Several years ago I had the privilege of meeting Archbishop Philip Hannan at a private fundraiser at a home in Lakeview. I was standing on the porch at the top of the stairs when I saw Hannan walk up. He came over, extended his hand and I introduced myself. He said something about my last name being a good Louisiana one and we stood talking for what seemed like several minutes.
What surprised me was that he was totally engaged in our conversation and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to move on. I mean a lot of times you meet someone famous and if they don’t know you just kind of exchange some pleasantries before they move onto someone ‘more important.’
Hannan was not like that at all. He was having a conversation with me and was totally focused on that and nothing else. We chatted as if we were old friends.
Right then it struck me why this man had been so successful as an archbishop and why he continued to be a such success in his retirement: He loved people and he loved New Orleans. He was totally authentic, without guile.
To be honest I had heard of Hannan, that he had been our archbishop for about 24 years and I guessed that he was well- liked. But I did not know too much about his accomplishments.
However, in meeting him and the way that he treated me and the ease with which we carried on a conversation told me all that I needed to know about the man. He was someone who was honest, had integrity, had a purpose and was driven by it and was also a man of God. Even though he was in his 90s when I met him there was a robustness about him that was impressive.
I have never really met a saint before but Hannan I feel is probably the closest that I will ever come to meeting one face to face. There was something profound and saintly about him. That is the only way I can describe it: I felt that I had met someone holy.
There was nothing pretentious about him or ostentatious. He was completely down to earth and with a love and warmth that exuded from him.
A year or two ago I was there when he gave a talk at the World War II Museum recounting some of his experiences in the war as a paratrooper priest. They called him the “jumping Padre.” He seemed a little more frail at the time but his memory was clear, his voice was strong and his humor was sharp. I was amazed that a man of his age would be out and about still giving talks, still meeting people. That is a testament to his commitment to the people of New Orleans, as well as, to his country.
Although he was not originally from here he became a New Orleanian by infusing himself in the culture and extending the hand of friendship to everyone, from the wealthiest and well-connected to our most needy citizens. He became part of the culture itself.
He became one of our city’s greatest leaders. New Orleans has been blessed over the years of our history with extraordinary people. Hannan, friend of the Kennedys who gave the eulogy at JFK’s funeral Mass has done so much our city and will not be forgotten. He knew his purpose and fulfilled it with love and grace, inspiring us along the way.
Mayor Landrieu says it best:
“Today, New Orleans has lost one of its greatest leaders in our nearly 300-year history. A World War II veteran, he assumed the role of Archbishop during one of our city’s most difficult periods, just on the heels of Hurricane Betsy. A builder in the truest form and a man dedicated to education, from his earliest days he led the rebuilding of badly damaged churches and schools and drove the creation of a strong Catholic school system throughout the Archdiocese. Archbishop Hannan was also a firm believer in caring for the community’s seniors and the poor, leading important housing and social justice programs.
“Archbishop Hannan was a devoted man to his family, his church, and this community. He consistently stood for a vibrant, God-fearing community, and he truly was a spiritual shepherd to his flock.”