In the Old Testament, Moses did not live to enter the Promised Land after leading the Chosen People for 40 years through the desert. According to the Bible, the patriarch's great work was carried on by Joshua.
This year's New Orleanian of the Year likewise did not live to see the fulfillment of his life's greatest work, but Fr. Harry Tompson did everything he could to make sure that work would continue after his passing. Tompson died last April at the age of 64, after devoting his final years to founding a downtown school for at-risk children and a foundation that he hoped would revitalize one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The Good Shepherd School opened its doors to 30 kindergartners and first graders less than four months after Tompson's death. Similarly, the work of rebuilding the old Dryades corridor continues under the stewardship of those who worked with Tompson in his last years.
In addition to establishing The Good Shepherd School, the charismatic (and sometimes fiery) Tompson launched a ministry of social and spiritual outreach from the seat of his CBD parish, the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Baronne Street. He had a vision of bridging the huge financial and cultural chasm between the city's wealthiest and poorest citizens, and he devoted all his energies to making that vision a reality. He co-founded a foundation to bring hope -- and jobs -- to a depressed neighborhood. He helped establish the St. John Francis Regis Hospitality Training Program and Cafe Reconcile, which together help at-risk youths by preparing them for jobs in the hospitality industry. He ministered to gay and lesbian Catholics -- a group that often feels excluded by the church. He challenged the city's elite to connect with their poorest neighbors -- and got them to do it.
And he did it all while dying of prostate cancer.
Even before he learned of his terminal illness, Tompson had led a full life as a cleric: president of Jesuit High School, president of the Manresa House of Retreats in Convent, and counselor to thousands of successful New Orleans men and their families.
But it was Tompson's final years that laid the foundation for his greatest legacy -- one that blossomed in several fields in 2001. The opening of The Good Shepherd School was the capstone of one man's struggle to rescue a neighborhood while inspiring others to make a difference. The criteria for being named Gambit Weekly's New Orleanian of the Year is simply "someone who made a positive difference in the past year." The late Rev. Harry Tompson, S.J., was an easy choice.
"It's not enough to say your prayers and go to mass and communion," Fr. Harry Tompson said in a Gambit Weekly interview less than a year before his death. "That's only one part of it. The other part is to reach out. Being in the CBD in New Orleans, the things that plague us most are poverty, racism, ignorance and violence, and so right now, this parish is dramatically at the apostolate stage."
That was putting it mildly.
Those who knew Tompson all agree that he had a unique way of engaging his flock. "He was a stern spiritual taskmaster," recalls state Rep. Mitch Landrieu, a long-time friend and one-time student of Tompson's at Jesuit High. "He could get in your face and chew you out if he thought you were screwing up, but he also had a way of making you love him. He ministered a lot to wealthy white folks, but he did that to get them to connect to poor black people. If nothing else, he got them to connect financially. ... He was the epitome of a doer."
Landrieu, like many others, recalls that Tompson's gifts included an ability to deliver short, poignant sermons that "cut right through to the soul.
"One time, he read the gospel, looked out at the congregation and said, 'Did everybody here just hear that?' Then he paused for a moment and said, 'Just go do it!' And that was it -- the whole sermon in 10 seconds. His sermons were short, but they stayed with you all week."
Similarly, Tompson's outreach ministry has stayed with his adopted neighborhood -- particularly the area around Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (formerly Dryades Street). He co-founded, with parishioner Craig Cuccia and attorney Tim Falcon, the LSF Foundation, which aspires to create economic development opportunities by bringing together individuals, businesses, organizations and churches in "neighborhoods of need" to help create jobs and "community-based outreach programs."
Cafe Reconcile, for which Cuccia works full-time, is one of four LSF programs housed in a five-story former restaurant at 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., on the corner of Euterpe Street. The building serves as an incubator for LSF's initiatives, which also include St. John Francis Regis Hospitality Training Program, Kid's Cafe and Sweet T's. All hit their stride in 2001, in no small part because of Tompson's efforts.
Cafe Reconcile and St. John Francis Regis Hospitality Program work hand-in-hand to provide real-life training and practical experience for youths seeking careers in the restaurant industry. Regis teaches them "the rudiments of the restaurant business," says Cuccia, "all the way from mopping up, to maitre d'." Cafe Reconcile builds upon that training by providing practical experience in a real-life cafe that caters to walk-in diners as well as to school children by providing daily lunches at nearby Trinity Episcopal School. The diner is open for breakfast and lunch (8 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays); Trinity became the cafe's first off-site client last August.
Sweet T's started on the first floor of the building as a way to provide immediate entrepreneurial experience to one of LSF's first clients. "The shop started out selling miscellaneous fast foods and is solely dependent on residents of the neighborhood," says Cuccia. "The owner has since gotten a job with a hotel downtown, and he sold the shop back to the ministry. Now we're going to turn it into an arts and crafts gift shop, which will help kids as well as seniors in this area."
Kid's Cafe, meanwhile, provides a dining experience for children ages six to 16 -- serving up nutritious meals as well as table manners and constructive conversation. "This is a Saturday evening program that was started with the Junior League," explains Cuccia. "Now Second Harvesters has taken it over and is running it."
Cuccia credits "Father Harry" with getting all the programs launched.
"He was a visionary," says Cuccia. "He was able to reach people at the slightest end of life as well as those who were very rich. He was determined and driven to do it all before he died. He had his mind set on what God asked him to do, and he made it happen.
"His vision is now a reality, and it affects 300 to 400 people in a neighborhood that had been abandoned. His life and his work affirmed his belief that you need to build relationships with people to make a difference -- and that takes time."
While the LSF Foundation addresses immediate needs, the crown jewel of Tompson's work downtown -- The Good Shepherd School -- lays the groundwork for future generations to succeed by providing low-cost ($100 a year, plus 75 hours of school service annually), excellent educations to the area's poorest kids.
The school began with kindergarten and first grade this academic year and will expand through the eighth grade by adding new grades each year.
"This is going to be a community effort," Tompson promised in 2000, "but I don't want to found just one of these schools. I'd like to start eight of them or more."
That spirit helped him engage some of the city's wealthiest citizens in support of the school. Backers held a fundraiser last January at the New Orleans Hilton, where Tompson told the crowd: "We're going to take these young children and help them understand there is love in the world. You and I are going to take care of them."
On the day of his funeral, the hearse carrying Tompson's body pulled away from Immaculate Conception Church, then stopped briefly across the street in front of the site of Good Shepherd, which was then still under renovation. The construction workers stopped working and came out to the sidewalk, where they quietly removed their hard hats before the hearse pulled slowly away.
Archbishop Francis B. Schulte said of him: "Father Harry Tompson was a legendary priest in our community. He had the energy, vigor and passion that changed for the better everyone he touched."
The Rev. Paul Schott, who worked with Tompson at Jesuit High School and at Immaculate Conception, remembers him as "a very, very charismatic person who had a real feel for people, particularly the down-and-outers. ... He made an extraordinary priest for that reason."
Tompson's brother Richard, who was his closest friend, recalls that their tough childhood -- as sons of an alcoholic father -- shaped Harry's love for those facing tough times. Both men later fought alcoholism as adults. Through it all, and even as a child, Harry Tompson always wanted to devote his life in service to the Church and in the cause of social justice, says his brother.
"I remember very specifically as a small kid, I'd want to play cowboys and Indians," says Richard Tompson. "He'd want to play priest. He'd take a white T-shirt and cut it out to look like a priest's garment, and he wanted me to play altar boy. ...
"Harry's thirst for social justice probably came from the Jesuits -- and from being a good Christian. I think it was always there, but it really became developed after he became a Jesuit."
Richard Tompson adds that his brother's natural shyness disappeared after he joined the priesthood. In fact, those who heard his sermons or felt the sting of his criticism probably could never imagine Harry Tompson as a bashful Boy Scout from Algiers. They more likely remember his zeal for life -- and the courage with which he faced death.
"He told me, 'There are only two things I regret in dying right now,'" recalls Richard Tompson, "'dying before my mother, and not being able to see kids walk into that school on Baronne Street.'"
Perhaps the closest Tompson ever came to expressing fear about his death was the time he told parishioners, "If when I die everybody leaves, my time here will have been a failure."
Judging by the difference he made, the number of lives he touched, and particularly the work that continues in his name, Fr. Harry Tompson was no failure.
- Fr. Harry Tompson at the lectern in March, 2001. His gifts included an ability to deliver short, poignant sermons that 'cut right through to the soul.'
- Fr. Harry Tompson as a young priest in the 1960s. 'It's not enough to say your prayers and go to mass and communion,' he would say less than a year before his death. 'That's only one part of it. The other part is to reach out.'
- Harry (left)and Richard Tompson as children and in December 2000. 'As a small kid, I'd want to play cowboys and Indians,' recalls Richard Tompson. 'He'd want to play priest.'
- Richard (left) Tompson and Harry Tompson