Harry Tompson at the Altar

No one said a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass like Harry Tompson did.

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

Harry 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 spiffed up the old church, lightening the interiors, making it look more Renaissance 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 served as principal at Jesuit High School, the Algiers native attracted a built-in constituency. 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, which lasted 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 Mass could have gone home after it was over, turned the TV on and seen the Midnight Mass at the 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 couldn’t avoid doing so. 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 were an inner mechanism computing the allowable minutes to keep the Mass on time. Sometimes the homily seemed to end abruptly – suggesting perhaps that the internal buzzer had gone off – yet everyone got the message, which was delivered boldly with a touch of native accent.

(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 “20 Minute Screen.”) By 1:30 Christmas morning everyone was gone and Jesuit Church’s doors were locked.

Appropriate to the moment the 100 block of Baronne St. was experiencing a silent night. Harry Tompson had spoken.

You Might Also Like

Cam Jordan

10 Things to Do in New Orleans This Weekend

Our top picks for events happening in the weekend of July 25-27.

Renaissance Publishing Wins Big at Press Club Awards

The company won eight first place awards and multiple second and third place awards at the Press Club of New Orleans' Excellence in Journalism Awards.

Cool Drinks to Enjoy This Summer

Creative spins on the daiquiri and other cool drinks to try when it's hot.

6 Things To Do in New Orleans This Weekend

Our top picks for this weekend's events.

Add your comment:

Latest Posts

In Which Your Intrepid Reporter Moves and Eats at Mint

Eating at a place I’ve been meaning to visit for quite a while.

Tastes of Summer

Simple, fresh and local ingredients create the best treats of the season.

Strange, Wonderful and New Wines

New wines to try.

NOTMC scores with 'Travel and Leisure' distinction

An interview with Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation (NOTMC)

City planners: Let the Deutsches Haus Look German

Making the case for architecture that doesn't "mesh well" with its surroundings