Philip Matthew Hannan; archbishop gave eulogies for Kennedy brothers

The archbishop served in New Orleans for many years. Soldiers helped after Hurricane Katrina. The archbishop served in New Orleans for many years. Soldiers helped after Hurricane Katrina. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images/File 2005)
By Mary Foster
Associated Press / September 30, 2011

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NEW ORLEANS - Archbishop Philip Matthew Hannan, who gave the eulogy for President John F. Kennedy and later served more than two decades as head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, died yesterday. He was 98.

The archdiocese said Archbishop Hannan died peacefully shortly after 3 a.m. He had been in declining health for years.

He was the 11th archbishop in New Orleans history and one of the most active. When he turned 75 and had to retire as archbishop, he became president of WLAE-TV, the public television station he founded.

Assigned to New Orleans in 1965 from Washington, where he had been auxiliary bishop since 1956, he found that the old St. Louis Cathedral - in the middle of an area of the French Quarter filled with tourists, street performers, tarot card readers, and musicians - had a unique pleasure for a churchman.

“This is the only city where an archbishop can walk into his cathedral while a band outside in Jackson Square is playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ ’’ he said.

He was also touched by the plight of the city’s poor, especially those affected by Hurricane Betsy the year he arrived, said Gordon Wadge, president of Catholic Charities of New Orleans.

He began a summer program to help boost education for black children by combining classroom work with recreation. At the time, public swimming pools were closing to avoid integration, Wadge said, so Archbishop Hannan brought the children to the pool at Notre Dame Seminary.

“He said we’ll just have all the kids come swimming at my house,’’ Wadge said.

After Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, his widow, Jacqueline, asked Archbishop Hannan to deliver the eulogy because of his close relationship with the president, which dated back to the 1940s. He became friends with Kennedy by smoothing over a misunderstanding that Kennedy had with a Jesuit priest.

He also officiated at a quiet reburial of two Kennedy infants in 1964 so their bodies could be near their father’s in Arlington National Cemetery.

“We did it in the middle of the night, and so quietly that we caught everyone off guard,’’ Archbishop Hannan said in 1965. “Not even the Army chauffeurs knew where they were going when they picked us up.’’

In 1968, Archbishop Hannan returned to Washington from New Orleans to give the graveside eulogy for Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died of cancer in 1994, Archbishop Hannan was again at Arlington to preside at a brief service preceding her burial.

As archbishop of New Orleans, he combined conservative politics and service to the poor.

Highlights of his tenure as archbishop included the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II, a visit that the archbishop began angling for in 1984. After a while, said Archbishop Hannan, “Every time he saw me, he’d simply say, ‘New Orleans! New Orleans!’ ’’

Archbishop Hannan lost a struggle to block the “no nukes’’ pastoral letter approved by the nation’s Catholic bishops in Chicago in 1983. He argued that the politics inherent in the letter could not help disarmament talks.

“Obviously, if the Russians think that 50 million Catholics are going to believe that we must say a no to nuclear war . . . then, of course, we have no strength from which to argue for disarmament,’’ he said.

And he was outspoken in his opposition to abortion. When Senator Mary Landrieu ran for her first term in 1996, Archbishop Hannan said it would be a sin to vote for her because she supported abortion rights.

Despite what were labeled conservative views, Archbishop Hannan had few peers in liberal social action.

He created what was at the time the largest housing program for the elderly, 2,780 units, of any US diocese. The New Orleans Archdiocese also operates one of the largest Catholic Charities in the nation. When Archbishop Hannan stepped down, its $20 million budget was helping more than 47,000 people a year.

Under his guidance, the church set up a hospice for AIDS patients. He said there was no contradiction in a ministry for homosexuals and drug addicts.

“We disapprove, too, of people being alcoholics or drinking too much, but we sure try to take care of them if they have that problem,’’ he said.

Saints owner Tom Benson said Archbishop Hannan was a friend who attended many games, including the team’s Super Bowl victory in Miami.

“Archbishop Hannan once told me that the New Orleans Saints were part of the unique culture and social fabric of our city,’’ Benson said. “The same can be and must be said of him.’’

Archbishop Hannan was born in Washington, the fourth of eight children born to an Irish immigrant and a fourth-generation Washingtonian. His late sister, Dr. Mary Mahoney, once was president of the National Conference of Catholic Women.

He was ordained in Rome in 1938 and served two years at a church in Baltimore, then volunteered as a paratroops chaplain in World War II, getting the nickname “The Jumping Padre.’’

In 1945, Archbishop Hannan helped liberate a camp of starving prisoners from the German prisoner of war camp at Wobbelin. He was discharged in 1946 with the rank of major.

Decades after he left Washington, Archbishop Hannan still chuckled about the time President Truman, a card-playing Baptist, called him for a discreet visit to the Oval Office.

“Harry Truman had just been bawled out by his pastor . . . for proposing an ambassador to the Holy See. Now he was calling in a priest to bless a huge St. Christopher medal for a new presidential airplane.’’

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