NEW ORLEANS — Phillip Matthew Hannan, the former New Orleans archbishop who sought to console a grieving nation with his eulogy for John F. Kennedy and who served more than three decades as the popular leader of his Roman Catholic archdiocese, has died on the 47th anniversary of his ordination.
The 98-year-old clergyman, who was in declining health for years, died peacefully before dawn Thursday. Hannan’s body will lie in state at New Orleans Notre Dame seminary for three days starting Monday followed by a funeral Mass Thursday afternoon at St. Louis Cathedral here.
Hannan was assigned to New Orleans in 1965 from Washington, where he had been an auxiliary bishop since 1956. When he went to inspect his future haunts at the ancient St. Louis Cathedral — in the riotous French Quarter teeming with tourists, street musicians, mimes and tarot card readers — he showed his unique humor as 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 famously quipped.
Hannan was the 11th archbishop in New Orleans history and its most active, combining conservative politics with generous service to the poor. When he turned 75 and had to retire as archbishop, he became president of WLAE-TV, the public television station he founded.
When Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, the president’s widow, Jacqueline, asked Hannan to deliver the eulogy because of his close personal relationship with the president, which dated to the 1940s. 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. In 1968, Hannan traveled again from New Orleans to give the graveside eulogy for Sen. Robert. F. Kennedy.
When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died of cancer in 1994, Hannan was again at Arlington to preside at a brief service before her burial.
Highlights of his tenure as archbishop included the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II — a visit that Hannan began angling for in 1984. After a while, said Hannan, “Every time he saw me, he’d simply say, ‘New Orleans! New Orleans!”’
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.
And he was outspoken in his opposition to legalized abortion. When Sen. Mary Landrieu was running for her first term in 1996, Hannan said it would be a sin to vote for her because of her support of abortion rights.
Despite what were labeled conservative views, Hannan had few peers in liberal social action.
He said he decided to push the diocese to serve the poor when he walked through the city’s squalid public housing projects in 1965, shortly after his transfer from Washington.
Hannan created what was at the time the largest housing program for the elderly — 2,780 units — of any U.S. diocese. The archdiocese also operates one of the biggest Catholic Charities in the nation. When 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.
Marino Vasquez, 70, a parishioner at St. Louis Cathedral, stopped by to pray and light a candle for Hannan on Thursday.
“I loved him very much,” Vasquez said. “He was such a warm man, with such a good sense of humor.”
Current archbishop Gregory Aymond said that Hannan’s famous sense of humor was with him until the end. When Aymond absolved Hannon of his sins, a ceremony commonly known as the Last Rites, on Saturday, Hannon responded by saying, “Sounds good to me.”
“He taught us how to live, and how to die,” Aymond said.
Political leaders heaped praise on the late archbishop.
“From the time he first arrived in Louisiana, Archbishop Hannan helped comfort the people of New Orleans and our entire state as we worked to rebuild after multiple storms,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
Sen. David Vitter said Hannan was “a strong, inspiring leader for the Church in Louisiana and the nation.”
New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson said Hannan was a longtime friend who attended many games, including the Saints 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.”
When New Orleans got the NFL franchise in 1966, Hannan told Aymond the new owner came to him and asked whether the name Saints would be offensive in the heavily Catholic city. Hannan said the name was not offensive but might still be a problem.
“He reminded the owner that many of the saints were martyrs,” Aymond said.
The Saints did not have a winning season until 1987.
Hannan was born in Washington, D.C., the fourth of eight children 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, garnering the nickname “The Jumping Padre.”
When U.S. troops took Cologne, Germany, Hannan dodged through front lines to the city’s cathedral, had himself appointed temporary pastor, and, when the fighting passed, posted Army guards to prevent looting or more damage. In 1945, 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.
After the war, he served in the Washington archdiocese, moving up to auxiliary bishop in 1956.
A memorial fund has been established by the New Orleans archdiocese.