Obituary: W. John Hannigan / Social justice advocate who used strong sense of faith to guide work

Died March 26, 2014

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Friends and co-workers often depended on W. John Hannigan's encyclopedic knowledge of people and policy, fed daily by his voracious reading of newspapers, magazines and books.

But while he possessed the analytical, theoretical and practical understanding of issues involving racism, poverty, homelessness and other social ills, it was his spirit and his Catholic faith that guided the social justice advocate's work, friends say.

"What I loved about John was his faith in action," said Greta Stokes Tucker, director of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh's Department for Black Catholics, Ethnic and Cultural Communities. "You weren't going to hear him talk about his faith -- he was like St. Francis. He lived it."

Mr. Hannigan of Oakland died Wednesday. He was 80.

Born in Titusville, Pa., to the late Willis J. and Ann Coots Hannigan, Mr. Hannigan graduated from Gannon University in Erie with a bachelor of arts degree, majoring in sociology, in 1959. He then earned a master of social work degree with an emphasis on community organization from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Social Work in 1962.

At graduate school, Mr. Hannigan became fast friends with his roommate, OJ "Bud" Royer, later serving as best man when Mr. Royer married and becoming known as "Uncle John" to the couple's 10 children. Mr. Hannigan loved kids and fortunately, the Royers had plenty to entertain him, Susan Royer said.

"He would come out and just romp with them because we had lots of land," she said, describing the farm the family once owned. "I remember him chasing the kids down the lawn -- we had this sloping lawn -- and they'd be riding Tonka trucks and he would be chasing after them."

He would baby-sit for her sometimes, Mrs. Royer said, and even after he grew older and not so inclined to romp, he loved to cuddle her grandchildren, and joined her family for every holiday.

After graduate school, Mr. Hannigan worked for the Mayor's Commission on Human Relations until 1966, then became director of community action and development for Pitt's Institute of Local Government at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs until 1968. After teaching an urban affairs class at the school for a year, Mr. Hannigan joined the diocese, first as director of a task force on urban problems beginning in 1969, then as director of the diocese's Bureau of Social Programs and Community Action from 1971 to 1989.

In 1990, Mr. Hannigan became director of the diocese's Department of Social Programs and Community Development, where he worked until his retirement in 2009.

He also oversaw funds distributed by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, helping local community groups apply for money to pay for improvements in struggling neighborhoods, such as starting a food bank, helping a school or addressing racism.

Today, people take it for granted that many Catholics show their faith by living out the church's social teachings, but 40 years ago, it was considered rather risky, said the Rev. Frank D. Almade of the parishes of Mary, Mother of Hope, and St. Joseph the Worker in Lawrence County; and St. Vincent de Paul and St. Vitus in New Castle.

Among Mr. Hannigan's many projects was one in which he and Ms. Tucker trained people to train leaders in the Catholic community -- including approximately 2,000 school teachers, priests, seminarians, diocesan staff members and board members -- about racism, "particularly the fact that white people have privilege in our culture," said Mr. Almade, who met Mr. Hannigan while serving as secretary of the diocese's social concerns office.

"That was not easy to say then, and it is not easy to say now."

Mr. Hannigan, he said, saw Catholic institutions and committees as means to help people struggling with racism and poverty.

"His dedication was in terms of the common good and a peaceful social order, in which everyone has a shot and everyone has a chance to have a life of dignity," he said.

Mr. Hannigan is survived by a sister, JoAnn Hannigan. There will be no visitation. Mass will be celebrated in St. Paul Cathedral, Oakland, on April 12 at 10 a.m.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: or 412-608-3618.

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