I never met Cardinal Egan, but somehow knew him very wellBy Loudette Avelino
When I learned that Edward Cardinal Egan had died, I felt a sense of loss.
I wanted to give him the respect and set him off to everlasting life by participating in his March 9 funeral mass. That was the only way I knew how to honor the man I never met, but somehow knew very well.
If anyone in recent memory symbolizes “Prince of the Church” that can be no other than Cardinal Egan. He was long and tall with a quiet elegance about him. He was a man of class. Well spoken. Educated. He was a Prince of the Church who connected with the people, all people – a Prince of the People! That title is most apropos.
Egan was such a class act that when I saw Cardinal Dolan with his scepter moving about during the funeral services, I smiled because Dolan looked like he was going to do some construction work in the church. Dolan was a man’s man; he was one of the guys. That was a stark contrast with Egan.
Cardinal Egan commanded the archdiocese at the time of incredible flux and great challenges Not only did budgetary problems force the closing of a number of schools and parish churches, there were the demonic problems with sex abuse charges against a number of priests. But he remained centered.
Our paths crossed in a very odd way. I founded Building Futures Together, a non-profit organization dedicated to uplifting the lives of people living in Samar — the third largest island in the Philippines — by setting them on the paths of education, literacy, and programs that provided them with income opportunities. Our goal was to provide books and setting up at least mini libraries in every public elementary school in the province to counter the severely high illiteracy rates of the children.
And so it began. Books were donated. It started as a trickle. Then we got calls from FilAm teachers alerting us to books that were being “discarded” in their schools, and so we travelled to pick up the “discards.” Most schools were so pleased to give the books to children who would make use of them, rather than hand them over to the sanitation department for disposal at a dump. Or so we thought.
Yet we had one quite unforgettable case. I received a call from the superintendent of a Catholic school in Chinatown informing me that books were being discarded; they were in plastic bags ready to be put out into the sidewalk.
Jude Tan, a board member at that time, drove me to the school to pick up as much of the books as his small car could take. But when we got there, the nun was so incensed that we were picking up books scheduled for the garbage dump, she physically began tearing books apart. I never saw a nun with so much strength! She was able to destroy and make useless a good number of the books.
The superintendent asked us to leave to keep the peace but asked us to return the following day. It was more tranquil indeed. The superintendent hid the books under a staircase, out of sight from the nun. But nonetheless, we were always watching out for her, should she see us retrieving books and go nuts!
Then, all of a sudden we were getting calls from a number of schools from all over New York: Upstate, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Even schools from Connecticut were offering us the books they were discarding.
We relied on friends with cars and time to help us pick up books; we rented and drove vans and trucks to pick up books and packed and hauled them into a storage facility. It was very physical but members of the board then did a heroic job sometimes packing an entire children’s library.
It seemed so incredible that so many books were coming our way. Then I saw a note from one of the schools. The note was from Ms. Catherine Hickey, Ph.D., Vicar of Education for the Archdiocese of New York under Cardinal Egan, asking all schools to give us a call, if they were getting rid of books.
And so began an incredible journey that would not only allow us enough books to provide to every public elementary school in the island of Samar but to have books which we were hoping to get into a central library in Samar. The books were there, we were just waiting for funds to build the library on land already donated for such purpose. We were also waiting for architects to volunteer designs we could use.
During the time of Edward Cardinal Egan, we were able to ship a 20-foot and a 40-foot container of books and other school materials.
We tried and hoped to meet this Prince of the People! We went to his office on First Avenue but he was at a meeting out of the office. We tried to wait, being entertained by a nun, who gave us some missals to be added to our books heading to the children.
While I never met Edward Cardinal Egan, he will be perpetually with us, with the children, and with anyone who believes every human being on this planet must be given a chance to better their lives.
Loudette Avelino is a long-time New Yorker. She initiated cultural programs, such as the Simbang Gabi and the Philippine Independence Day Parade/Street Fair, at the Philippine Center, in 1986 under then-Consul General King Rodrigo. She founded Building Futures Together, a New York-based, non-profit organization established to fight poverty in the Philippines through livelihood programs and education. BFT has established mini-libraries in public elementary schools in Samar. She earned her MBA from Fordham University.