In light of the annual Shepherds' Trust collection for retired priests taking place this weekend (Nov. 18/19), here's a look at Msgr. James Hannah's journey in service to the Church.
Msgr. James Hannah knows the most important part of ministry: listening to people’s experiences.
“Not to impose anything, but to listen so that you can really understand them,” says Msgr. Hannah, who served as the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Director of Lay Ministry and Chaplaincy from 1982 to 2003.
In this role, he supported lay people working in parishes as Pastoral Associates and oversaw the spiritual care ministry of chaplains who served those struggling with mental health as well as people in hospitals, prisons and nursing homes throughout the archdiocese.
“You can’t speak about the presence of God in their experience if you don’t know their experience.”
Now that he’s reached his retirement years, he reflects on his life of service to the Church.
Born in Toronto, Msgr. Hannah grew up in Scarborough, Ont. He attended Precious Blood Catholic Elementary School, Neil McNeil High School and was a parishioner at nearby Precious Blood Parish.
“I was an altar server all through grade school and high school and it was the experience of serving at the altar that caught my interest,” he explains. “Going to Neil McNeil where the Spiritan fathers were teaching – through their example – I decided that priesthood was something I wanted to try.”
He entered St. Augustine’s Seminary right after high school – beginning his studies in 1965. He was ordained in 1974 by Archbishop Philip Pocock and began his priestly ministry as Associate Pastor at St. Mary of the People Church in Oshawa.
In 1979, in order to better prepare himself to provide pastoral care to those he would be serving in the future, he took a leave from parish ministry to complete specialized training in pastoral care at the former Whitby Psychiatric Hospital, Kingston Penitentiary and a large Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
“I learned that real pastoral care is not helping people by offering simplistic solutions or pious platitudes – it’s standing with them in the midst of their pain. To do that, you have to be in touch with your own humanity. To connect, it has to come from the heart.”
When you work at the psychiatric hospital, you must confront your own potential for mental illness. In the prison ministry, you can’t minister to inmates if you think you’re better than them. I’m no better than them – just luckier. In the hospital ministry, you come to terms with your own frailness and vulnerability. The person in the bed will be me at some point.”
In 1982, after returning from his three years of training in pastoral care ministry, he was asked to spearhead the Archdiocese’s Office of Lay Ministry to promote lay involvement in all parishes – and to work with those becoming Pastoral Associates (parish staff leading various ministries). In 1994, this role was merged with overseeing the chaplaincy ministry. Then, in 1999, along with coordinating both lay ministry and chaplaincy, Msgr. Hannah was asked to develop and initiate a volunteer screening program for all the parishes of the archdiocese.
In 2002, Msgr. Hannah re-entered parish life as pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Toronto, where he served for 20 years – culminating in his retirement in 2022.
“My primary goal was to build up and engage the community and make parishioners feel welcome,” he says of his time as pastor. During these years, he also oversaw the renovation of the rectory and the church.
Outside of his parish work, Msgr. Hannah served as chaplain for Toronto Police Service (53 Division) for 18 years.
“I looked at that as my volunteer work. It involved going into the division every week. I didn’t have an office. I wandered around and chatted with the officers. If they wanted to talk with me, they’d call me over to the side. I called it ‘loitering with intent.’”
His “job description” as chaplain also included accompanying officers on ride-alongs – and even blessing canoes. “To raise money for Victim Services, some of the officers canoed across Lake Ontario from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto so I went over to Niagara early in the morning and blessed the canoes and the officers that were paddling.”
As part of this ministry, Msgr. Hannah was asked to read Scripture at the funeral of slain police officer, Sergeant Ryan Russell. Sgt. Russell, then 35 years old, was killed while attempting to stop the driver of a stolen snowplow. About 10,000 people attended the funeral service at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in 2011. He presided at the funeral Mass for former Toronto Police Chief, Bill McCormack, at St. Paul’s Basilica in 2016.
Now that he’s retired, Msgr. Hannah is grateful for the financial assistance provided by The Shepherds’ Trust.
“When a pastor retires, expenses go up – not down,” he says. “Everything the parish was providing before – food, TV, Internet, cell phone, etc. – I now, like everyone else, have to pay out-of-pocket. The Shepherds’ Trust is really essential for those of us who are retired to be able to live.”
These days, Msgr. Hannah is enjoying his retirement.
“After my first year in retirement, I’ve come to the realization that everyone should try it,” he says with a laugh.
As has been the case for almost his entire life, his service to the Church continues as he celebrates both weekend and daily Masses often enough that it keeps him active.
The Shepherds’ Trust cares for retired priests who have always cared for us. To Msgr. Hannah and all those who benefit from our support of the Shepherds’ Trust, we can truly say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”