In January 1966, Monsignor Jack Egan was assigned to Presentation Parish in North Lawndale by the newly appointed Archbishop Cody. Egan was a well-known priest in Chicago who worked tirelessly to maintain the church’s presence in the inner city and assist the urban poor. Looking back on his assignment to Presentation, he said “I’m living with black people for the first time in my life. Archbishop Cody couldn’t have given me a greater gift. I don’t think he thought of it that way. I think he thought he was getting rid of me.”1
While at Presentation, Egan visited seminaries to recruit students to come work with him on Saturdays. He assigned each seminarian a block in the neighborhood as their “parish”. They were to get to know everyone on that block, and then gathered in the afternoons to discuss what each had learned that day. They called this Operation Saturation. Jack Macnamara was one of those seminarians, and visiting his “parish” once a week was not enough. With Egan’s support, Macnamara and another Jesuit seminarian, Jim Zeller, received permission from their Jesuit superior to move to Lawndale for the summer of 1967 and continue this work.2
Macnamara and Zeller recruited college students to volunteer and live together in Lawndale for the summer to help organize the community. They listened to many problems that the residents were having, but nothing added up to an issue they could organize around. Until one resident confided in Macnamara about her struggles with making her monthly housing payment. Macnamara was stunned by the amount she owed each month, and knew that something was wrong. Around the same time, Ruth Wells went to Egan to ask what she could do about the fact that her seller wanted another $1000 when she had never been late or missed a payment over a ten year period. With the guidance of Egan and John McKnight, midwest director of the US Commission on Civil Rights, Macnamara and the college students began researching an 8-block area of Lawndale at the Recorder of Deeds, finding that the majority of properties in that area were sold on contract.3
They finally had an issue to organize the community around, and by January of 1968 the first community meetings took place to present this data. Out of these meetings was born the Contract Buyers of Lawndale, and later the Contract Buyers League when it expanded to include homeowners beyond Lawndale.
2 Frisbie. “An Alley in Chicago” Ch. 17-18.
3 Macnamara, personal interview.