Retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Matthew Hannan, a WWII paratroop chaplain who befriended and secretly counseled John F. Kennedy during and after his historic march to the White House as the first U.S. Catholic president, died Thursday, Sept. 29, at 3 a.m. at the age of 98.
Archbishop Hannan was the third-oldest U.S. bishop, behind Newark Archbishop Peter L. Gerety, who turned 99 on July 19, and Buffalo Auxiliary Bishop Bernard J. McLaughlin, who will turn 99 on Nov. 19. He was one of the last two surviving U.S. bishops to have attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as a bishop. The lone survivor is former Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, 90.
A staunch defender of civil rights and the unborn as well as a fierce proponent during the Second Vatican Council of the morality of nuclear deterrence, Archbishop Hannan, then 92, burnished his reputation for fearlessness in 2005 by riding out Hurricane Katrina alone in the fortress-like studios of Focus Worldwide, an offshoot of the television network he created in the 1980s.
Although the building's backup generator failed, the veteran 82nd Airborne chaplain had a ready supply of water, peanut butter and crackers – as well as a trusty 3-wood to ward off potential looters. Five days later, he talked his way through police barricades and drove across the 24-mile Causeway bridge over Lake Pontchartrain to give emotional pep talks to weary first responders in St. Tammany Parish.
Never the master of understatement, he called it "the easiest drive of my life."
Archbishop Hannan was one of eight children born to an Irish immigrant who struck it rich as a plumber to the wealthy diplomats and government officials living in the tony Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
He was ordained auxiliary bishop of Washington in 1956 and was attending the final session of Vatican II – with the responsibility because of his background as a Catholic newspaper editor of coordinating the daily press briefings for English-speaking reporters – when Pope Paul VI appointed him as the 11th archbishop of New Orleans on Sept. 29, 1965. The appointment came 20 days after Hurricane Betsy had flooded and damaged large swaths of New Orleans.
He served as Archbishop of New Orleans until 1988, endearing himself to a Catholic populace that could be wary of outsiders through his plain talk against abortion – which drew the ire of pro-choice Catholic politicians – and through his outreach to the poor, the elderly and those of other faiths.
Archbishop Hannan had become increasingly frail in recent months due to a series of strokes and other health problems. He moved in June from his private residence in Covington, La., to Chateau de Notre Dame, a senior apartment complex and elder care facility he first envisioned and then dedicated in 1977 to provide for seniors in archdiocese.
He was a dynamo in building affordable apartments for the poor and elderly, using his vast D.C. experience to navigate government channels that could provide easy financing for many of the projects. The result was Christopher Homes, the housing arm of the archdiocese that now provides thousands of affordable apartments.
In 2010, Archbishop Hannan published his memoirs, “The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots,” which documented his fascinating career as a seminarian in Rome in the 1930s during the buildup to WWII, his service as a paratroop chaplain for the 82nd Airborne and his confidential relationship with President Kennedy when he was an auxiliary bishop of Washington.
Archbishop Hannan and Kennedy were so close that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked him to deliver the eulogy at the assassinated president’s funeral Mass on Nov. 25, 1963, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. According to church protocol, that responsibility normally would have fallen to Washington Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, who graciously allowed his auxiliary to deliver the eulogy.
His relationship with Kennedy began in the late 1940s, when then-Father Hannan was serving as assistant chancellor in Washington and Kennedy, a war hero, was a wealthy, upstart Congressman from Massachusetts. A Jesuit priest had arrived at Kennedy's office unannounced and had proceeded to lecture him about the duties of a Catholic Congressman in defending the church in Mexico against persecution by the Mexican government.
Kennedy did not take kindly to the impromptu visit, and when a Congressional colleague told Msgr. Hannan about the incident, he told her to have Kennedy call him directly. In one phone call, Msgr. Hannan defused the tension by assuring Kennedy that the priest had violated protocol by approaching a member of Congress directly, and he promised to speak to the priest.
Kennedy's tone on the phone softened, and the two began a confidential relationship that endured beyond his run to the White House. Because no Catholic had ever run successfully for president – and because of the potential backlash of Protestant voters who believed the Vatican might be pulling the strings on a Catholic politician – both Kennedy and Bishop Hannan decided to keep their relationship secret.
After Kennedy's death, Jacqueline Kennedy wrote several personal letters to Archbishop Hannan, thanking him for his pastoral concern and for his funeral eulogy, which was based on the president's favorite Scripture verses and on his famous 1961 inaugural speech. She also described the anguish she felt about losing her husband in such a brutal fashion.
Archbishop Hannan said he decided to reprint her letters in his autobiography to dispel the notion that Jacqueline Kennedy did not have a deep love and affection for her husband. Although he suspected the First Lady knew personally about her husband's womanizing, Archbishop Hannan said he did not know about it until many years later. He never heard Kennedy's confession.
"Her letters present a resounding refutation of the rumors and innuendo that the marriage of John and Jacqueline Kennedy was more one of convenience than affection," Archbishop Hannan wrote in his autobiography. "In the long run, these anguished notes prove, despite opinions to the contrary, that her husband's infidelity had not irreparably harmed their marriage, that theirs was a relationship grounded in a deep, emotional conviction until the very end."
"... Despite all of Jack's faults, Jackie loved her husband – as her words prove," he wrote.
In 1968, Archbishop Hannan returned to Washington from New Orleans to deliver the graveside eulogy at the funeral of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. In 1994, he offered graveside prayers at the interment of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in Arlington National Cemetery.
Archbishop Hannan retired one year after the historic 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II to New Orleans, an event he often called the highlight of his life as a priest.
He had only two regrets about the pope's visit: he could not convince Secret Service agents to allow Pope John Paul II to walk two blocks from St. Louis Cathedral to view the Mississippi River – it was disallowed because of security concerns – and he forgot to have a tape recorder ready when the pope broke into an impromptu version of "Salve Regina" at the conclusion of a talk to Catholic educators at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Still, the visit was a smashing success, with non-Catholic entities rallying to make the pope feel welcome and with the cash-strapped state government picking up additional costs for papal security.
"Don't worry," Gov. Edwin Edwards told Archbishop Hannan before the visit. "If we have to, we'll rob Peter to pay for John Paul."
Archbishop Hannan started educational television station WLAE in the 1980s and was still filing television reports as late as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One week after the storm, when an Army helicopter carrying Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, the papal envoy, and several other bishops landed in a field in Biloxi, Miss., Archbishop Hannan – along with his cameraman – was waiting for them to conduct interviews for his TV show.
Archbishop Hannan was born in Washington, D.C. on May 20, 1913, the fifth of eight children (one girl and seven boys) born to Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Francis Hannan. His father, an Irish immigrant known by friends and family as “The Boss,” came to the U.S. at 18 and found work as a plumber, building his trade into a flourishing business that weathered even the Great Depression.
Archbishop Hannan was a member of St. Matthew’s Cathedral Parish and attended Immaculate Conception grade school and St. John’s College High School in Washington. A leader in both scholastic work and sports activities, he captained the winning cadet company his senior year at St. John’s.
As graduation approached, Archbishop Hannan startled his own family at the dinner table by announcing that instead of taking the test for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he would enter the seminary to pursue a vocation to the priesthood.
He attended St. Charles College in Catonville, Md., and the Sulpician Seminary in Washington, receiving a master’s degree from Catholic University before going in 1936 to the North American College in Rome, where he experienced firsthand the growing tensions in Europe and the preparations for WWII. He earned a licentiate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome and a doctorate in canon law from the Catholic University of America.
Ordained in Rome on Dec. 8, 1939, by Bishop Ralph Hayes of Davenport, Iowa, then rector of the North American College, Father Hannan remained in Rome until the following summer, when all American seminarians were ordered by the U.S. secretary of state to leave to ensure their personal safety. He celebrated his first solemn Mass in the United States on June 16, 1940, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington.
Following his ordination, he was assigned by Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore and served as an assistant for two years at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Baltimore.
In 1942 he volunteered as a wartime paratroop chaplain and served with the 505th Parachute Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. After cursory instructions on the ground, he took five practice jumps in order to earn his official status as a paratroop chaplain. After his first jump, he was appointed “jump master” to a small crew of greenhorn jumpers and he affectionately became known as “The Jumping Padre.”
Asked once asked if he feared jumping, Archbishop Hannan said relaxing and forgetting his dignity was the formula for safety. In 1945, as the horrors of Nazi prisoner-of-war camps became widely known, Chaplain Hannan liberated a camp of emaciated prisoners at Wöbbelin.
After the war Father Hannan was assigned as assistant at St. Mary’s Church, Washington. In 1948 he was appointed vice chancellor of the newly established Archdiocese of Washington and in 1949 completed his doctorate in canon law. Two years later he helped organize the Catholic Standard, the archdiocesan newspaper, and served as its editor-in-chief for the next 14 years.
During 1951, Father Hannan was named archdiocesan chancellor, succeeding Msgr. James E. Cowhig. In December 1955, Pope Pius XII raised him to the rank of monsignor.
Pope Pius XII named Msgr. Hannan auxiliary to Archbishop O’Boyle on June 16, 1956. As the first Washington native to serve in the archdiocese, Bishop Hannan chose for his episcopal motto a passage from St. Paul: “Charity is the bond of perfection.”
Bishop Hannan was consecrated on Aug. 28, 1956, in St. Matthew’s Cathedral by Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, the apostolic delegate to the United States, with co-consecrators Archbishop O’Boyle and Bishop John M. McNamara, an auxiliary bishop of Washington.
At the banquet honoring the newly elevated prelate, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent his best wishes to Bishop Hannan.
“In war, you united the values of patriotism and religion through your distinguished service as a paratroop chaplain," President Eisenhower wrote. "In peace, still a vigorous exponent of these same values, you also help your fellow citizens of all faiths in the enrichment of our cultural heritage and in the recognition of our civic responsibilities.”
Following the death of Bishop McNamara in 1960, Archbishop O’Boyle named Bishop Hannan vicar general of the archdiocese.
In 1962 Bishop Hannan joined the other council fathers in Rome for the first session of Vatican Council II. Appointed to two council posts, the Committee on Government of Dioceses and the Committee on Christian Unity, Bishop Hannan also served on the U.S. Catholic Conference committee established to assist secular press members covering the council’s proceedings.
During the second and third sessions of the Vatican Council, Bishop Hannan addressed the council fathers twice. The first address given in the second session was on “The Role of the Laity.” His second talk given during the third session was on “Nuclear Warfare,” an address that was widely acclaimed and persuaded the Council to accept the morality of nuclear deterrence.
One of the areas in which Archbishop Hannan had the greatest impact upon the community was social work. Shortly after his arrival in New Orleans, he walked the streets of the Desire Housing Development and immediately determined that a social action program needed to be instituted by the church.
From a modest beginning in the summer of 1966, with only 25 volunteers (many of them seminarians he recruited from around the country), the archdiocesan Social Apostolate program developed into a year-round activity at nearly a dozen centers, focusing on educational, recreational, cultural and social activities.
When the city’s public swimming pools were developing mysterious problems – meaning they could not be opened for blacks and whites to swim together – the archbishop decided to reward the children who attended his Summer Witness camps by making the swimming pool at Notre Dame Seminary available to them. Archbishop Hannan said he received some negative attention from whites but paid it no attention.
The archbishop was successful in bringing to New Orleans the Second Harvest Food Bank program, through which surplus foods were collected and distributed to non-profit institutions with congregate feeding programs, and the Elderly Supplemental Food Program, which provided free government surplus foods each month to nearly 19,000 needy senior citizens.
Following the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, through Catholic Charities, was one of the leaders in the nation, assisting in the resettlement of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Understanding the family focus of the Vietnamese culture, he tried to keep refugee families intact by accepting them in large numbers.
In 1965, Catholic Charities operated eight institutions and an adoption and foster child care program from its central offices. Today Catholic Charities is serving every conceivable type of human need through dozens of institutional and non-institutional programs, operating programs that care for children and senior citizens, institutions for the deaf and mentally disabled, programs for wayward youth, refugee and migration services, several homes for abused women and their children, a program coordinating services to AIDS victims.
In 1981 the archbishop announced that the archdiocese and two Catholic educational institutions in New Orleans would apply to the Federal Communications Commission for an available educational television channel to serve southeast Louisiana. WLAE-TV, Channel 32, went on the air in July 1984, providing educational and inspirational programming. It continued to develop and expand its programming in the ensuing years.
In the conclusion of his autobiography, Archbishop Hannan wrote: “The road to heaven begins – and ends – with faith in God from whom all blessings, wisdom, tolerance, joy and forgiveness have always – and will ever – flow. Consequently, I have come to believe that only when we actually get to heaven will we truly understand what we accomplished here on earth – especially when it concerns the priesthood.
"From my perspective as a priest – I will accomplish in death what I could not in life because as priests we are most fully alive when we die. If we don’t feel that way, we certainly have not served the cause of Christ as we were meant to. In the final spiritual analysis, to fulfill the will of God, a priest must die in life as did his own Son.
And when that times comes, with the grace of God, I am ready.”