Archbishop Known As 'New Orleans Pope' Recalls Holing Up In Storm, Devastation After, And Calls It 'Divine Chastisement'
Archbishop Emeritus Philip M. Hannan -- widely known as the "pope of New Orleans" after a tenure of 23 years in that city and the prelate who gave the eulogy at President John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963 -- Tuesday called Hurricane Katrina "a Divine chastisement," recounted his four days in a dark building, and described the startling devastation, including a rectory that left behind only two shreds of vestments, its pastor missing.
Archbishop Hannan, who led the archdiocese from 1965 to 1988, and now heads a Catholic television organization, Focus Worldwide TV, remained in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, during the storm to protect his offices and has since been visiting the poor, sick, and displaced, along with devastated churches.
"I was in the building to make sure there were no looters," says the archbishop, now 92. "There was no electricity or water, so I spent four miserable days, but everything is okay now."
Hannan, who before assuming the New Orleans episcopate served as an auxiliary bishop in his hometown of Washington, D.C. and was a personal friend and counselor to the Kennedys, is currently staying at St. Joseph Abbey in Covington -- just north of the flood zone that was New Orleans.
"There was nothing but devastation," the archbishop told Spirit Daily. "Hardly any people. Just authorities. The real difficulty was that in the building it was extremely hot and I slept on the floor. It wasn't very conducive to sleep. When I was convinced the looting in this area had stopped, I went to the other side of town and began to visit the hospitals and talk to the people who were hurt and visit the parishes that were badly hurt. We did lose one priest. We're pretty sure he drowned. It was at St. Nicholas of Myra in the extreme east end of Orleans Parish, just opposite the straits where Lake Ponchartrain enters the Gulf. There was an area of eight or nine miles of just piles of debris from houses. It was a frightful mess. There were only three people who stayed through the storm in that whole stretch who survived. I went there myself and visited almost all the churches that were badly damaged, and there was not even a stick left of the rectory at St. Nicholas. The only thing left were two single pieces of vestments."
Father Arthur J. Ginart, an old-timer who had told friends he had lived through other ones and that they were never as bad as pronounced, had refused to leave -- rejecting pleas right up to the last moment. He was now gone. No body found.
"I went to check up on him and found that the surge of water right behind his church had been 31-feet-high," says Archbishop Hannan. "The winds were so strong that parts of the road were blown away: the top layer of asphalt."
Part of Father Ginart's mobile home was found nearby with a few of his personal effects, according to news accounts. There was also a statue of Mary, and perhaps two of those. A picture of Jesus hung on a frame, although it was not certain if that had been placed there after.
The entire area was basically rubble, and yet there in the midst of destruction, surveying what once had been his archdiocese, was Archbishop Hannan -- in his nineties and yet still working full-time and appearing on television with an acuity of mind that astonishes friends, acquaintances, and relatives -- who held for breath in the first week after Katrina when the archbishop could not be located due to the downed telephone system.
"Everyone thought that projections for what could happen to New Orleans were exaggerations," said the archbishop, who has returned to work with his staff and is ready to resume operation of WLAE-TV, a local PBS station that broadcasts his show and of which he has served as president. "This is something that they really believed would never happen."
But happen it did -- a category-four hurricane that busted the levees around the Crescent City, the "city of saints" -- and Hannan found himself holed up alone in his offices with crackers and bottled water but no plumbing, phone service, or electricity, having refused pleas from friends to evacuate.
Peering out the windows, there were virtually no people in this suburb known as Metairie -- which is on a ridge that kept it from flooding. When police passed, the archbishop wandered out to ask them how it was going.
During those four days, he says, there was plenty of time for prayers, and most of his went for the poor.
"There are no set prayers for a hurricane," says the prelate. "There are prayers for storms, but this was the worst in the history of the nation. I prayed asking the Good Lord to take care of those in charge of security and to protect and inspire everyone in authority to be mindful of the demands and great needs of people."
Archbishop Hannan does not blame the police, who he says were "outgunned," and says the mayor is "a good man and straight man. He urged all of the people who had no place to go to go to the Superdome. They did not handle it well because they believed that FEMA would immediately send 600 trucks or buses to transport these people to places where they could be taken care of. FEMA made a mess of the whole thing. It was a tremendous disgrace. They were not prepared. The mayor relied on FEMA but FEMA was very poor and was not organized and simply did not arrive here."
"I think the president did exactly what he should have done, but FEMA failed him," adds the archbishop. "They did not have a set plan that was particularized and they made these general statements -- they'll send buses down."
A former military chaplain, Archbishop Hannan believes that only the military has the organization to handle such a disaster and was thrilled to see the 82nd Airborne enter New Orleans -- the very regiment he had once served during World War Two.
"Of course, I got along great with them, and they took care of the cathedral immediately without anyone having to say anything to them," says Hannan. "The major general told me you have to take care of what stands as a symbol of the city, and there is no doubt that the cathedral is the symbol of the whole city."
Miraculously, a statue of Jesus still stands at that august cathedral, missing only two fingers, which were later recovered and formally presented to Hannan -- such an active and recognizable figure in New Orleans that many still think he is the bishop. "The Protestants were very impressed that the trees fell but did not knock down the statue," says Hannan, who appeared on network TV at the cathedral.
Born and raised in Washington D.C., Archbishop Hannan started the television station during his reign in the archdiocese "in order to spread the Word of God through the airwaves," says a biography. A local high school has been named for him (badly damaged in the storm), and his group, which includes former news anchorwoman Mary Lou McCall and Char Vance, a well-known speaker on the Catholic conference circuit, produces Catholic videos in addition to widely-seen programming. They depend on donations.
New Orleans will return, says the archbishop, because, as a port, it must return.
But the archbishop urges that the lesson of the storm not be lost -- and insists that it was a clear message from God.
"I've been speaking at local parishes, and here's what I kept telling the people," he says. "I say, look, we are responsible not only for our individual actions to God, but in addition to that we are also citizens of a nation and in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, it says that a nation has a destiny and we are responsible whether we cause it or not for the course of morality in that nation. We are responsible as citizens for the sexual attitude, disregard of family rights, drug addiction, the killing of 45 million unborn babies, the scandalous behavior of some priests -- so we have to understand that certainly the Lord has a right to chastisement. If you ask me if the Lord knew of this, this was the greatest storm in the history of the nation. He is the creator. He certainly permitted this. It would be as silly as asking if Henry Ford knew how a car worked."
According to Hannan, people who experienced it "are beginning to react according to that concept of morality." He says that when he preached on the topic last Sunday in the devastated area of Mandeville, where 1,000 attended Mass, "people loudly applauded. They want to be told the truth."
"We have reached a depth of immorality that we have never reached before," he says. "And the chastisement was Katrina as well as Rita.
"I keep telling people, you have got to talk about this chastisement, you've got to let not only your children and grandchildren, but other people know about it -- the others who have not gone through it, how much of a penance it was. To come back to your home and find it destroyed is an enormous shock, not only to the father and the mother, but to the children. Because this is the worst storm in our history, it should become part of our heritage. We should tell our descendants just how terrible it was so they will understand that it was a chastisement and should improve our morality."
Archbishop Hannan says he was asked by the sheriff to speak to police about the connection of immorality to such events, "how this thing was so strong that it is the movement of God and that they should behave accordingly."
"The politicians really have mentioned God a lot," he told Spirit Daily. "They didn't mention chastisement, but said we had to ask God to help us and we have to do better. What's paramount for the recovery is a tremendous sense of charity and being helpful towards our neighbors."
Focus Worldwide, the television syndication, is up and running and electricity should be restored to the local station by next week, says Archbishop Hannan. But let us not forget the dark moments.
"I think it's up to us to preach very strongly and candidly and directly to say that this was a chastisement from God," says the archbishop. "God gave us our rights and therefore He gives us our duties too. We have got to pay attention to this chastisement. The Old Testament and the New. God has told us from the very beginning that we are responsible. To me it's inescapable if you read any Scripture at all."
"Everyone I know, priests and bishops, believe that too," he says. "This storm was so disruptive, so destructive, that if you believe there is a Creator, He certainly knew or permitted it to happen. He certainly knew."
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