By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
Holy Cross Father Thomas E. Chambers, who combined deep spirituality and kindness with a keen sense for finance and total quality management, died Jan. 2 at Holy Cross House in South Bend, Indiana. He was 83 and had served as a priest since 1961.
Father Chambers, a native of Cleveland, served as president of Our Lady of Holy Cross College from 1987 to 2003 and then as president of the Willwoods Community from 2003 until his retirement last August, when he moved to the Holy Cross Fathers’ retirement community at Notre Dame.
In each position in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, colleagues remembered him as a priest who took the time to lift up others with words of encouragement and heartfelt prayers. At Our Lady of Holy Cross College – which later became the University of Holy Cross – he kept the door to his office, located just off the main entrance, open at all times for students to walk in.
“Everybody still talks about that – ‘I just walked in, and, oh my gosh, there’s the president!’” said Ken Tedesco, executive vice president of the University of Holy Cross. “He would help people find the admissions office or the library.”
Wise financial leadership
Tedesco said Father Chambers “transformed” Holy Cross, which had an enrollment of 615 students and was more than $1 million in debt when he took over, by upgrading the offices of admissions, alumni and development. He also gave everything he had personally to develop deep relationships with others.
When Father Chambers retired in 2003, the school had 1,400 students and a $9 million endowment.
“If you lived anywhere – let’s say you lived in South Dakota and you called him up and asked, ‘Father, would you baptize my baby?’ Father would take out his calendar and ask, ‘When are you thinking about doing this?’” Tedesco recalled. “He would baptize, marry, bury the dead, regardless of where they lived in the United States, and he did this on his own dime. He freely gave. He was, first and foremost, a priest.”
At 2 p.m. each day, Father Chambers spent an hour in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, making his holy hour. “There wasn’t a meeting or a meal that did not begin and end without a prayer,” Tedesco said.
Quality teachers, curriculum
In a 1993 article he wrote for the Clarion Herald, Father Chambers reflected on how he tried to incorporate the Total Quality Management (TQM) principles of M. Edward Deming, who in 1945 tried to persuade corporate America to concentrate “on controlled growth with an emphasis on quality. When he was ignored, he decided to bring his theory to Japan. There, his ideas were received with enthusiasm.”
“A college continues to give quality education when it has all of the elements of a solid curriculum taught by qualified educators,” Father Chambers wrote.
He also carefully set up the college’s budget, spending money with care, Tedesco said.
“He was a tremendous steward,” Tedesco said. “He was like my parents. If my mother wanted to buy a washing machine, she waited until she had the money to buy it. We raised ‘cement for Jesus.’ If we needed a parking lot, we raised the money first. If we wanted a counseling center, we raised the $350,000 first. Everything was done with good stewardship – follow-ups, personal messages and notes. He sent out 3,000 Christmas cards every year.”
Father Chambers entered the Congregation of Holy Cross after graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1956.
He served as an educator at Notre Dame and was vice president of academic affairs at Ursuline College in Cleveland before coming to New Orleans. After leaving Our Lady of Holy Cross College in 2003, he became president of the Willwoods Community, which runs WLAE-TV and offers an affordable housing program and marriage and family ministries.
“He was the kindest man I’ve ever met,” said Ron Yager, president and general manager of WLAE. “He was always just a great encourager and always very positive. Anything you needed – if he could do it for you, he would do it. He was definitely meant to be a priest because he was called to serve others. All he ever wanted to do was be a priest.”
Msgr. Christopher Nalty, whose late father, Deacon Paul Nalty, ran Willwoods, said he owes his vocation in part to Father Chambers’ affirming presence.
“I started thinking of the priesthood in law school (at Notre Dame), but he never tried to convince me or pressure me to go,” Msgr. Nalty said. “He was just a great model of a joyful, happy priest.”
They often vacationed together and sometimes found themselves watching the sunset while sipping a glass of wine.
Glimpse of heaven
“His great line was, ‘All this – and heaven, too!’” Msgr. Nalty said. “There was always the reward.”
Msgr. Nalty said Father Chambers had an interesting take on the Catholic notion of purgatory.
“Somehow one night at dinner we got on the topic of heaven, hell and purgatory,” Msgr. Nalty recalled. “Father Tom said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to have to spend any time in purgatory. I just can’t believe Jesus would let me hold him in his hands every day for 40 years and not let me be in the fullness of his presence.’ As a young priest, that was a very consoling thought.”
A Funeral Mass for Father Chambers was celebrated Jan. 12 in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. A Memorial Mass also was scheduled for Jan. 12 at 11 a.m. at St. Stephen’s Church, 1025 Napoleon Ave., in New Orleans.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Willwoods Community, 3900 Howard Ave., New Orleans, LA 70125.
Also, the University of Holy Cross (UHC) is collecting guest book memories from friends, alumni and teachers. Please send reflections to Ken Tedesco at email@example.com or contact him at 398-2217. There are two scholarships set up at UHC in the names of Father Chambers and his parents.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.