Archbishop Philip Hannan dies

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Posted on September 29, 2011 at 3:51 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 4 at 12:34 PM

Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News

Archbishop Philip Hannan, whose 23 years as influential leader of the Archdiocese of New Orleans capped a career which included time spent as a World War II combat chaplain and confidant to political leaders such as John F. Kennedy, has died.  He was 98.

Hannan died shortly after 3 a.m.

"Archbishop Philip Hannan peacefully died in his sleep, he was called home to the Lord," said current Archbishop Gregory Aymond. "At 98, he lived a full life dedicated to God and his church. We will miss him. We commend him to the Lord." 

The Archdiocese of New Orleans confirmed Hannan will be buried underneath the altar of the St. Louis Cathedral.

"Today, New Orleans has lost one of its greatest leaders in our nearly 300-year history," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “Archbishop Hannan was a devoted man to his family, his church, and this community.  He consistently stood for a vibrant, God-fearing community, and he truly was a spiritual shepherd to his flock.”

For generations of New Orleans Catholics, Hannan was always the archbishop.   Even after his retirement, and the appointment of three other archbishops, Hannan was never far from the public spotlight.

“In my opinion, when you’re ordained as a priest forever, you’re supposed to stay active forever,” Hannan said in a 2002 interview. 

Although Hannan suffered a stroke in 2007, his age and medical condition did little to slow him down, even as he neared 100. 

"He's like the Energizer Bunny and he's had like 95 lives," commented Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who was ordained a priest by Hannan in 1975.

In 2010, Hannan held book signings for the release of his memoir, “The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots: From Combat to Camelot to Katrina,” co-authored with Peter Finney Jr. and Nancy Collins.  

Officially, Hannan retired as archbishop in 1988, nearly 25 years after taking over as shepherd of the flock soon after Hurricane Betsy

The 11th Archbishop of New Orleans, Hannan came to the city in 1965, at a time when the city was still suffering the devastating effects of the hurricane.

He was in Rome at the time, serving as a church spokesman at the Second Vatican Council, when he learned of his new assignment.  He recalled how, when a church official handed him a piece of paper with the new job description, Hannan asked for some time to consider the challenge.

“He said, ‘You read it, didn’t you?  Nobody turns down the Holy Father.’  He said, ‘Sign it.’  That was my voluntary acceptance of the appointment,” Hannan joked.

Hannan couldn't have imagined how much New Orleans Catholics needed a leader at the time.

“It was not only that every one of our buildings had been damaged very badly, but some of the churches had just been swept away,” he recalled.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond marveled at Hannan's "paratrooping" spirit, clearly on display in the days after the Betsy. 

"He left Vatican II and came to New Orleans, put on the boots and went out and waded in the water," Aymond said.  "From that point on, he has truly endeared himself to so many people and has become an important fabric of our community."

As was the case 40 years later, when Hannan rode out Hurricane Katrina inside his Metairie office building, Hannan said he realized that Louisiana's spirit of generosity and caring would help carry people through Hurricane Betsy's aftermath.

“What I liked the most about the people of New Orleans was that they looked after each other,” Hannan said in 2002.  “You see, I come from Washington, D.C., and not everybody feels responsible for a neighbor up there.  But here I found all kind of stories about people taking care of neighbors, taking care of infirm people.”

The rebuilding of churches and schools after Hurricane Betsy would lay the groundwork for a period of extensive physical growth that the archdiocese witnessed during Archbishop Hannan's tenure.  It included the construction of new schools and suburban churches, as well as expanded social services programs.

Hannan’s shining moment came in September 1987, when for 36 hours, he was at the Holy  Father's side, as Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans.  

The pope's visit was part of a 10-day, nine-city U.S. tour.  John Paul met with clergy in St. Louis Cathedral, held three sessions in the Superdome, celebrated outdoor Mass at the Lakefront and visited Xavier University.

Hannan called the visit his greatest day and spent hours with the pope, as part of a visit that took 16 months of planning to fulfill a dream that many had shared for years. 

In 1984, Hannan brought the city a new television station, one with religion and education as part of its mission.  He was instrumental in forming WLAE-TV, the city’s second PBS television affiliate, originally housed in studios inside the Notre Dame Seminary.  The station brought Hannan a new vocation as a religious broadcaster, who traveled the world as co-host of a weekly show, “Focus.”

For his television broadcasts, Hannan interviewed world leaders and political figures – a more secular pursuit which mirrored some of the events for which he made news after his retirement.

In 1996, he dramatically told Louisiana Catholics that "no Catholic should vote for... President Clinton or Mary Landrieu" because of their support of abortion rights.

"If a person actually believes in Catholic doctrine, I don't see how they can avoid it being a sin" to vote for either candidate, he said at the time.

Dabbling in political affairs was nothing new for Hannan.  As a priest and bishop in his native Washington, D.C., Hannan was a close friend of the Kennedy family and was there for them in times of tragedy.  He delivered eulogies at the funerals for President John F. Kennedy in 1963, as well as for his brother Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994.

Hannan met the Kennedys in the 1960s, while serving as a priest bishop in the nation’s capitol.  His 2010 memoir revealed new details about his longstanding relationship with the family, through letters sent by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to the then-bishop.

After attending Maryland’s St. Charles College and the Catholic University of America, Hannan enlisted as a seminarian in the Old North American College in Rome.  During this time, he witnessed the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, which would form the basis for a 2003 book, "Rome: Living Under the Axis."

Ordained a priest in 1939, Hannan later enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving as a paratroop chaplain with combat troops during World War II and also serving briefly as pastor of the Cathedral in Cologne during the American occupation. 

As a chaplain with the 82nd Airborne, Hannan gave solace to soldiers who faced death during World War II.  He called those his “purest memories” as a priest. 

He wrote extensively about his war experiences and gave generously of his time and memories to the National World War II Museum.

Hannan was the recipient of numerous honors and accolades during his time in New Orleans, including the naming in his honor of the first Catholic high school in St. Bernard Parish.  Archbishop Hannan High School relocated to St. Tammany Parish after Hurricane Katrina.

Click here for information on funeral arrangements.

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