By Carolyn Woo
Preparation for the 75th anniversary of Catholic Relief Services calls to mind a truly remarkable woman whose work has informed the Catholic social tradition, particularly in the U.S. during the last century.
In my own case, I owe her a special debt. Though she is not well-known beyond peace movement circles, her legacy has probably touched Catholics everywhere.
I refer to the inimitable Eileen Egan who in 1943 was the first woman and first lay representative to go overseas for War Relief Services (later renamed Catholic Relief Services, or CRS), newly formed by the bishops of the United States.
Before there was any operating procedure and established protocol for such work, Egan ministered to refugees from World War II, victims of the Holocaust and displaced people in Gaza, Pakistan, Hong Kong, India and elsewhere.
Concomitant with her CRS assignments, Egan became a force in the Catholic Worker movement, which led to a profound friendship with Dorothy Day.
She served as associate editor of The Catholic Worker, wrote and led numerous external communications, organized Day’s tours and events, and was at her side during Day’s last protest and arrest. As a biographer, Egan’s books and essays have served as primary sources of materials on the life and ministry of Day.
Perhaps holy women naturally flock to each other. Circa India 1955: Egan came upon the tiny nun of Kolkata and her residences that sheltered the most marginalized folks. Their suffering and appearances initially intimidated Egan. She learned from Mother Teresa how to engage these individuals by seeing Christ in them.
Egan then brought Mother Teresa on her first trip to the United States to address the 1960 National Council of Catholic Women Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. A full-blown national tour followed and included a meeting between Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day.
Egan’s commitment to justice and peace also located her at the historical march in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and in correspondence with Father Thomas Merton.
Eileen Egan abhorred war. Born in 1911 to an Irish family in Wales, she experienced the effects of World War I. From her CRS work with victims, she saw war as the negation of the incarnation of Christ in every person and the reversal of every corporal work of mercy.
She could not accommodate war for any reason and was particularly concerned about the just-war theory and the tolerance for nuclear weapons.
Her efforts at advocacy, including a lead editorial of a special issue of The Catholic Worker titled “We are all under judgment,” influenced the church’s thinking at the Second Vatican Council. The resulting pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes” denounced attacks on population centers with weapons of mass destruction and the arms race, while supporting Catholics’ rights as conscientious objectors.
Egan continued to push the United Nations on this last issue, making the point that an institution devoted to peacemaking must allow for the rights of an individual acting on his conscience to not kill. It was an effort that spanned at least two decades. The resolution was placed on the U.N. agenda in 1971 and approved in 1987.
She was also the co-founder of Pax Christi USA with the mission to call on the church to recover our own rich traditions from the Gospel of nonviolence and to recognize in the teachings of Christ that justice and the works of mercy are the only acceptable alternatives to war.
Eileen Egan was a person who, having seen the horrors of wars, did not just attend to their victims, but spent the rest of her life seeking the only solution that aligns with the Gospel.
To do so, she wrote, marched, critically assessed cultural values, stereotypes and assumptions, organized movements and challenged the Church she loved to accept nothing less than what Christ stands for.
Woo is a distinguished president’s fellow for global development at Purdue University and former CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services.