Thousands pay their respects to late Cardinal Edward Egan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

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NEW YORK (PIX11) -- A somber Cardinal Timothy Dolan led a small procession of bishops to receive the body of his predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, at St. Patrick's Cathedral Monday morning.  Egan's relatives waited inside for a private, morning viewing.

The 82-year-old Egan died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest Thursday, after finishing lunch at his Manhattan residence.

Edward Michael Egan, an Illinois native, was appointed the ninth Archbishop of New York on May 11, 2000, several days after his predecessor, John O'Connor, was buried in the crypt beneath St. Patrick's.

Egan served for nine years, until his retirement in 2009. In recent New York history, it was unusual for an archbishop not to die in his "seat" -- heading one of the nation's most prominent archdioceses. He led 2.7 million Catholics.

Egan stepped down, after Pope Benedict XVI accepted his resignation letter, when Egan turned 75.

On Monday morning, Joseph Zwilling, communications director for the New York Archdiocese for 30 years, spoke to PIX11 News about Cardinal Egan and his tenure, as we waited for Egan's hearse to arrive from Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home.

"I think for Cardinal Egan, yes- -- it was a tumultuous time," Zwilling said. "Has there ever been a calm time in the Church?"

Egan had to make fiscally difficult decisions to close or consolidate some parishes and schools and also deal with a growing sex abuse scandal in the American priesthood. He also comforted first responders and families after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to New York in April 2008. They visited a New York synagogue and said Mass for 60,000 at Yankee Stadium.

"When people look back on this era, yes -- they'll look at things like 9/11 -- they'll look at things like the sex abuse crisis, they'll look at things like Pope Benedict's visit to New York," Zwilling observed. "Of course, those are the historical points.  But the theme that underlies all of that was his devotion to the parishes and his commitment to the people," Zwilling said.

Zwilling developed a friendship with Cardinal Egan, calling him "probably the most gracious person I've met."

We asked Zwilling about Egan's wit, which many New York Catholics -- and some priests -- didn't see enough of, perhaps. Egan was known for his business-like manner, his keen management and fundraising skills, and his long-time work as a canon lawyer in Rome.

"He had a great sense of humor," Zwilling told PIX11. "He had this tremendous laugh. It would boom. That was the human side of him. I wish more people would have seen that side of him."

A vigil Mass will be held Monday evening at St. Patrick 's at 6 pm and more public viewing will follow until 9 p.m.

Cardinal Dolan will celebrate Egan's funeral Mass at 2 p.m. Tuesday. So far, 30 bishops and five Cardinals have confirmed they're attending.