Dec 17, 201810:05 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Harry Tompson At The Altar
The Man and His Mass
No one said a Christmas Eve midnight mass like Harry Tompson did.
Tompson was a well-known Jesuit priest who in his last years served as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church on Baronne Street (commonly known as Jesuit church). During his tenure there he had spiffed up the old church, lightening the interiors making it look more Renaissance-like and less dark ages. He also started a nearby center for the homeless that now bears his name.
For whatever endearing qualities the priest had he also developed a following because of his midnight mass. Having once been principal at Jesuit High School, the Algiers native engendered a built-in constituency so the church was always full each Christmas Eve as the clock’s hands converged at the top of the dial. What really set Tompson’s masses apart though was an amazing gift for timing. A Swiss watchmaker could have set time on Tompson’s mass lasting exactly an hour and not a minute more. There was still the full ritual package: caroling, processions, incense and practically everyone going to communion yet someone at the Immaculate Conception mass could have gone home after it was over, turned the TV on and seen the midnight mass at the St. Louis Cathedral still in progress.
So what miracle did Tompson perform to pack so much into so little time? It was the homily. When he spoke everyone listened. They could not avoid it. He bellowed so loudly that even those made sleepy by the hour or by spiked eggnog were jolted. Yet he spoke briefly as though there was an inner mechanism computing his allowable speaking time. Sometimes the homily seemed to end abruptly, yet everyone got the message as delivered in a bellicose style enriched with a touch of native dialect. (Tompson’s brevity, though admired, never came close to the daily masses performed by the late St. Pius X Church pastor Monsignor Arthur Screen, who, for good reason, was known as “twenty minute screen.”)
For whatever those in the congregation put in the collection basket they nevertheless got their money’s worth. By 1:30 Christmas morning everyone was gone and the church doors were locked. Appropriate to the moment, the 100 block of Baronne Street was experiencing a silent night. Harry Tompson had spoken.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.