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Issue Date:  December 9, 2005

Patty Crowley, giant of Catholic laity, dies at 92


She was a major force in a movement that activated tens of thousands of Catholic couples in the years before the Second Vatican Council, and she was a central witness to the post-Vatican II events that triggered a crisis in the church from which it has not yet recovered. Yet Patty Crowley’s deep conviction regarding what the Gospels were all about never wavered.

“Patty Crowley had a deep sense of discipleship,” said Jane Leingang who with her husband Paul are codirectors of the Christian Family Movement. “Under her and her husband’s direction, CFM changed the way so many people came to think about themselves and the role of marriage as a force for change in the world.”

Patricia “Patty” Crowley died Nov. 23 at her home in Chicago following a long illness. She was 92.

“We loved Patty,” said John Przybysz, who, with his wife Lauri, became the CFM president couple this year. “We met her for the first time in February and looked through her scrapbooks and the letters she’s received. You know Jesus said, ‘By their fruits you will know them,’ and the good things she started are still bearing fruit.”

Patty Crowley was born in 1913, the eldest of the five children of O.J. and Marietta Caron, owners of a knitting mill near Chicago. She was raised in the strict, unquestioning style of Catholicism of those days. She attended Catholic schools throughout her youth, and it was while she was majoring in French and history at Trinity College in Washington that she had her first awareness of the more challenging aspects of the faith. That awareness occurred in a class taught by Msgr. John Ryan, an early advocate of the church’s social teaching. “We took the class because we heard it was easy,” she said many years later. “But when he talked about justice in society and labor unions, he was fascinating. I think he opened my mind to another side of things.”

In 1937 she married Patrick Crowley, the gregarious, good-natured son of a Chicago lawyer. After Pat finished law school and began to practice, the young couple bought a home in the affluent Chicago suburb of Wilmette and settled down -- at least for a few years. Between 1939 and 1947 the couple had four children: Patricia, Mary Ann, Patrick and Catherine -- plus a miscarriage and an infant who died. During this time Pat had come in contact with [Fr. Louis Putz, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.], who was advocating the observe-judge-act method of social change that Canon Joseph Cardijn was pioneering in Europe -- the Young Catholic Worker movement. Pat and other young men began meeting with Putz and with Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, a charismatic Chicago priest-enthusiast for participative liturgy and popularizer of the papal encyclical Mystici Corporis, which insisted the whole church, and especially the laity, constitutes the living body of Christ in the world today. [Putz, was an early advocate of Catholic lay action for social change, and, with Pat and Patty Crowley, was influential in founding the Christian Family Movement.]

Both Pat and Patty found the new concepts stimulating, especially the idea of applying Gospel values to family life, politics, education and social problems such as poverty and racism. The method, they believed, could be useful for married couples as well as single workers. So they began to meet with a few other couples, at first in two groups, one for husbands, one for wives. Patty soon termed the segregated arrangement “ridiculous,” so they began holding couples meetings in their Wilmette home. Part of the reason the new method worked, said Patty, was because the priest-chaplain of the group was barred from commenting until the end of the meeting. “For the first time in our experience with the church, our ideas were respected,” she said. “We were becoming independent, thinking for ourselves.”

Inspired to put into practice what they were learning, the Crowleys began taking foster children into their home. Over the years they would eventually house 14, and the last of these, Theresa, who arrived when she was three months old, they adopted. In the spirit of Benedictine hospitality that became increasingly important to them, the Crowleys also welcomed scores of foreign students and numberless visitors, so that their home was a center of constant activity. Speaking on behalf of all the Crowley children, Benedictine Sr. Patricia Crowley, Patty’s eldest, said, “We are grateful to our mother for teaching us to act according to the Gospel. As we look back on our family life, we recognize that from an early age, we were introduced to our world’s diversity of cultures, races, traditions, political movements, and literary expressions. Our home was always a place of learning and of meeting people from all over the world.”

Meanwhile, the CFM couples concept spread to Chicago parishes and then throughout the country. In 1949 the first convention was held, and the phenomenon was formally christened the Christian Family Movement. In the 1950s and 1960s Pat and Patty traveled widely, forming new groups, stimulating existing ones, and making scores of lifelong friends. The two were awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal by Pope Pius XII in 1957 during the World Congress of the Laity in Rome. According to a statement of Gary and Kay Aitchison, past executive codirectors of CFM, ”Patty was the role model for all of us, always challenging us to do more, to reach out. She was driven in her quest for peace and justice.”

During the next seven years CFM would reach its zenith of popularity, with some 125,000 couples participating in the United States and 26 foreign countries. The movement was training a generation of Catholics to ask questions, make judgments for themselves and take responsibility for decisions -- in both the secular world and in church affairs. Fr. Andrew Greeley, a longtime friend of the Crowleys, said, “In terms of lay activism, Patty was the most important woman of her time, and CFM was the most important movement of the preconciliar church.”

Here is how Rose Lucey in her book, Roots and Wings, recalled the 1965 convention at Notre Dame University, which drew 5,000 people. “The prophets were among us: Jesuit Gustave Weigel, George Schuster, Dr. Martin Marty, John Tracy Ellis ... John McKenzie, Dan Berrigan, Henri Nouwen, Gregory Baum, Tom Dooley, Bishop Charles Buswell. ... And always in the background ... Pat and Patty Crowley, Patty to mother each person at the convention, keep things organized, the foil for all of Pat’s jokes; and Pat, full of wisdom, pretending he was not a great thinker, both of them mentors for the thousands of couples who came. ... And with Pat and Patty, their own children and all the other children who happened to be living with them at the time.”

In 1964 their lives took a new, challenging turn. They were invited by Pope Paul VI to take part in the Papal Birth Control Commission, originally created by Pope John XXIII to advise the papacy on the morality of new contraceptive methods. The Crowleys were one of three married couples chosen for the group, which in its earlier meetings had been composed entirely of clergy, medical doctors, psychologists, population experts and social scientists. By the time Pat and Patty arrived, the commission had gone well beyond the morality of the birth control pill and was considering whether all forms of artificial birth control should continue to be banned by the church and labeled intrinsically evil. At their second meeting with the commission in 1966, the Crowleys presented the results of a sociological survey of married couples that they had authorized. It revealed how painful (and unsuccessful) most Catholic couples found the practice of rhythm, the church’s sole approved method of birth control.

The Crowleys were outspoken in their own views on the subject. During a heated discussion about how the church could save face if it were to allow couples to decide how to limit offspring, Marcelino Zalba, a Spanish Jesuit member of the commission, asked, “What then with the millions we have sent to hell” if the rules are relaxed? Patty immediately responded in what became perhaps her most memorable quote. “Fr. Zalba,” she said, “do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?”

In the end, the commission recommended overwhelmingly that the strict prohibition against contraception should be lifted, and a belatedly summoned “overseer” commission of cardinals and bishops concurred with the decision. “I don’t think there was a doubt in any of our minds that the pope would follow the commission report,” Patty said at the time. But after a two-year wait Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which flatly rejected the commission report and declared the prohibition would remain in force.

The decision, so dismissive of the work of many experts, came as an especially hard blow to the Crowleys. Patty and Pat were quite open and public in expressing their disappointment. That led to a kind of alienation from Msgr. Hillenbrand and other clergy, friends and mentors of CFM. On two occasions in later years Patty spoke to Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin about her distress, but he could offer little comfort. Some 25 years after Humanae Vitae she shared her feelings in an article she wrote for NCR: “I feel betrayed by the church. The pope continually states that birth control is evil, yet I know that couples must be practicing birth control. One never hears from the pulpit that birth control is intrinsically evil and should not be practiced. Is the church hypocritical? ... I long for a church that is honest about its teachings, that admits its errors and faces the effects of rigidity with openness.”

The death of her husband Pat in 1974 was an even deeper, more personal cause of grief. But neither event sapped Patty’s energy. She remained a supporter (and sometimes critic) of CFM as it shifted its emphasis and grew smaller in the 1980s and ’90s, even as her personal efforts turned more toward direct works of social justice and charity. She served for several years as a board member of the Chicago Housing Authority, a problem-plagued agency providing public housing for 200,000 poor city dwellers. She also served as an active board member for a variety of feminist groups, including the Chicago Foundation for Women. In 1985 she and a small group of associates founded Deborah’s Place, which has become the largest private, multiservice shelter operation for homeless women in Chicago. For many years, Pat and Patty’s eldest child, Sr. Patricia (Patsy) Crowley, was executive director of Deborah’s Place. Said Audrey Thomas, the new executive director, “Patty set the standard for what it is to be a board member -- marching to bring attention to the homeless, raising money for the programs, volunteering by serving meals and staying all night at the shelter.”

Until three years ago, Patty was the irrepressible coordinator of a group of some 35 women who met in her apartment of the 88th floor of the John Hancock Center in Chicago for what she called “conscience-raising sessions.” They included prayer, discussion of issues such as poverty, racism and the nuclear arms race, a film or speaker, and dinner afterwards, cooked and served by Patty. And every Sunday without fail before her final illness, Patty and Patsy would “go to jail” -- to the federal detention center for women in Chicago where they would talk with the prisoners, play bingo and bring yards of yarn for knitting.

Patty was also deeply involved in the 25,000-member Call to Action organization, which promotes change in the church and society. Until this year, she attended every national meeting since the 1980s. In her latter years she came in a wheelchair and was hugged, kissed and photographed by the multitude. She was in fact a kind of godmother to Call to Action, even as Msgr. Jack Egan had been the movement’s godfather. Dan and Sheila Daley, co-directors of Call to Action, said in a statement, “Patty Crowley broke new ground as a lay woman leader in the church. Call to Action is grateful for her support but most of all for the model of her life that continues to inspire those striving to live the Gospel in today’s world.”

Nevertheless, she received occasional letters of reproach and scoldings for her insistence that the church must change, but she took the rebuffs in stride. When the diocesan paper of Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz called her “a very old degenerate who roams about promoting sexual immorality,” Patty laughed and then composed a scrapbook to hold the deluge of supportive notes and letters she received in response from friends all over the country; on the first page of the scrapbook she pasted the dictionary definition of “degenerate.”

As her health declined over the past 10 years, she remained as long as possible an active member of Holy Name Cathedral parish, reading the scriptures on Sunday and bringing Communion to the homebound; and always she warmly welcomed any visitor who cared to drop in on her, even on a moment’s notice. As her health declined, Patty Crowley provided a blunt, typically pithy summary of the spiritual outlook that guided her life. “I say the only important thing is Jesus’ message, and the rest of the rules are for the birds. So give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, help the sick and visit those in prison. That’s what I do.”

Robert McClory, a longtime contributor to NCR, lives in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, December 9, 2005   corrected [01/13/2006]

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