Eileen Eganco-founder of Pax Christi USA and a long-time friend of Mother Teresa and Dorothy Daydied on October 7 at the age of 88. It was she, in fact, who introduced the two women, and near her casket at the funeral home was a photograph of the three women in conversation together at the Mary Catholic Worker House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For all three, peace was a major focus of their lives, together with a deep awareness of the connection between war and poverty. In her many years of traveling for Catholic Relief Services, Eileen saw with painful clarity that war is what created the refugees whose anguish she witnessed at first hand. A believer in what she called Gospel nonviolence, she wanted no part of compromises like the just war theory. Although the phrase seamless garment, referring to the sacredness of all life, became associated with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Eileen was the one who coined it in 1981 in a Pax Christi publication.
During an interview with America (2/10/96), she spoke of the call to recognize Christ in the homeless and the hungry. But in war, she said, we reverse that; we make Christ homeless and hungry, by bombs and by blockadeslike the blockade against Iraq that continues to this day. She went on to ask: If Catholics believe in partaking of the body and blood of Christ, how, then, can they participate in shedding the blood of other children of God? Like Dorothy Day, she knew that Christ is in the enemy too, whoever the enemy might be at any given time. Nor, in her view, could anyone validly be ordered to kill that enemy.
While Dorothy was in Rome in 1965, fasting with 19 other women during the peace and war deliberations of the last session of the Second Vatican Council, Eileen went from bishop to bishop, cardinal to cardinal urging that they recognize the right of conscientious objection to military service. Her efforts bore fruit in one of the council’s final documents, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, where we read: It seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided...that they accept some other form of service to the human community (No. 79).
Not only through her decades of work with refugees, but also through her close connection with the Catholic Worker, Eileen Egan was in frequent contact with the disenfranchised men and women of this the world’s richest city. Although not herself a member of the Catholic Worker community, she chose to live in great simplicity in an old-style immigrant railroad flat on East 77th St. and regularly took the bus down Second Avenue to the St. Joseph Catholic Worker House on East First Street. And before taking part in the regular Friday night discussions there, she would stop for Mass at Nativity a block away, Dorothy’s parish church.
The Eucharist was a primary source of Eileen’s strengtha strength that a mugging and the resultant broken hip eight years ago could not diminish. Bernice McCann-Doylewho kept house for her after the attack and who stayed on to type the manuscript of her final book, Peace Be With You (1999)said on the way to Calvary Cemetery in Queens that not even the mugging had been able to slow her down. Nor did she feel any rancor toward the person responsible, a mentally ill homeless man. In fact, she began a correspondence with his mother in Ohio.
A number of Catholic Workers were at the funeral Mass at St. Stephen of Hungary Church. So were Nancy Smallthe national coordinator of Pax Christi USAand Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services. One of Dorothy’s granddaughters, Kate Hennessy, was present too. Over the past few years she spent considerable time with Eileen and is now preparing a biography. It will be worth waiting for.