Monday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Archbishop Phillip Hannan, who passed away in September 2011, about twenty months shy of reaching the century mark.
Had Archbishop Hannan lived to see today, there would have doubtlessly been a major fete held in his honor. Instead of a grand party in 2013, Hannan received a sendoff in 2011 that reflected the respect he commanded from the community at-large, regardless of faith.
At his funeral, current Archbishop Gregory Aymond related a conversation he had with Hannan about what he would do when the popular religious leader passed. Hannan’s reply, “Become archbishop.”
It was not a remark born of arrogance but a fair estimation of his standing in the community. Hannan was a high-profile clergyman who arrived in the Crescent City at the age of 52 after Hurricane Betsy wrecked much of New Orleans and maintained a busy schedule even after three other men assumed the title of archbishop.
And though his best known hat was his archbishop’s mitre, Hannan had also worn the helmet of a paratrooper during World War II and the fedora of a reporter, covering Vatican II and as a journalist, news program host and documentary producer during what passed for a retirement.
The then-92 year old archbishop stayed behind in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to guard his studio equipment from looters, armed with only a golf club and provisioned with a jar of peanut butter. When the storm passed, Hannan delved into his work filming Katrina’s impact on south Louisiana on weekdays while assuming the duties of that of a parish priest on weekends, albeit one with a large hat.
One the biggest reasons why Hannan was so beloved was his ability to seamlessly connect with virtually anyone, from influential businessmen to the average church parishioner. Being the center of attention almost anywhere he went, Hannan truly enjoyed just being around people regardless of social rank, though Hannan rubbed elbows with some of the most powerful people in the country.
Hannan was a close friend of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby and his most treasured possessions were correspondences between him and the Kennedy family that he kept in a small black briefcase that went with him wherever he traveled.
Hannan had also mentioned that before being assigned to New Orleans he had some interactions with President Lyndon Johnson through LBJ’s daughter Luci, who had converted to Roman Catholicism and was familiar with the bishop’s ties with the Kennedy family.
One way Hannan bonded with the hoi polloi was through his love of sports. Before his death Hannan was in a fairly exclusive club of individuals living in the 21st century who had seen the legendary “Big Train” Walter Johnson pitch.
And though a native of the District of Columbia, Hannan was a die-hard Saints fan. Hannan blessed the name of New Orleans’ new NFL franchise when some voiced concern about the moniker being religiously offensive and later composed a special prayer for the Black and Gold rich with puns and Biblical references that a more pretentious man of the cloth would never dream of delivering.
One of my favorite memories of Hannan was from 2006 when I accompanied him to Tom Benson’s suite for the home game against the Redskins. The retired archbishop was fixated on the play on the field and not his accommodations or his host.
The only thing missing were cups of beer and swear words as Hannan vocally lamented the team’s poor performance, even letting Benson catch an earful how the team shouldn’t expect to go far in the post-season if they continued to play so sloppily.
As Hannan threw on his coat and donned his hat, I stood there looking at the team owner trying my damndest to avoid exploding in laughter. Benson looked as if he was on verge of exploding as well, but for a vastly different reason.
When you survive a close encounter with a shell from German 88 mm gun , there’s not much left on earth to fear even a cantankerous sports franchise owner.
While his soul has joined the legions of people he baptized, confirmed, married and buried, Archbishop Hannan’s mortal remains were lowered under the floor of Saint Louis Cathedral, below the very altar where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass during Hannan’s last days as archbishop and the burial site of colonial Louisiana’s luminaries and his predecessors as leader of southeast Louisiana’s Catholics.
A man who has witnessed up close so much history could have no more appropriate resting place.
Happy 100th birthday arch.