Former New Orleans Archbishop Dies At 98

Melissa Block talks with Peter Finney, executive editor of the Clarion Herald, about the legacy of former Archbishop Philip Hannan, who died this morning at the age of 98.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

He titled his autobiography "The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots." The longtime former Archbishop of New Orleans, Philip Hannan, who was a combat chaplain in WWII, died today at age 98.

Hannan was a close friend of the Kennedy family. He delivered the eulogy for President Kennedy in 1963. He was known for his strong support of liberal social welfare programs in New Orleans, and for his hawkish take on U.S. foreign policy.

Archbishop Hannan spent many hours telling his story to Peter Finney, who co-wrote Hannan's memoir. Finney is also executive editor of the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Clarion Herald. And he joins me now.

Peter Finney, welcome to the program.

PETER FINNEY: Thank you so much, Melissa.

BLOCK: I was looking at an image of Archbishop Hannan from WWII. He was with soldiers along the frontlines and you see him there in his white cassock and a helmet. What did he tell you about how his experience during the war shaped him, then as a priest, and later as an archbishop?

FINNEY: It really formed his life. He was an Army chaplain who loved what he did. He was fearless. When he had to liberate a concentration camp, he said, when you look at the people, these men must have weighed 75, 80 pounds at the most. And he could lift them with one hand. And he was totally moved by this experience.

And he was totally moved by this experience and it was not only at that prison camp. He liberated a women's prison camp, in which a woman had come up to him with a rosary that she had fashioned out of stale, black bread. She made the beads out of black bread and then had made a crucifix out of, I believe, a paperclip.

She asked him to bless her rosary and he said, well, ma'am, no, I think the good Lord has blessed you for all you have been through. He has blessed that rosary already. And she said, no. You're a priest, I want you to bless my rosary. And that's exactly what he did. So, he had a love for human beings, human dignity. And that never left him and that really - it shaped his entire priesthood and his entire life.

BLOCK: What were some of the social welfare programs that Archbishop Hannan brought to New Orleans?

FINNEY: He started the Summer Witness Program, which actually started what they call the Social Apostolate in the Archdiocese. It was a summer program of enrichment, academics and then a little bit of fun in the afternoon.

Now, as you remember, in the mid-'60s, civil rights was the law of the land, but in the South, there was de facto segregation, of course. And there was no place for the black students to swim because, all of a sudden, the public pools were developing pump problems and all - you know, they didn't want whites and blacks to swim together.

So the Archbishop said, okay, well, I'll take care of that. We're going to open up the Notre Dame Seminary swimming pool so that these black students can swim with the white kids and they had no problems. He got a few phone calls from white parents who said, we don't agree, but he said he didn't give it any mind.

BLOCK: There was a point when Archbishop Hannan caused quite a bit of controversy when he told people that voting for Mary Landrieu or Bill Clinton would be a sin because of their positions on abortion.

FINNEY: This was his position. He said a catholic with a fully informed conscience, if they truly believed what the Catholic Church taught, it would be immoral to vote for someone who had a track record of voting in favor of abortion rights. He got a lot of heat, of course, from not only people on the other side of the abortion issue, but even from within the church itself, which - the church has been very careful to say, we're going to talk about issues, but we're not going to talk about specific politicians.

So, he was retired at the time when he made those comments. It caused a lot of flack, but he believed them.

BLOCK: I gather that Archbishop Hannan had a real passion for the New Orleans Saints. He was there for their Super Bowl victory in Miami.

FINNEY: He was there. He fell asleep a little bit in the second quarter, but I think he woke up and the Saints did win. There's a funny story about the Saints.

In 1967, when New Orleans was awarded the franchise, the nickname, Saints, was kind of the leading name and they were wondering - they came to the Archbishop saying, do you think it would be sacrilegious to name the team the Saints? And he says, oh, no, not at all. Saints is a good name, but I must warn you that most of the saints were martyrs.

And, of course, you know, through the years, the Saints proved - they fell on their swords many times and they were terrible, but no one got more enjoyment out of the Saints' Super Bowl than Archbishop Hannan.

BLOCK: Well, Peter Finney, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FINNEY: Thank you so much, Melissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Peter Finney is executive editor of the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Clarion Herald. We were talking about former Archbishop of New Orleans, Philip Hannan, who died this morning at the age of 98.

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