Wars, mugging haven't kept Eileen Egan from a life of 'Gospel non-violence'

May 04, 1995|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Walking to evening Mass on the Upper East Side of New York in the summer of 1992, Eileen Egan was knocked to the ground from behind by a would-be purse-snatcher. Her head was badly gashed. Her hip and seven ribs were broken. She was 80.

If she had not been a prolific Roman Catholic author and an influential exponent of what she and others call "Gospel non-violence," that mugging might have passed with little notice.

But because of who she is, and because of her repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to help her attacker after his arrest, the incident and its aftermath received wide publicity. Mother Teresa -- the subject of one of Miss Egan's books -- was one of many people who called to wish her well.

In an interview yesterday in Baltimore, where the author is visiting old friends with whom she worked for many years at Catholic Relief Services, Miss Egan dismissed the failed robbery except as an illustration of several principles that have guided her long, vigorous and productive life.

"I find that retribution just leads to further retribution," she said. "Every war leads to another war. I have never thought that killing a human being would somehow improve the world in any way."

She does not consider herself a pacifist. "I believe in defending ourselves, surely," she said. "Of course, defend your family. Just not to the point of killing or maiming."

Richard Raimonde, then 30, a homeless drifter and drug addict, was convicted of assaulting Miss Egan and sentenced to 3 1/2 to 7 years in prison. She was in the courtroom, but he would not look her in the eye.

Nor has he answered her letters to him or thanked her for the magazines she has sent him in response to requests relayed through a prison chaplain.

She is trying to convince her attacker that violence is "not the way to go in his life," Miss Egan said. "I wanted to say he is worthy of our respect."

Although she has corresponded with his mother in Ohio, and some good has come of that, Miss Egan's failure to have much of an impact on the life of Richard Raimonde does not discourage her. Not even the countless tragedies she has witnessed in decades of relief work around the world have turned her into a pessimist.

Her relationship with Raimonde is an example, she said, of what Gandhi meant when he taught that "it's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important."

Has the tragedy in Oklahoma City shaken her rejection of retribution, of capital punishment? "No," she said. "Think back to Cain in the Old Testament. Was he executed [for killing his brother]? No. God marked him and made him the first refugee.

It is now incumbent on Americans to ferret out the root causes of the Oklahoma bombing, Miss Egan said. "We have to find out why people hate America so much, not condemn such people or threaten them, but try to have a dialogue with them."

When Miss Egan was asked if she ever has doubts about her Catholic faith, she replied in the soft accent with hints of both her Irish-born parents and her own native Wales, "No. I just try to carry on."

She moved with her family to New York when she was a teen-ager. A graduate of Hunter College, she has received numerous awards, including honorary doctorates, for her humanitarian work and her writing. She worked for Catholic Relief Services -- now headquartered in Baltimore -- from its inception in New York in 1943.

She feels strongly about the "role of volunteer agencies" such as CRS and Church World Service to be "the voices" of the countless unheard victims of warfare in such places as Bosnia and Rwanda.

Her book, "For Whom There Is No Room," just published by Paulist Press, tells stories of waves of refugees she has known first-hand -- from the nearly 2 million Poles expelled from their homeland early in World War II who finally settled in Mexico, to the Jews who escaped from occupied France into Spain during the same period.

As director of the CRS office in Barcelona, Miss Egan worked closely with Jewish and Quaker agencies to assist Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

After the war, she helped displaced persons from Eastern Europe.

Yesterday afternoon, there was a surprise waiting for her at the offices of Catholic Relief Services at 209 W. Fayette St. She learned that, beginning next year, the Eileen Egan Award will be presented annually to a Catholic writer who furthers CRS' mission "to educate the people of the United States to fulfill their moral responsibilities in alleviating human suffering, removing its causes and promoting social justice."

BOOK SIGNING

Eileen Egan will sign copies of her book, "For Whom There Is No Room," from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. today at Catholic Relief Services headquarters, 209 W. Fayette St.

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