At ease with popes – and with a baloney sandwich

Peter Finney Jr    People who may have met Archbishop Philip Hannan only once in their lives – along with others who knew him more intimately – filed past his casket during the emotional  four days of public viewing last week at Notre Dame Seminary and St. Louis Cathedral.
    The stories they told were of a man who had a deep, personal love for people.
    The diversity of the memories was astounding. One woman was there because she used to iron the archbishop’s shirts. She remembered his kindness in simple ways.
    Others, including the priests who knew him best, had their favorite “Hannan war stories.”
    Father José Lavastida, the rector-president of Notre Dame Seminary, got an urgent call from Archbishop Hannan one Sunday afternoon in 2006. At the time, Archbishop Hannan was in residence at the St. Pius X rectory.
    “He said, ‘I need to see you right away – can you come by?’” Father Lavastida said. “I went over there without even asking him what it was all about. When I rang the bell at the rectory, the door opened, and it was Mel Gibson. I said, ‘I think I’ve seen you somewhere before.’ Gibson just smiled.”
    Apparently, Archbishop Hannan and Gibson had developed a friendship. The troubled actor was enamored with the archbishop’s patriotic, anti-communist and pro-life views, but he also was trying to start his own, ultra-conservative version of the Catholic Church.
    “The three of us talked for about three hours,” said Father Lavastida, a moral theologian. “Archbishop Hannan was trying to convince Gibson to come back to the church, and Gibson was trying to get the archbishop to come over to his side. It seemed like Gibson really respected the archbishop.”
    It might have been one of the few times Archbishop Hannan’s powers of persuasion failed to win the day. Gibson left, apparently unconvinced, and trouble has seemed to follow him ever since.
    Msgr. Henry Engelbrecht, the former pastor of St. Henry Church, said he will never forget the archbishop’s fierce determination to serve the needy.
    “He really did hear the cry of the poor,” Msgr. Engelbrecht said. “I was in the seminary at the time he came, and the story is told among priests that for his first few months in New Orleans, he took the public service bus to get around town.
    “I also know that he was fearless. Many people don’t know that right after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the archbishop walked down the streets of every major housing project in New Orleans and talked to people to try to keep things calm. He had no fear.”
    No one knows if this story is true, but Msgr. Engelbrecht believes it: When Archbishop Hannan sensed that a pickpocket was reaching for his wallet on the steps outside St. Peter’s Basilica in the 1980s, he took matters into his own hands.
    “He knocked him out cold right outside of St. Peter’s,” Msgr. Engelbrecht said. “I think it happened.”
    Archbishop Hannan also had single-minded purpose whenever he focused on something important to him and the church.
    When Msgr. Christopher Nalty was working in the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican in the early 2000s, he remembers getting a call at 10 a.m. Rome time from Archbishop Hannan. For the time zone-challenged, that’s 3 a.m. New Orleans time.
    “I’ll never forget it,” Msgr. Nalty said. “It would be his secretary calling and asking, ‘Can you hold for Archbishop Hannan?’ And then I’d look at my watch. He was always passionate in promoting his initiatives, whether it was Muslim-Christian dialogue or anything else. What impressed me most about Archbishop Hannan was his indefatigability.”
    Archbishop Hannan never stood on ceremony or ecclesiastical rank, said Father Doug Brougher, who was pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Norco during a refinery explosion that had forced the evacuation of the area for three days. Archbishop Hannan called Father Brougher on the afternoon when the authorities had given the all-clear signal to return. He said he wanted to come to Norco to celebrate Mass that night for parishioners.
    “But archbishop, how are we going to get the word out?” Father Brougher asked.
    Apparently, Archbishop Hannan’s instincts were right.
    “The church was packed,” Father Brougher said.
    After the Mass, Father Brougher brought Archbishop Hannan over to the rectory, but because of the chaos of the previous three days, his refrigerator was practically bare.
    “Then I saw the archbishop rummaging through the refrigerator for something to eat,” Father Brougher said. “I felt really bad. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Here’s some baloney and some bread.’ He made himself a baloney sandwich. You’ve got to love it.”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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