Not many people can claim to have witnessed the major events of the last 100 years; even fewer can say that they were intimately involved in these occurrences. The former archbishop of New Orleans, however, reveals in a recently published memoir his personal involvement in some of the most significant moments of the past century.
Archbishop Philip Hannan, who was the archbishop of New Orleans from 1965-1988, recounts the intimate, and not always pretty, details of his life in his autobiography titled "The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots," published in June by Our Sunday Visitor. From growing up in his close-knit Irish immigrant family, to serving in the front lines during World War II; from being the personal counsel to President John F. Kennedy, as well as his eulogist, and finally to ministering victims of Hurricane Katrina, the archbishop has led, and is still leading, a very full life.
As co-authors, Nancy Collins and Peter Finney worked diligently with Archbishop Hannan to write his life story. Collins, a highly respected journalist who has written for Forbes Magazine, Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest, among other top publications, is also the archbishop's cousin. Collins later recruited Finney, Executive Editor of the Clarion Herald, the newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese.
"About three years ago, [Archbishop Hannan] called me up and said, 'I'm writing my memoirs.' And I said 'Not a minute too soon!' He started laughing," Collins told ZENIT.
She grew up knowing the archbishop as "Father Phil," and had heard stories of her father's cousin and best boyhood friend. She says that assisting the archbishop in writing his memoirs was a "great sentimental journey" and one that she did partly as a tribute to her late father. She said that her father would have loved the fact that she was able to spend so much time with his dear cousin. "I learned a lot about myself, as well as the family. I think this book has a lot of grittiness that other religious books don't have because it also had to reflect his personality; he is smart and funny, but he's got a real drive to him," she said. "I wanted that to be reflected … his humanness, his humanity."
The book is both a gripping historical account of many of the major events in the United States in the last hundred years as well as a story rich in the archbishop's personal memories. Collins was amazed at the information that the archbishop has amassed over his years of service and ministry. "You're walking American history, that's what you are," she told him while working on the book. "He saved everything … pieces of paper, letters, all that was very valuable," she said.
Some of the most personal and poignant items he saved, and has now shared with the readers, are personal letters from former first-lady Jacqueline Kennedy, written after the death of her husband. "He thought long and hard about the letters," she recalled in a phone interview. "He finally decided to publish them because he really believed all these years that the letters were concrete proof that President and Mrs. Kennedy really had a love relationship; and that it was a real commitment." Collins shares that it broke the archbishop's heart when he would hear stories of infidelity within the marriage. "He just wanted to leave those letters as a testament to her real love for her husband."
Archbishop Hannan first met John Kennedy when he was a Congressman. The two soon became very close friends, though their relationship was not a public one. While openly Catholic, Kennedy did not want his constituents to think his religious beliefs would affect his governing decisions, and the archbishop respected that. He did, however, provide guidance to the president when asked to do so.
"He and Kennedy met and, of course, they had an enormous amount in common: They were both war heroes, they were both part of the greatest generation. And I think they both wanted change: Kennedy wanted to bring politics into the 20th century and I think the archbishop, then bishop, wanted to bring the Church along in the same respect."
The book also recounts the young priest's experiences on the battles fields of Europe, ministering to both American as well as enemy soldiers. "What always struck me was the fact that, as a priest, he went to the front lines without any weapons," said Collins. She described her cousin as a maverick; a member of the "Greatest Generation."
"He was the kind of American guy who, when he saw the job, he got it done." From enlisting in the 82nd Airborne, to fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, to treating people in concentration camps when the army was ordered to stay out, the archbishop had a strong faith that carried him through. "I think he exemplified that American ideal of service, honor and God," says Collins.
In later years, the archbishop also served as a U.S. representative to the Second Vatican Council.
Peter Finney worked with the archbishop on this portion of the book, as well as the New Orleans chapters. He shares that the archbishop, as the editor of the Catholic Standard in Washington, D.C., was asked to help make arrangements for the English-speaking reporters who covered the Second Vatican Council. He, as well as a few other bishops worked to select the bishops or experts who could speak with authority on certain topics. "These experts did a wonderful job of explaining a lot of nuanced information," Finney told ZENIT. "The archbishop did a great service to the Church by showing that the Vatican was not some mighty institution that operated behind closed doors. "
The archbishop, having been a veteran of World War II and witnessed, firsthand, the horrors of Communism and Fascism, was able to present his unique vantage point to the council. "Bishop Hannan also made a very important intervention during Vatican II in which he got the Church fathers to adopt the stance that the mere possession of nuclear weapons was not immoral. He knew there was a morality to nuclear deterrence. His intervention was approved and he always felt that was a big achievement."
As archbishop of New Orleans, he was able to minister to a wide variety of people and host the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, during his 1987 visit to the city. "He and New Orleans were a wonderful fit," said Collins. "New Orleans has a big personality, has a lot of wickedness and a lot of fun, and it's not the normal city. And I don't believe Father Phil has ever been the normal priest. He had a big personality, too, that worked very well with the city."
This drive and spirit of service was prominent once again when, during Hurricane Katrina, the archbishop took shelter in the Focus World Wide Television studio, which he owned and managed.
The structure, which was built with the strength of a bunker, provided the archbishop a safe place to wait out the hurricane. "During the height of the storm, he barely heard a sound form outside," said Finney. Living off of peanut better, crackers and bottled water, and armed with only a golf club, the archbishop was determined to protect his broadcast equipment from looters. He remained in the studio for four days.
After the storm let up, he convinced the local sheriffs to allow him access to the bridge that led to the Northshore, 23 miles away. "He went to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's office and immediately began giving inspiring talks and blessings to the first responders who had been going on fumes for days," Finney recalled. "His presence made grown men cry." Finney explained that New Orleans has been through tough times before and that it is the spirit of both cooperation and faithfulness within the city that keeps its people going. "The archbishop is a symbol of that courage and perseverance."
At age 97, Archbishop Philip Hannan is still going strong. Though he has suffered two strokes during the course of writing this book, he is still active and undertaking new projects all the time, said Collins.
"He's remarkable. He's up everyday, he walks, he has projects," she said. "He's really enjoying this book. It is now in its second printing and everybody in New Orleans is thrilled he's selling a lot of books and he's getting a lot of attention. He's just really happy how the book turned out."
Since first deciding to write his memoirs almost 10 years ago, Collins is delighted to see her cousin's story in print. "It's really been fun. It's a wonderful story to tell. I was just so thrilled we got the book out while he was still alive, so he could really enjoy it."
As for his latest projects, he goes out on Sundays and does book signings, shaking hands and meeting people. He's enjoying meeting new people, sharing his experiences and blessing those around him with his wit, charm and wisdom. "Clearly, God is not done with Father Phil yet," Collins noted. "He has other things to do."