Review: Fighting for the Marginalized, Ed Marciniak’s City and Church: A Voice of Conscience, by Charles Shanabruch

In late 1972, Ed Marciniak, a perennial social critic and justice activist, became president of the Institute of Urban Life, a small program affiliated with Loyola University Chicago. He had just finished a 12-year run as an “insider,” working in the Richard J. Daley administration where he’d had to temper his voice and his actions.

Now, again, an “outsider,” a role much more congenial to him, Marciniak refashioned the institute in his own image. As Charles Shanabruch writes in Ed Marciniak’s City and Church: A Voice of Conscience from ACTA Publications:

The Institute’s activities ranged from aiding a block club to get a fire-gutted building demolished, finding a site for a half-way house for women just released from county jail, and securing a drugstore operator to replace a neighborhood’s last pharmacy.  His assistance also included consultation with a nonprofit day-labor agency fighting predatory for-profit agencies and with a consortium of churches seeking to acquire urban renewal land to build moderate income housing.

And not just that. He was helping neighborhood groups obtain financial assistance and access to medical services, childcare and much more. As Shanabruch notes, “In many ways, Ed served as an alderman for the marginalized.”

His book documents Marciniak’s six-decade career in Chicago as a major figure fighting for the marginalized—for Blacks and other people of color, the poor, the poorly housed and workers of all sorts.

Shanabruch, a history professor at Saint Xavier University on the southwest side, writes that Marciniak was a bridge-builder and a crusader, a catalyst, a “fire-eater” and an urban optimist. And he wore many hats, as a journalist, essayist, scholar, theorist, organizer and author, but, above all, as the subtitle notes, he was a “voice of conscience.”

It was a career fueled by his Catholic faith and inspired by Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. Indeed, Marciniak, born in 1917 to Polish-American parents in the South Lawndale neighborhood, initially studied for the priesthood, only leaving because he felt drawn to life as a “lay agitator.” 

Then, he asked how many found it easy to work with Ed. The room rocked with laughter.

And one who would be married. Writing to a friend in the early 1940s, Marciniak detailed his beliefs that, just as much as those in religious orders, married couples were called to live lives of “mystic, supernatural, sacramental significance,” to live “saintly lives.”

Marciniak isn’t likely ever to be nominated for official sainthood in the Catholic Church, but he led a life that was clearly sustained by his religious principles. That was evident in 1990 when some 600 people turned out for an All-City Salute to Ed Marciniak.

The first speaker was Rev. Daniel Cantwell, a longtime friend and collaborator, who began his opening remarks by asking how many felt close to Ed. Many hands were raised. 

Then, he asked how many found it easy to work with Ed. The room rocked with laughter.

Prickly and Pugnacious

In the popular mind, saints and those seeking to lead saintly lives are sweet and otherworldly creatures who would never think to hurt anyone’s feelings.  However, anyone who’s looked closely at the lives of those now called saints—such as Dorothy Day who has been formally nominated for canonization—realizes that they were often prickly personalities.

As Shanabruch’s book shows, Marciniak could be prickly. Indeed, he was pugnacious and argumentative and, when principles were involved, didn’t worry much about hurt feelings.

Throughout much of Ed Marciniak’s City and Church, Marciniak is banging heads with opponents—and, at least as frequently, with friends.

For instance, Marciniak was a strong proponent for the right of—and the need for—Catholic laity to get involved directly in social justice rather than waiting for priests to take the lead. In 1982, when Rev. Anthony Barbaro published an article in Center-Focus magazine, contending that lay people should know their place, Marciniak responded, as he usually did, with forceful prose.

So forceful, that his friend Dennis Geaney, an Augustinian priest, rebuked him in a letter, writing that his criticism reflected his worst side and advised him to give up his “soap box” and “sledgehammer,” noting “you are clobbering people like myself,” i.e., clergy. Marciniak acknowledged his language may have been “heavy-handed,” but he stood his ground.

In 1960, in his early 40s, after decades as an “outsider” voice, criticizing the powers-that-be, Marciniak quietly wrote to a Daley administration official, offering himself for the job of executive director of the Chicago Commission on Human Relations. Within two weeks, Daley appointed him to the position—to the shock and confusion of many of his friends.

“Sometimes when you are in your bed at night doesn’t your soul ache for the lies you concocted for the sake of ameliorating a vicious democracy-crushing political machine?”

“Seduced into Doing Harm”

It was a thankless job, and, during his seven years in that office, Marciniak was constantly criticized by both sides of the racial divide. In 1963, for instance, Elinor Richey Soderberg, a Black freelance writer, sent him a postcard:

“Sometimes when you are in your bed at night doesn’t your soul ache for the lies you concocted for the sake of ameliorating a vicious democracy-crushing political machine?”

That’s a brutal postcard for anyone to receive, but, in another context, the harsh language could have easily come from Marciniak’s typewriter.

His friend, Ald. Leon Despres, representing the Hyde Park area, later took Marciniak to task for his work for Daley after the mayor obtained an injunction against open housing marches in the city.

“In marginal matters, your work has been impeccable…As you have trod the primrose path, the concessions which started as slight ones have grown monstrous….I think you have been seduced into doing harm you did not intend to do when you undertook the job.”

After a dozen years in various positions in the Daley administration, Marciniak left to become an “outsider” again. And it’s a measure of his strong activist work before that tenure that he was able to pick up where he’d left off and take his place among the agitators and crusaders for the common good.

Ed Marciniak’s City and Church: A Voice of Conscience is a valuable book that tells not only the story of Marciniak’s life and work but also of the generations of other activists who worked with him and were mentored by him and were influenced by him—and, yes, who fought with him.

During his six-decade career, Marciniak and those allies helped to make Chicago a better place—for all Chicagoans, but especially for those on the margins.

Ed Marciniak’s City and Church: A Voice of Conscience is available at bookstores and through the Acta Publications website.

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Patrick T. Reardon
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).