As a newly ordained transitional deacon assigned to St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Algiers, 27-year-old Thomas Rodi thought he would score points with his pastor, Msgr. John “Tommy” Tomasovich, by phoning him with some exciting news: Andy – Msgr. Tomasovich’s beloved poodle – had fathered a litter of puppies.
Msgr. Tomasovich, who at the time was deployed at Fort Hood, Texas, fulfilling his duties as an Army National Guard chaplain, raced to base headquarters, concerned that the phone call awaiting him pertained to some emergency back home in New Orleans.
When Msgr. Tomasovich learned he had left field maneuvers just to hear his deacon rhapsodize about puppies, he was not amused.
“He chewed me out terribly!” said now-Mobile Archbishop Rodi, recalling how he tried to make amends with his boss after the phone call backfired. “I said, ‘Father Tommy, which would you prefer: Being out there in the field on this cold, rainy day, or back at headquarters, where you can go to the Officers’ Club and have a Scotch and water?’ Well, he bought it. He said, ‘Call me if there’s any more puppies.’”
Msgr. Tomasovich’s jovial nature was among the many attributes mourners recalled at his March 7 Funeral Mass at St. Andrew the Apostle Church, where Msgr. Tomasovich served as pastor for 28 years.
A priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans for 69 years, Msgr. Tomasovich, 92, died March 2 at West Jefferson Hospital.
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A lover of Scripture, history
During the homily, Archbishop Rodi described his friend of 40 years as a man of contradictions – someone who could go from being upset with someone over an error, to the most charming of colleagues; someone who was “very frugal” yet incredibly generous; a man whose gentle manner was leavened with assertiveness and determination.
“He was a man of deep prayer, but who loved to tell jokes. There was a very serious side to Tommy but also a love of life. He took his priesthood very seriously,” said Archbishop Rodi, noting how Msgr. Tomasovich’s generation of priests was the one most impacted by the changes of the Second Vatican Council, which in an 18-month period in the early 1970s included the loss of one priest every six weeks in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
When asked how he had managed to stay the course in his chosen vocation, Msgr. Tomasovich would point to three things that rooted him firmly in the priesthood: prayer; frequent reading of Scripture – fueled by an interest in how Jesus’ words and actions were relevant to today’s world; and the study of history, to cultivate an understanding that there is more than one way to solve a problem.
Archbishop Rodi believes two additional things fortified Msgr. Tomasovich’s priesthood: a love for priestly fraternity and a dedication to involving the laity in church ministry.
“(All these characteristics) always made him open to learning. Even a few months before his death, he was so proud to have his first iPad, so he could read his breviary more easily and not lose his place,” Archbishop Rodi said. “He was a churchman in the best sense of the term. To him, it was always the church’s ministry, not his. He loved his priesthood, he loved the people and he loved God.”
Always called ‘Fr. Tommy’
Born in New Orleans on Jan. 22, 1925, Msgr. Tomasovich was baptized at St. Augustine Church in Treme and grew up on North Claiborne Avenue as the only child of an immigrant Yugoslavian father and an Italian-American mother. He attended Jefferson Davis Elementary School in New Orleans and St. Aloysius High before discerning for the priesthood as a high school boarder at St. Joseph Seminary. He received his philosophy and theology education at St. Joseph and Notre Dame seminaries, and was ordained to the priesthood on May 22, 1948.
In typical New Orleans fashion, one of Msgr. Tomasovich’s seminary teachers claimed that his student’s last name was too hard to pronounce, and so shortened it to “Tommy.” The moniker stuck with him for the rest of his life, to the point that even close friends were unaware that his birth name was John.
Msgr. Tomasovich served as an assistant at St. Theresa Parish in Gonzales, St. Joseph Parish in Grosse Tete, Our Lady of Prompt Succor Parish in Westwego and St. Christopher Parish in Metairie, and as temporary administrator at Annunciation Parish in New Orleans.
In 1963, he assumed his first pastorate at Our Lady of Prompt Succor Parish in Chalmette, departing in 1972 to begin the pastorate that he would maintain through his retirement in 2000: St. Andrew the Apostle.
In addition to expanding the parish and school plant to accommodate youth, young adult, recreation, education and faith formation programs, Msgr. Tomasovich built an on-site rectory and installed two stained glass windows in the church to encourage prayer and to make the space seem less like the auditorium it was originally designed to be. The opposing windows, on the church’s transept walls, depict Moses lifting the Ten Commandments and Christ the Good Shepherd.
Knew how to delegate
Lloyd Hymel, a 57-year St. Andrew parishioner who served Msgr. Tomasovich on the school and finance boards, recalled how his administratively talented pastor would find the best lay people for a given job and let them run with it. To unwind, the two men would jog together on the levee to and from the Chalmette ferry landing.
“He brought to the parish the unification of families and the trust that the parishioners had in him, because he allowed us to use our talents as businesspeople to aid and abet him, knowing he had the final say-so,” Hymel said. “He was able to accomplish a multitude of things: Always had a good budget. Always had a good rapport with the parishioners. I’ve even watched him cry while he was saying his sermon, that’s how dedicated a priest he was.”
Hymel said his late pastor had a genuine love for St. Andrew the Apostle School.
“He decided it wasn’t fair to have only the kids who could afford the tuition to come to his school; he decided it wasn’t fair that his teachers didn’t have an income they could rely on – because we couldn’t pay them what public school teachers make – so he started a foundation,” said Hymel of the fund, which continues to pay teacher bonuses and subsidize tuition for financially strapped families.
Three points: no more, no less
St. Andrew parishioner Jim Hart and his family hosted Msgr. Tomasovich in their home every Sunday evening since the priest came on as pastor in 1972. Hart’s children and grandchildren called their beloved priest-friend “Uncle Tommy,” while Hart nicknamed him “Professor” for his deep knowledge of Scripture and church doctrine. Msgr. Tomasovich was known for his riveting homilies that always delivered exactly three points.
“He was 92 years young,” Hart said. “He was always joking about everything and was such a good storyteller – some word would spring up and he would say, ‘Oh,’ and he’d tell a story.”
The two friends also played golf together at Lakewood Country Club, where Hart was the head professional for many years.
“He shot in the 80s, and every now in then he’d get in the 70s,” Hart said. “His life was really the people – being amongst them and doing everything with them. He was approachable at all times.”
Rose to full colonel
Although an only child, Msgr. Tomasovich had more than 50 first cousins through his maternal side. Those cousins included two men who would also become priests: Father James Tarantino, the late pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in New Orleans; and Father Robert Cadrecha, spiritual director at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, who did the final blessing of his cousin’s casket.
Msgr. Tomasovich, who was awarded the Prelate of Honor in 1980, also served as procurator-advocate and notary for the Metropolitan Tribunal, director of family life, dean of the St. Bernard and Algiers-Plaquemines Deaneries, chair of the Clergy Council, a member of the archdiocesan School Board and archdiocesan Boundary Commission, director of Propagation of the Faith, and director of priest retreats.
His other posts included moderator of the Catholic Men’s Association-American Cyanamid, spiritual director of the Particular Council No. 1 of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and Knights of Columbus Council 9107.
During his tenure as chaplain for the Army National Guard, Msgr. Tomasovich was the highest-ranking chaplain in Louisiana, rising to the rank of full colonel. In honor of that military service, his pine casket was draped in an American flag. Msgr. Tomasovich’s mantilla and neck decoration were placed in the sanctuary before the Mass to honor his service to another group: the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Holding up Msgr. Tomasovich’s chalice, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the Mass’ principal celebrant, thanked his late friend for a nearly seven-decade ministry characterized by great love, integrity, devotion, generosity, prayer and service.
“Father Tommy not only served the people of God, but he was also always present to his brother priests,” Archbishop Aymond said, acknowledging the many roles Msgr. Tomasovich assumed in addition to his pastoral assignments.
“He never, ever said no,” the archbishop said. “Thank you for what you have done, good and faithful servant. And as we surrender you to the Lord’s kingdom, we ask you to pray for us, to pray with us, and to help us in our journey (until) we see each other again in the Lord’s kingdom.”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.