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.

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