorothy Day, introduced her to Mother Teresa in 1970, and was with Day picketing for farm workers in California in 1973 when Day was arrested for the final time.

As a writer, Egan wove a tight and sometimes lengthy cloth; she could be dogged in fending off editors’ suggestions. One wise editor of the Catholic Worker, having failed to persuade Egan to shorten a piece, came up with a Solomonic decision: cut the piece in half and run it in successive issues. Egan was pleased.

Egan did not care for the term pacifist because of its misleading echo in the word passivity. "I use the term gospel nonviolence, or gospel peacemaking," she said. Jean Charlot captured her serene and absolute resolve in his 1965 drawing for Sheed & Ward’s Trumpet, reprinted here. In her last book, Peace Be with You (Orbis, 1999), Egan argued vigorously that the so-called just-war concept is an alien graft on the gospel of Jesus. She was disappointed with the flattering review she received in Commonweal (April 21, 2000), expecting a more argumentative critique from proponents of the just-war tradition.

In 1992, at the age of seventy-nine, Egan was mugged on the way to Mass and landed in a New York hospital with a broken hip and several fractured ribs. Michael T. Kaufman wrote an inspiring piece (New York Times, January 23, 1993) on Egan’s response to her attacker: one of care and forgiveness. Several years later my wife and I ran into the Catholic chaplain for the upstate prison where Egan’s assailant was serving time. Unasked, the chaplain told the story of picking up the phone one night to find Egan on the other end. She was calling to be certain the chaplain was doing all in his power for the prisoner.

In her later years, Egan was a confidant of a number of younger friends and family members. Although she never married or had children, she had a ready ear for young people’s difficulties, particularly as they related to work, marriage, family life, and the church. A disciplined, orthodox, almost ascetic Catholic, she nonetheless was never judgmental. She prayed not only for these young people’s enlightenment, but, she said, for the church’s.

In 1963, Egan and Day were in London and made a visit to Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery. Egan reported that Day "prayed for Marx’s wife Jenny, who lacked money to pay for a coffin for a dead child, and for his daughter Eleanor, who committed suicide." In December 1980, Egan stood at Day’s open grave and added a handful of dirt as the body was lowered. Later I noticed her collecting earth from the gravesite, to cherish and share with others. Now she too has returned to the blessed earth. We are left to celebrate, and to emulate her remarkable life.

Published in the 2000-11-17 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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