Easter Mass in Iraq, 2006
Navy Lt. Cmdr. John T. Hannigan, a Catholic Priest and military chaplain for Regimental Combat Team 7, renews worshipers’ baptismal promises with holy water during an Easter Sunday Catholic Mass at Camp Al Asad in Iraq’s western Al Anbar Province, April 16, 2006.
Photo taken by Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

  Summer 2013 update:
Fr. Hannigan was recently interviewed by the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.    CLICK HERE  to read the article.


An article about Fr. Hannigan was featured in the Catholic Explorer.

Military chaplain has stopover in Frankfort

concelebration of Mass
Knights of Columbus stand at attention as Marine chaplain Father John Hannigan (right) concelebrates Sunday Mass at St. Anthony Parish, Frankfort

FRANKFORT—Stationed in Iraq since the early days of the struggle to liberate the country, Father John Hannigan of the Archdiocese of Chicago would travel every day in convoys with American soldiers along desert roads, dodging bullets and roadside bombs with his comrades while evading rocket-propelled grenades.

The priest’s mission was to boost the spiritual drive of the infantry Marines stationed within a 30,000-square-mile region stretching across Baghdad and Fallujah to the borders of Syria and Jordan.

The man of God and Marine commander relied on donations from people stateside—including members of St. Anthony Parish in Frankfort—to further his spiritual quest. With these funds, the priest was able to secure rosaries, Bibles, medals and other religious items for the troops.

On leave from active duty since late January, Father Hannigan was on-hand Feb. 18 during 11 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Anthony Parish to publicly extend his personal gratitude to the people for their support of the troops. After Communion, the visiting priest, said, “People are so important to our troops over there.” The military chaplain was quick to encourage the congregation to continue efforts to support the soldiers, “especially those in harm’s way.”

Members of the Knights of Columbus of St. Anthony Parish donated $2,000 to help provide the troops in Iraq with spiritual items, including Christian reading materials, said Bill Mech, a member of the council. In an interview with the Catholic Explorer, Mech explained that the knights had learned that Mary Becker, a member of Infant Jesus of Prague Parish in nearby Flossmoor, was in close contact with the military chaplain, helping him garner funds to pay for religious items for the American troops. The knights approached her and offered money to help purchase religious materials, Mech said.

In the meantime, youngsters from St. Jude Parish in New Lenox made corded rosaries for the troops, said Becker, who was in attendance at the liturgy in Frankfort. Students of Noonan Elementary Academy, a private Catholic school in Mokena, also wrote letters to the soldiers. Becker sent the items to Father Hannigan who distributed them to the troops, she said.

“We’ve gotten help from all over” to support the faith lives of the troops in Iraq, including people from places across the United States and abroad, said Becker.

“He’s a real hero for us and defender of the faith,” said Nancy Weber of Holy Cross Parish in Batavia, who attended the Mass. The visitor to the Frankfort church told the Explorer that she and her four children had made corded rosaries for the troops. She and her family made the nearly 50-mile trek from their suburban home because they didn’t want to miss an opportunity to meet the Marine chaplain.

Father Thomas Corbino, pastor of St. Anthony Parish, said Father Hannigan was invited to the Frankfort parish to “give him support” and to highlight the fact that the Catholic Church is present with the American armed forces in the Middle East. The priest applauded the knights of his parish community for supporting the soldiers through their monetary donation and for financing and organizing a special “welcome home” luncheon for the military chaplain after the Mass in the parish hall.

Ordained in 1976, Father Hannigan performed duties as an associate pastor at three parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago before beginning his career as a military chaplain in 1990. The 56-year-old clergyman said that as long as he could remember he had “always” desired to be a Catholic priest and, at the same time, he wanted to be in the military. The position of chaplain seemed like an appropriate fit, he said.

Father Hannigan explained military chaplains are responsible for strengthening the morale of the troops. Enemy forces understand the positive impact that these spiritual men and women have on the lives of the soldiers. This makes chaplains worthy targets in line with important military personnel, including combat commanders, communication officers and physicians. “I’ve had six close calls,” he said.

Because of their influence in lifting the spirits of the troops, chaplains are stationed across the battle lines, said Father Hannigan. However, there are about 75 percent less Catholic priest chaplains than Protestant chaplains in the Marines. The numbers are similar in the other branches of the military, he said. “We really need priests out there,” the chaplain said, noting that it was impossible for him to adequately serve all the Catholics in his assigned perimeter in Iraq. “The bishops have been very supportive, but they just don’t have enough priests,” he said, referring to the priest shortage in the United States.

Father Hanningan inserted a personal opinion about the circumstance in the volatile Middle East. He said he believes that a surge in American soldiers is needed to advance the cause of liberation in Iraq. It’s challenging for American troops to attempt to facilitate training of Iraqi police officials and soldiers while fighting off insurgents. From his perspective as a firsthand witness, he said, “We are winning there. We’re making headway. Those aren’t just empty words. The American public needs to hear that. And, the Iraqi people really appreciate our presence there.”

Expected to report back to active duty in March, Father Hannigan has been assigned to serve at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.


 the Star

Faith and Marines

Ammo box altars and bottled water baptisms:
The life of a military chaplain in Iraq

Finding God can be difficult amid the carnage of Iraq's war-torn deserts, and the Rev. John Hannigan didn't have anything fancy.

The chapel was a dusty tent. The altar was a battered ammo box atop an olive drab cot. Baptisms were conducted with bottled water over a garbage can so not to waste the precious liquid.

Mass at FOB
Father Hannigan says Catholic Mass at a forward operating base in Iraq.

"You would just use anything you could get your hands on," the 56-year-old Catholic Marine Corps chaplain said. Hannigan, originally from Chicago's South Side, returned from his second tour of Iraq in January. He was the sole Catholic chaplain serving more than 20,000 members of the Army, Navy and Marines stationed at 52 camps in Iraq.

Since his return, Hannigan has visited St. Anthony's in Frankfort, St. Joseph's in Glenwood, St. Paul's in Chicago Heights and Infant Jesus of Prague in Flossmoor. He spoke to children at several schools about life in Iraq and how he thinks faith helps people in combat zones. "I talked about how in a sense, we are in a combat zone right here in the U.S. in a different way," he said. "Know your values, have the courage and the wisdom and the strength to stand up for what you believe in, and stand up for what is right."

Hannigan was born in the Englewood neighborhood. He became a priest at age 26 after attending Quigley Preparatory Seminary in the Chicago Archdiocese. "I always wanted to be a Marine and a priest, but I wanted to be a priest more so," he said.

Hannigan has served as a priest in several south suburban parishes including St. Mary's in Riverdale, St. Jude's in South Holland, St. James in Sauk Village, St. Agnes Parish in Chicago Heights and St. Julie Billiart in Tinley Park. But in 1990, Hannigan decided it was time to enlist. "I just got to the point where I went, 'If I'm going to do so, it's time to do so,' " he said. "It's a great priestly ministry." Hannigan said this is because many soldiers in combat zones especially need spiritual guidance or simply someone to talk to.

"You're with people who, up until this point, maybe thought they were airtight, watertight, invincible, and now they're seeing their buddies get killed and wounded," he said. "Now all of a sudden they see death face-to-face, so it makes them start thinking about the life after this life and religion." Hannigan said even some nonreligious soldiers felt better when he was nearby. "You get to that point where they're crossing the wire (base perimeter) and a guy like that would say to you, 'I'm glad you're going with us,'" he said. 

Hannigan rose to the rank of Navy commander and has served as a chaplain in Djibouti, Africa; Okinawa, Japan; and across the United States. His first tour of Iraq began in February of 2005 and lasted seven months. His second tour lasted a full year.

Hannigan's last tour put him in the Al Anbar province in western Iraq. Widely regarded as one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, Al Anbar is roughly the size of South Carolina. It is northwest of Baghdad and west of the Euphrates River.

Hannigan was based in Camp Ripper in the Al Asad region of Al Anbar. He said Ripper is so named because troops constantly are "ripping" through it -- all soldiers must report to the camp for briefings whether they're entering or leaving the area. "It's kind of like the front desk at a hotel," he said.

On the road

Hannigan's typical day usually began at 5 a.m. with a briefing of the latest news, dangers and enemy activity. Afterward, he'd gather his clothes, supplies for Mass and other gear for journeys to camps. Hannigan said he traveled the entire length and breadth of Al Anbar via helicopters and road convoys every four to five weeks, causing his commanding officer to joke that he was "the most widely traveled man in the province."

"It's very desolate ... it's just all sand and rock," he said. "Between November and March, it rained ... maybe 10 times, and each time it was like 10 or 15 minutes." Temperatures also fluctuated wildly, soaring above 120 degrees during the day and plummeting to below 30 degrees at night.

Hannigan jokingly refers to Iraq's scorching heat as "sweater weather" compared with his time in Africa. "It got to be 158 degrees (in Djibouti)," he said. "The birds would fall out of the sky dead. I saw that twice."

Hannigan's gear in Iraq certainly didn't help him keep cool, either. A flak jacket, helmet and fire-retardant gloves and clothing were necessary even on the hottest days because of the constant threat of suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and other dangers.

Hannigan said soldiers often would walk alongside convoys looking for tripwires. Hannigan said IEDs are "very much so" the worst things troops must face, and he had several brushes with them.

While riding in a Bradley tank one night, Hannigan said, a pressure plate IED destroyed the tank's steering, brakes and hydraulics. Hannigan and the rest of the crew had no choice but to wait inside the crippled tank while other soldiers ensured the area was clear. "It was nice to know that our buddies were out there," he said.

Another time, Hannigan was inside a seven-ton truck whose driver managed to stop a mere eight inches away from detonating a 120 millimeter propane tank IED. "The driver just had good eyesight and God was with us," Hannigan said.

But other seven-ton truck drivers weren't so fortunate. Hannigan said. While riding in Humvees in a convoy, he twice has seen the massive vehicles fall prey to explosive devices.

Hannigan said the force of one of the blasts lifted a truck completely off the ground and left 12 Marines with concussions.

Nonetheless, Hannigan said, soldiers began salvaging materials so insurgents would not find anything useful. "(The soldiers) wanted to get me out of harm's way ... so I started to mosey out of the Humvee," Hannigan said.

"Before I knew it, the Marine is pushing me back in (because) the enemy had opened fire. That made for a very exciting Saturday evening." In spite of the dangers they face, Hannigan said, chaplains do not carry weapons. But even though he was unarmed in Iraq, Hannigan said he rarely felt vulnerable.

"I always had either a sailor or a Marine accompany me wherever I went, and his main job was to protect me," he said. "I had Marines ... and all these heavy weapons around me, so I felt pretty secure."

The front lines

After successfully navigating the dangerous roadways, Hannigan said troops in the camps he visited would spread word of his arrival. "Many times, the non-Catholics would say 'I'll pinch hit for you at the guard post or go on patrol for you,' and Catholics did vice-versa with the Protestants," he said.

After conducting services, Hannigan said he would eat with troops and visit those who were off-duty or at guard posts. Hannigan said he often encountered soldiers he knew from prior service.

"It gave me a good feeling inside, every now and then I'd meet up with a Marine, ... they'd say, 'You were my chaplain in boot camp,' or 'You were my chaplain in Okinawa.'"

One young Marine's memories went back even further: Hannigan had baptized him 20 years ago at St. Mary's Church in Riverdale. Hannigan said this type of visibility on the front lines often results in a strong connection between chaplains and soldiers. "(The chaplain is) with them the whole nine yards," he said. "He knows the hardships and trials and the dangers. He's been flying with them, eating, sleeping in the same quarters, being in the same surroundings."

Once during an attack in which rocket propelled grenades were flying over a camp, Hannigan stopped to give his troops "a one-minute communion service." "They heard me talk about having faith and the importance of God as we go into a combat zone. To actually see the chaplain in the combat zone with them, I think that was very powerful to them and certainly to me."

Hannigan said he also counseled soldiers struggling with the conflict between their religious beliefs and the fact that they had killed people. "Marines would come up to me and they would want to go to confession, even though they had just gotten off patrol and were super tired," he said. "They would feel that even though they were doing the right thing, it was very sensitive that they had to kill people."

And the deaths of Hannigan's own men were all too frequent. During Hannigan's last tour, 73 soldiers in his unit were killed and more than 600 were wounded.  In spite of these casualties, Hannigan believes the United States is winning the war. He said Iraqi police and soldiers are doing a good job, in spite of some corruption.

"Some guys would do a stellar job, and others were in it just for the money," he said.

Back at home

Hannigan returned to a military base in Twentynine Palms, Calif., earlier this week. He said it is possible but uncertain whether he will return for a third tour of Iraq. "With the way the world situation is, we could very easily be coming back from leave ... and I'll be told I'm moving back to Iraq or somewhere else in the world," he said.

Rick Ducat may be reached at
rducat@starnewspapers.com
or (708) 802-8847.