It has been reported that Archbishop Hannan talked his way through police barricades and drove across the 24-mile Causeway bridge across Lake Pontchartrain five days following Hurricane Katrina.
The story continues…
Archbishop Hannan came to the St. Peter Parish rectory in Covington following this trip across the Causeway. Father Bill McGough, the pastor at the time, was sitting in the front office of the rectory looking out the window when he saw a car drive up and park, across the street in front of the St. Peter Parish Ministry Center. It seemed a bit odd because there was very little traffic at this time due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
It was Archbishop Hannan who got out of his car. Father Bill cordially welcomed him into the rectory. A short time later, I arrived at the rectory, having traveled in from Natchitoches to check on the parish, where I worked as the pastoral associate. I was delighted to find Archbishop Hannan talking with Father Bill.
The archbishop quickly related to me that his gas tank was on empty and asked if I could bring him to Deacon Rusty Read’s home. He told Father Bill good-bye, went to his car to pick up his black briefcase, which appeared to have accompanied him for many years, and we went on our way.
We arrived at Deacon Rusty’s home to find no one at home. We went to his neighbor’s home, where there were lights, but no one answered the door, so we got back into the car and continued on our journey to find a place. He requested that I bring him to Char Vance’s home, but, once again, we found no one home. When the archbishop had no more suggestions, I recommended St. Joseph’s Abbey. He asked if I thought we would be able to get through with all the trees down, and I said, “It’s worth a try.”
Like driving through a forest
The drive was not an easy one. Someone cleared the trees away, creating a very small path down River Road. As we drove, I remember the archbishop commenting that the branches were scratching my car. I told him not to worry about it, that it was more important to find him a place to stay. What I didn’t tell him was that it wasn’t my car but my daughter’s car. I knew I would just deal with the scrapes later.
We continued our drive, which was very slow due to the conditions of the road. As I reflect back now, it was gift allowing more precious time with him. He asked about my work at St. Peter Parish and my family. He then asked if I received any damage from the hurricane. I told him my house was destroyed by large pine trees that had fallen on it.
I remember clearly his comments: “You lost your home and you have a lot of work to do at St. Peter Parish. I am going to pray for you.”
We arrived at the Abbey and stayed in the car briefly to complete our conversation. He told me that many, including his family members, wanted him to leave as the hurricane approached, but he told them that he was not going to leave the good people of New Orleans. He explained how he had arrived in New Orleans after Hurricane Betsy.
He had roughed it before
We talked about his experience of sleeping on the floor, and he said it was not his first time and may not be his last. I told him at the age of 92, I hoped it was his last. I asked him how he was able to cross the closed Causeway. He told me that the police were concerned because they were not sure that the bridge was safe. He went on to say, “When you are my age, you don’t worry about things like that. I just told them not to be concerned about me, because I had my rosary, and then I just drove ahead.”
I remember that he needed a shave, which was uncommon for an archbishop who was usually so well-groomed. He looked very worn. I asked him if he had any food during the past days, and he said he had had very little. I told him, “I only have two pies with me that I picked up along the way.” He said he couldn’t eat the pecan pie because of doctor’s orders, but he could surely take the apple pie.
He had the biggest smile on his face because he wanted to share it with the monks.
“They will be happy I brought dessert!” he said.
He prayed with me and then told me two things that come to mind so clearly: “You have been most kind, and now, what about the scrapes on your car?”
I assured him that it didn’t matter. He got out the car, and because he looked so frail and tired, I asked if I could carry his briefcase for him.
He said, “No, it’s good exercise.”
So with briefcase in one hand and the apple pie in the other, we went into the building at the Abbey where guests were greeted.
I asked the priest at the desk if they had room for Archbishop Hannan, and he remarked that they always have a room for him. We said our good-byes, and I was on my way.
I remembered he watched from the door to make sure I got back in my car, and then he waved and smiled. His smile touched my soul.
My daughter understood
Shortly after, I was on my way back to Natchitoches to be with my daughter, who had evacuated with her four young children. On arrival, it was time to reveal the truth to my daughter about why there were so many scrapes on her van.
She graciously said to me: “It’s just a car. I’m happy under these conditions that you found a place where Archbishop Hannan could stay.”
The following Sunday, I went to Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Natchitoches, and Father Stan Klores, the pastor of St. Patrick Church in New Orleans, was the celebrant. Before Mass began, Father Klores asked all of us present to remember Archbishop Hannan, a good friend of his, in our prayers. He related that the Archbishop had stayed behind in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and his family was very worried because they had not heard from him.
After Mass, I was able to be the bearer of the good news that he was at the Abbey. I remember seeing the joy on Father Klores’ face after hearing that his friend was safe from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.
Talk about a miracle
How miraculous it was that I would be at that particular Mass in Natchitoches on that Sunday. It was truly the hand of God at work.
Some weeks later, there was a knock on the door of the St. Peter Parish Ministry Center, where my office was located. To my surprise, it was Archbishop Hannan. He was bringing me a thank-you gift for my help after Hurricane Katrina.
It was a small Blessed Virgin Mary, etched in glass, which I greatly treasure. He asked how the rebuilding of my house was going. I told him I needed St. Joseph to be my carpenter. His response was for me to pray to him, and he would take care of it.
After we visited for awhile, I walked him to his car and he said, “I couldn’t forget your kindness.” His words remain etched, not only in my memory, but in my heart.
How could he remember?
I wondered how Archbishop Hannan could remember me and that little act of kindness when his life was so BIG and so FULL in serving the Lord. I was forever changed because of this time we shared.
Archbishop Hannan was then on his way, and only the Lord knows where the next stop took him.
May Archbishop Hannan now be granted the eternal fullness of life for his many BIG acts of kindness he shared with others.
Ruth Prats is director of the RCIA at St. Peter, Covington.