By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - One of the oldest former leaders of the Catholic church in the United States, retired Archbishop Philip Matthew Hannan, who gave the eulogy for President John F. Kennedy in 1963, died on Thursday in New Orleans. He was 98.
Hannan "peacefully died in his sleep" shortly after 3 a.m., according to a statement released by the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
"We will miss him. We commend him to the Lord," the statement said.
Current Archbishop Gregory Aymond is expected to announce funeral arrangements at a news conference on Thursday.
Hannan was named head of the New Orleans Roman Catholic Archdiocese in 1965, a few weeks after Hurricane Betsy devastated the city. He served until 1988, when he retired at age 75 as required by the church.
"Today, New Orleans has lost one of its greatest leaders in our nearly 300-year history," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a statement. "From his earliest days he led the rebuilding of badly damaged churches and schools and drove the creation of a strong Catholic school system throughout the Archdiocese."
One of eight children born to his Irish immigrant parents, Hannan grew up in Washington, D.C., and entered the seminary after high school. He went on to college, ultimately earning a doctorate in canon law from Catholic University of America.
Ordained in Rome in 1939, Hannan became a combat chaplain during World War Two. He later served as an assistant chancellor in the Washington, D.C., archdiocese, where he became a confidant to political leaders who included Kennedy.
After Kennedy's assassination, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked Hannan to deliver the president's eulogy.
According to accounts in The Clarion Ledger, the official newspaper of the New Orleans archdiocese, the former first lady corresponded with Hannan after her husband's death, writing of her anguish over her loss.
Many years later, Hannan allowed the letters to be published to counter rumors that Jacqueline Kennedy did not love her husband.
In 1968, Hannan again went to Washington to deliver the graveside eulogy at the funeral of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the president's brother. And in 1994, he offered graveside prayers at the interment of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in Arlington National Cemetery.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)