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Friends, priests, strangers remember Archbishop Hannan

People who may have met Archbishop Philip Hannan only once in their lives – along with others who knew him more intimately – have filed past his casket in the last two days at Notre Dame Seminary.

The stories they tell are of a man who had a deep, personal love for


Dr. Joan Higgins, who in the late 1970s lived across South Carrollton Avenue from Notre Dame Seminary, recalled the regular series of serious traffic accidents at the troubled intersection of Carrollton and Walmsley avenues.

At least once a week, it seemed, Higgins would hear the screeching of tires and the subsequent crash of colliding metal. The culprit was a poorly designed signal light in which a car making what it thought was a protected left turn from Carrollton onto Walmsley was smashed by a car that actually had the right of way.

"As soon as we heard the crash, I would come out of my house to see what I could do," Higgins said. "A neighbor, an elderly woman, would bring a blanket, and another neighbor, a big, burly man, would come to the scene because he was strong enough to move things. And then, without fail, Archbishop Hannan would come out of his residence to offer comfort to the people involved in the accident."

Higgins said what impressed her most about the archbishop's pastoral concern was that he stayed with the accident victims until the police and ambulance arrived. Sometimes, that took hours.

"This was in the days before cell phones," Higgins said. "The archbishop would not leave until he was sure everyone was OK or headed to the hospital for treatment. What he gave was a real gift of presence. That's what I'll remember about him – his presence."

The diversity of the memories was astounding. One woman talked about how her aunt, a Sister of the Holy Family who managed the archbishop's residence, would give her the archbishop's shirts to iron.

Another woman, Colleen Lewis, was a cook at Notre Dame Seminary for 10 years. Even though Lewis needed assistance and walked with a cane to get up the steps at Notre Dame Seminary, she knew she had to come to pay her respects.

"He was always a good person," Lewis said. "One night my daughter and I had finished work, and we were going to catch the bus to go home. He was taking his walk, and he said he was going to wait with us until we got on the bus. The bus came and he said bye-bye. He was just real nice to everyone."

 Lewis said she and the archbishop once talked about what would happen after death.

"He told me when he passed on, not to worry," Lewis said. "He said, 'I'm going to be up there talking with the Blessed Mother.'"

Father José Lavastida, the rector-president of Notre Dame Seminary, got an urgent call from Archbishop Hannan one Sunday in 2006.

"He said, 'I need to see you right away, can you come by?'" Father Lavastida said. "He was staying at St. Pius, so I went over there without even asking him what it was all about. When I rang the bell at the rectory, the door opened, and it was Mel Gibson. I said, 'I think I've seen you somewhere before.'"

Apparently, Archbishop Hannan and Gibson had developed a friendship. The troubled actor was enamored with the archbishop's patriotic, anti-communist and pro-life views, but he also was trying to start his own, ultra-conservative version of the Catholic church.

"The three of us talked about three hours," Father Lavastida. "Archbishop Hannan was trying to convince Gibson to come back to the church, and Gibson was trying to get the archbishop to come over to his side. It seemed like Gibson really respected the archbishop."

It might have been one of the few times Archbishop Hannan's powers of persuasion did not win the day. Msgr. Henry Engelbrecht said he will always remember the archbishop's fierce determination to serve the needy.

"He really did hear the cry of the poor," Msgr. Engelbrecht said. "I was in the seminary at the time he came, and the story is told among priests that for his first few months in New Orleans, he took the public service bus to get around town.

"I also know that he was fearless. Many people don't know that right after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the archbishop walked down the street of every major housing project and talked to people to try to keep things calm. He had no fear."

He also had single-minded purpose whenever he focused on something important to him and the church.

When Msgr. Christopher Nalty was working in the Congregation for Clergy at the Vatican in the early 2000s, he remembers getting a call at 10 a.m. Rome time from Archbishop Hannan.

That's 3 a.m. New Orleans time.

"I'll never forget it," Msgr. Nalty said. "It would be his secretary calling, 'Can you hold for Archbishop Hannan?' And then I would look at my watch. He was always passionate in promoting his initiatives, whether it was Muslim-Christian dialogue or anything else. What impressed me most about Archbishop Hannan was his indefatigability."