Egan came to the job with a long résumé of academic honors but little experience in parish life. Even as a teenager in a minor seminary in Chicago, he had struck his classmates as unusually formal, with an almost patrician bearing. “It seemed like from the first day of high school he was wearing French cuffs,” even if only figuratively, says Robert McClory, a former Chicago priest who spent eight years in the seminary with Ed Egan from the time they were 13 or 14 years old, as was the custom in those days.
Egan didn’t pal around or play sports—a bout of childhood polio may have taken its toll on his physical confidence, acquaintances say—but he had plenty of friends. Unlike the rest, he rarely if ever earned a demerit on the card every seminarian had to carry with him, and over the five years of high school he garnered the highest average, winning the title of class prefect. He was also elected class president. As McClory says, “He was the perfect seminarian.”
Few were surprised when Egan was tapped to finish his studies in Rome at the Pontifical North American College, the elite seminary for would-be priests on the fast track. Egan eventually, and perhaps inevitably, earned the nickname of “Alpine Ed”—a climber who seemed destined to ascend the hierarchy. And so he did. In 1964, he received a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, often called “the pope’s Harvard.” He graduated summa cum laude—effectively he was a Church attorney—and returned to Chicago to serve as secretary to the city’s newly installed archbishop, the now-notorious Cardinal Cody.
In 1971, Egan went back to Rome to serve as a judge on the Roman Rota, the Church’s top court of appeals, and to teach canon law. His big break came in the early eighties as the Vatican was revising the Church’s entire Code of Canon Law, the dense compilation of strictures and procedures covering every possible sin or circumstance in Catholic life. Egan was one of six canonists assigned to finish the task, and he sat for many hours with Pope John Paul parsing the complex texts. “That really launched him,” says a priest who knows Egan well. The code was finally promulgated in 1983, and as often happened, John Paul wanted to reward Egan by making him an auxiliary, or assistant bishop, to a cardinal in a large diocese. (An archbishop will often have several auxiliaries to help carry the workload.)
Auxiliary bishops are normally among a cardinal’s most trusted advisers, yet O’Connor’s first assistant bishop was this outsider, and he let everyone know it. At a fête for the new bishop, in front of Egan’s family, O’Connor made edgy jokes about Egan and his grand piano and toasted him as “Chicago’s revenge.” Eventually O’Connor shunted him aside by making him vicar for education, in charge of the archdiocesan school system. By all accounts Egan did the job well enough, and in 1988, he was promoted to a diocese of his own, in Bridgeport.
For more than a decade, Egan ran the show, often in the imperious manner he seemed to perfect in Rome. If Egan didn’t have a warm and fuzzy public persona, he at least had a knack for administration. His fund-raising prowess enriched Catholic Charities, which became the largest private social-services agency in Fairfield County, and his reorganization of the schools bolstered enrollment. He cultivated contacts in “Fairchester,” the deep-pocketed Catholic crowd of Fairfield and Westchester counties, which included the likes of then General Electric CEO Jack Welch, then PepsiCo CEO Roger Enrico, and Bob Wright, chairman of NBC.