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New Orleans bid a long, fond farewell last week to retired Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, who died Sept. 29 at the age of 98. Though retired since 1988, Hannan was the only archbishop that several generations of Catholics in New Orleans ever really knew, so strong was his influence on the church and on his adopted city.
By any measure, Hannan led an extraordinary — and fearless — life. As a young military chaplain, he jumped out of airplanes with the 82nd Airborne in World War II and helped liberate the Wöbbelin concentration camp. Assigned to his hometown of Washington, D.C., after the war, he became a confidant of the Kennedy family and delivered eulogies for John F. and Robert Kennedy, and he offered graveside prayers for Jackie Kennedy Onassis. In the 1960s, he attended all sessions of Vatican II, the Catholic Church's modernization movement. He came to New Orleans as archbishop in the wake of Hurricane Betsy. Here, he rebuilt the church physically, socially and spiritually.
I never formally interviewed Hannan, but I spoke to him several times during chance encounters — almost always while he was out walking. He loved to walk. I think he walked not only because it was healthy but also because he liked mingling with people. All people.
When he first arrived in New Orleans, Hannan walked in the Desire Housing Project. The poverty he encountered there affected him deeply. At a time when few white New Orleanians embraced racial integration, Hannan redirected massive church resources to social programs. In a symbolic gesture, he opened Notre Dame Seminary's swimming pool to children of all races during his first summer here, brushing aside the pushback he got from some whites.
The list of social programs he founded or enhanced testifies to his commitment to the poor: the Second Harvest Food Bank program; the Elderly Supplemental Food Program; the relocation to south Louisiana of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975; expanding the scope of social service programs offered by Catholic Charities to include dozens of institutional and non-institutional programs; and founding Christopher Homes, which provides thousands of affordable apartments.
Hannan held strong opinions about politics and the media, and he didn't hold back — with mixed results. He founded WLAE-TV (Channel 32) in the early 1980s and built it into a major source of educational and inspirational programming in southeast Louisiana. He spent Hurricane Katrina in one of his network's studios, then after five days living on peanut butter and crackers, he walked through police barricades to minister to first responders.
His politics became increasingly conservative in his later years, and in 1996 he lobbed a rhetorical grenade into Louisiana's U.S. Senate race when he said Catholics who voted for Mary Landrieu, a pro-choice Catholic, would be committing a sin. Landrieu won the race and is now in her third term as Louisiana's senior U.S. senator. Years later, I heard Hannan give an impassioned homily against abortion one Sunday. The congregation applauded when he was done.
Hannan served 23 years as archbishop of New Orleans, but he remained a strong spiritual and moral presence until his last day. Like the shepherd he chose to follow, he fearlessly challenged people on the right as well as the left, and he led by example.