A Biography of Archbishop Philip M. Hannan
Written by Peter Finney, Editor, The Clarion Herald
The Early Years
Philip Matthew 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 holds 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.
The Paratrooper Priest
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. Discharged in 1946 he held the rank of major.
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 1952, Pope Pius XII honored Father Hannan by making him a Papal Chamberlain with the title of Very Reverend Monsignor. And in December 1955, Pope Pius XII raised him to the rank of Domestic Prelate with the title of Right Reverend Monsignor.
Elevated to Bishop
Pope Pius XII named Msgr. Hannan Titular Bishop of Hieropolis and auxiliary to Archbishop Patrick 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. “I hope you will number me among those who, although absent this evening, are joining in spirit with all your family and friends in congratulating you and wishing you well,” President Eisenhower said. “In war, you united the values of patriotism and religion through your distinguished service as a paratroop chaplain. 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.”
Two months after becoming auxiliary bishop, Bishop Hannan was honored by Georgetown University with a doctor of laws degree. In November 1957, Bishop Hannan was appointed assistant episcopal chairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference Immigration Department, a position he held for the next five years. Following the death of Bishop McNamara in 1960, Archbishop O’Boyle named Bishop Hannan to the post of vicar general of the archdiocese. Two years later, due to the expanding duties as auxiliary bishop of Washington and vicar general, Bishop Hannan relinquished the post of chancellor, a position he had held for 11 years
Attending Vatican Council II
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.
Upon the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, Bishop Hannan left the second session of the Vatican Council and returned to Washington to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of the late President. The eulogy quoted large portions of Kennedy’s historic Inaugural Address in January 1961.
President Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline had asked Bishop Hannan to deliver the eulogy because of his close personal relationship with her husband, which stretched back to the late 1940s. Then-Father Hannan became friends with the up-and-coming Massachusetts Congressman by smoothing over a misunderstanding that Kennedy had with a local Jesuit priest who had pushed him to take a stronger role in protesting the Mexican government’s anti-Catholic stance. That confidential relationship lasted throughout Kennedy’s successful bid to become the first Catholic president of the United States.
In 1968, Archbishop Hannan again 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.
The New Archbishop of New Orlean
The appointment of Bishop Hannan to become the 11th Archbishop of New Orleans was announced in Washington on Sept. 29, 1956 – about three weeks after Hurricane Betsy had devastated New Orleans. At that time he was attending sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome. He flew to New Orleans on Oct. 12 and was installed the following day in St. Louis Cathedral by Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, apostolic delegate in the United States.
The new archbishop was immediately confronted with the problem of surveying the massive damage inflicted by Betsy. The archbishop personally visited the areas affected and disbursed funds and other relief goods and materials to those families affected by the storm (a gesture he repeated in 1969 following Hurricane Camille).
Archbishop Hannan’s Social Apostolate
One of the areas in which Archbishop Hannan had the greatest impact upon the community was social work. Shortly after his arrival in the city, he walked the streets of the poor sections of New Orleans, including 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 also supported the Social Apostolate movement into the Economic Development Project, and a neighborhood-based housing program for the elderly. In addition, Archbishop Hannan sought out and accepted responsibility for the administration of the federally sponsored “Food for Families” for low-income families. Millions of pounds of high-protein, surplus foods are distributed by the Catholic Church annually to more than 23,000 nursing mothers and pre-school children each month.
In recent years, the archbishop was successful in bringing to New Orleans the Second Harvesters 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.
A Commitment of Outreach to Refugees
The interest of the archbishop went beyond social action to all fields of human need. He actively supported the work of the Catholic Cuban Center in helping to resettle refugees here following the Castro revolution and helped other programs which assisted minority groups. 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.
Because of his leadership in the refugee resettlement program, the archbishop was asked by Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1978 to head a delegation to Vietnam charged with making final preparations for the release of a number of Vietnamese women and children who were left behind by their American husbands and fathers after the collapse of the Saigon government. Following a meeting with Premier Pham Van Dong, the American delegation left Vietnam with 29 women and children and escorted them to the U.S. The Vietnamese premier also agreed during the meeting to the archbishop’s request for the reuniting of additional families separated by the war.
Outreach to the Poor – Catholic Charities
Catholic Charities was yet another area of social concern that Archbishop Hannan helped to revitalize during his tenure in New Orleans. 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. It now operates a wide variety of programs caring 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, emergency assistance programs for the homeless and the hungry, a parish social ministry network operating throughout the archdiocese, and a number of other services.
In 1988, Catholic Charities’ 750 employees, and an equal number of volunteers, served more than 40,000 clients on a budget of nearly $18 million. It was the largest non-governmental social service agency in the metropolitan area.
From his tours of depressed areas, Archbishop Hannan developed a deep commitment to involve the archdiocese in housing development for low and middle-income families through federally sponsored housing programs. He supported zoning changes in the city to allow for construction of “scattered site” housing, paving the way for the archdiocesan-sponsored Christopher Homes, Inc., to provide hundreds of units for needy families.
Care of the Elderly
Another strong commitment of the archbishop was in the area of nursing care and residential facilities for the elderly. Following the dramatic success of Wynhoven Apartments on the West Bank, Archbishop Hannan launched a massive $4.4 million campaign in 1973 to provide seed money for five residence and nursing homes for the elderly to cost in excess of $26 million. Known as the HORIZONS Program for the Aged, the campaign was immediately successful, supported financially by individuals and businesses, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Many additional residences for the elderly were erected as an extension of the HORIZONS Program. By 1988, the Archdiocese was operating nearly 2,900 residential units or nursing beds, all of which were constructed during Archbishop Hannan’s tenure. So respected was the archdiocesan housing program that a Capital Campaign in 1986 – designed to raise $6 million for two additional nursing homes and for a trust fund for education – received more than $13 million in pledges.
A Love for Education
Catholic education was a point of deep and abiding concern for Archbishop Hannan. While encouraging religious sisters and brothers to continue their work in Catholic schools, the archbishop realized the role that the laity must play in Catholic education. As far back as 1968 the archbishop encouraged the creation of the first elective Archdiocesan School Board, which in 1972 hired its first lay superintendent of schools. The archbishop also directed the board to create a new division with the Department of Education to conduct long-range planning for the system and to constantly review teacher salaries and retirement benefits.
The archbishop, with the approval of the Priests’ Council, set up a special fund to give financial assistance to schools in poorer neighborhoods of the inner city so that a Catholic education could be available to as many children as possible. The result was that some inner-city schools – faced with financial disaster – were able to continue operation. The establishment of the educational trust fund, resulting from the 1986 capital campaign, helped stem the tide of school closures.
Because of his leadership in helping to keep open as many inner-city schools as possible, more and more children from disadvantaged families were given the opportunity to receive a Catholic education. Black students made up 45.4 percent of the Catholic school enrollment in the city of New Orleans during 1987-88.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans took the lead in the South in the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church, and Archbishop Hannan was a leader in the United States in working for its reestablishment.
In 1972 the first candidates began their preparation for ordination to the permanent diaconate and were ordained two years later. Today more than 180 permanent deacons serve the archdiocese in a variety of ministries. They are working in hospitals, nursing homes and are deeply involved in every phase of parish life and structure. In addition, permanent deacons receive specialized training to enable them to work in the prison ministry and with seamen who are served through the port chaplain.
During his tenure in New Orleans, Archbishop Hannan created 39 new parishes and revitalized the archdiocesan building program. After a period of retrenchment following Betsy to allow the archdiocese to reduce its debt, the archbishop meticulously renewed the building program to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful and social needs of the community at large. In 1975-76, as the archdiocese’s gift to the nation’s bicentennial observance, the archbishop conducted a $1 million fund-raising campaign to restore the historic St. Louis Cathedral. A decade later, the archdiocese had either just completed or had under construction some $25 million in building projects, including churches, schools, parish centers, rectories and social service facilities.
Proclaiming the Good News Through Mass Communication
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.
Archbishop Hannan was one of the first to endorse the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition by announcing that Pope John Paul II had agreed to the establishment of a Vatican Pavilion at the fair. Nearly 100 priceless works of art from the Vatican and from renowned museums the world over were featured at the pavilion, an exhibit which received critical acclaim.
A constant promoter of New Orleans and Louisiana, Archbishop Hannan was honored in 1973 by the New Orleans Sales and Marketing Executives Association as the Distinguished Salesman of the Year, the first clergyman ever to receive the award in its 25-year history. His work for Catholic colleges earned for him the St. Mary’s Dominican College Medal and the Integritas Vitae of Loyola University. He received several honorary degrees, was awarded the Freedoms Foundation George Washington Medal, and received honors from numerous organizations such as the Louisiana Council of Music and the Performing Arts, the Boy Scouts of America, the Salvation Army, the Sons of the American Revolution, the American Legion, the Information Council of the Americas, and the Press Club of New Orleans. In 1983 he received the most prestigious award presented to a New Orleans civic leader, “The Times-Picayune Loving Cup.” In 1987, Catholic University, on the occasion of its Centennial Celebration, honored the archbishop by naming its new $14 million science center Hannan Hall. At the same ceremonies the university conferred upon the archbishop an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree.
The Visit of Pope John Paul II
The greatest moment of Archbishop Hannan’s episcopacy came in September 1987 when Pope John Paul II visited New Orleans as part of a nine-city tour. The Holy Father spoke to clergy and religious at the Cathedral, had a motorcade through the Central Business District, gave three addresses at the Louisiana Superdome, celebrated an outdoor Mass at the University of New Orleans, and met with Catholic college leaders at Xavier University.
The 36-hour visit was planned and carried out by an army of volunteers. People of all faiths cooperated to make the papal visit the great success that it was, a spirit of cooperation among New Orleanians, which Archbishop Hannan has often admired and applauded.
Archbishop Hannan High School
The people of St. Bernard Parish had been requesting for years the construction of a Catholic high school. The Archbishop promised to build them a high school and in 1987, he fullfilled that promise with the opening of Archbishop Hannan High School in Meraux, the first and only Catholic high school in St. Bernard Parish. When deciding on the school’s name and vision for the school, the people of St. Bernard Parish agreed that the school should be named in honor of the Archbishop and it’s vision would reflect his commitment to education, the poor and and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Archbishop Hannan High School grew steadily, developing pristine academic and athletic facilities. The school was forced to reolcate to the northshore after devastating flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It reopened temporarily on the grounds of St. Joseph Abbey and then moved to a new campus in Goodbee for the 2008-09 academic year.
On May 20, 1988, Archbishop Hannan observed his 75th birthday, the mandatory retirement age for Roman Catholic bishops. His successor, Archbishop Francis B. Schulte, was named later that year and installed in February 1989.
Living An Active Retirement
Upon his retirement as Archbishop of New Orleans, Archbishop Hannan asked to continue his ministry in television as president of WLAE-TV, the public station that he founded. Assuming those duties full-time, Archbishop Hannan raised the funds to support the station and co-hosted “Focus,” a weekly half-hour religious news, feature and interview program. “Focus” took its cameras to many parts of the world, often to dramatize the role that religion and the faith of the local people have played in bringing about the fall of Communism in the captive nations of Europe an Asia, as well as in Central America. His specials have included documentaries on Nicaragua, Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Ukraine, Russia and Siberia. “Focus” also traveled to Rome to report on the meeting of Pope John Paul II and then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
In June 2009 – shortly after his 97th birthday – Archbishop Hannan released his autobiography, “The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots: Memoir of an Extraordinary Life,” which detailed his role as a paratroop chaplain for the 82nd Airborne during WWII, his advisory relationship with President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, his role as a communications advisor and bishop during all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and his tenure as the 11th archbishop of New Orleans (1965-89). An avid fan of the New Orleans Saints, Archbishop Hannan attended Super Bowl XLIV in Miami at the request of owner Tom Benson and cheered the team to victory. (The archbishop offered the prayer before the Saints’ first game in 1967 at Tulane Stadium.)
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.”