By Mary Baudouin
“Son, if you want to know what to do with your life, just go do the thing that helps the most amount of people in the shortest amount of time, and that’s where you’re supposed to be.”
This was the advice Fr. Harry Tompson, SJ, gave to a young Mitch Landrieu, when he sought direction about what he should do with his life. Landrieuwent on to serve as lieutenant governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans.
In the last seven years of his life – from 1994 to 2001– Fr. Tompson must have been exactly where he was supposed to be. As pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in downtown New Orleans, he was the catalyst for starting three outreach ministries that still serve marginalized people in the city that he loved: Café Reconcile, Good Shepherd Nativity School and what is now The Harry Tompson Center. No longer ministries of the parish, the three organizations continue to operate as independent nonprofits under the direction of separate boards.
When Fr. Tompson arrived at Immaculate Conception, it was primarily a parish where people fulfilled their Sunday obligation or attended daily Mass during their lunch hour. But, as the current pastor, Fr. Anthony McGinn, SJ, said “Harry revitalized the parish and brought it back to life.
He had a great talent for getting people involved and convincing them about how important these ministries were. He got people to move beyond themselves.”
Many of the people that Fr. Tompson recruited into social ministries – parishioners, Jesuit High students, retreatants at Manresa House of Retreats and spiritual directees – are keeping Fr. Tompson’s spirit and vision alive today through these organizations.
Good Shepherd Nativity School Principal Tommy Moran said that Fr. Tompson’s dying wish was for the mission of providing quality education for low-income children to take root. “The challenge of inner-city education is over- come because of Fr Tompson’s vision,” Moran said. “Challenges that others ran away from, he ran to, even though they were costly to address.”
Now in its 23rd year of operation, Good Shepherd Nativity School provides a tuition-free education for more than 260 children in pre-K–7th grade each year. The school opened four months after Fr. Tompson died, birthed by founding board members who shared Fr. Tompson’s vision.
They were urged on by one of the final instructions he gave them: “Don’t let this fail.” Their names are engraved on plaques on the Founders Wall in the school with a bust of Fr. Tompson as the centerpiece.
Accompanying Young People in Creating a Future of Hope
Father Tompson also had great concern for the needs of the youth of New Orleans, who were out of school, out of work and out of hope. In 1996, he joined with Craig Cuccia, a man he was seeing for spiritual direction, and Craig’s brother-in-law Tim to create the Kids Café, a safe space for school children and their families in the Central City neighborhood. Using donations, they purchased an historic, five-story building in a blighted neighborhood to serve as the center of a new organization. Reconcile New Orleans became the cornerstone for the broader rehabilitation of the neighborhood.
Father Tompson and Cuccia, together with neighbors and a fledgling board of directors, dreamed up a program that would train youth aged 16-24 to work in the New Orleans restaurant industry – and that would provide food to people in the neighborhood. In September 2000, Café Reconcile opened its doors and began operating as a restaurant, staffed by students of the program.
Although Fr. Tompson never got to visit the Café because of his illness, Gerald Duhon, a former student of Fr. Tompson and director of Reconcile from 2016 – 2022, said that his spirit is felt there still.
“When I got to Reconcile as a new director,” Duhon said, “I prayed to Harry: help me, guide me. I felt like I was taking care of a Jesuit legacy. In many ways, Reconcile saved me.”
In its 23 years, Reconcile has played a significant role in saving the more than 2,000 young people who have graduated from its Workforce Development Program. The restaurant continues to serve lunch five days a week. In September 2023, the New York Times named Café Reconcile one of the 50 best restaurants in the United States.
Welcoming the Homeless
Early in his pastorate, Fr. Tompson opened the doors of a building next door to Immaculate Conception Church to provide a space where unhoused people could use the restroom, wash their clothes and get a respite from the harsh realities of street life for a few hours. After his death, this center was named “The Harry Tompson Center,” an honor that probably would have embarrassed the priest.
But he would surely be proud of what the Center is doing today in its current location close to downtown. Each weekday, hundreds of people without housing come to the Center to shower, use clean restrooms, make phone calls and find safety and community. In 2022, case managers at the Center helped more than 125 guests find permanent housing, putting an end to their homelessness.
Vicki Judice, the director of the Harry Tompson Center from 2013 to 2020, said that the most important legacy of Fr. Tompson is the way the Center responds to immediate needs.
“Father Tompson didn’t know anything about homelessness or statistics. He just saw a need and responded to it and welcomed people that others rejected,” Judice said. “I think he’d be proud of the Center today and its spirit of hospitality and warmth, so much of it offered by volunteers who were inspired by Fr. Tompson.”
Judice, who still volunteers at the Center after her retirement, said that people will often show up at the Center with donations, saying that Fr. Tompson inspired their generosity.
The ministries that Fr. Tompson envisioned and brought to life in New Orleans have not only changed the lives of thousands of poor children, disenfranchised youth and unhoused adults, they have changed the lives of the countless numbers of volunteers, leaders and donors who have kept his legacy of compassion alive.
Mary Baudouin is the provincial assistant for justice and ecology for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province.