July 28, 2017

Louisville colleagues and parishioners say work ethic, humility, focus on others are at heart of archbishop’s ministry

Then-Father Charles Thompson, left, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Louisville, poses with Christine Kelly after she received her first Communion in the spring of 2003. (Photo courtesy Joan Kelly)

Then-Father Charles Thompson, left, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Louisville, poses with Christine Kelly after she received her first Communion in the spring of 2003. (Photo courtesy Joan Kelly)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

Longtime friend Father Bob Ray is confident that the new spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis will never lord his position over his people. Father Ray describes Archbishop Charles C. Thompson as a man of constant humility.

“He will always be ‘Chuck,’ ” said Father Ray with a laugh.

Father Ray and others who knew “Father Chuck” from his earliest years as a priest describe him as a servant-leader. He was ordained in 1987 as a priest for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Ky., and, during his 24 years in Kentucky, he served in seven parishes, three high schools and in positions in archdiocesan administration.

“He’s got an unbelievable work ethic,” said Joan Kelly, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Louisville. Then-Father Thompson led her parish, one of the largest in the Louisville Archdiocese, from 2002 until his appointment as the bishop of Evansville, Ind., in 2011.

During many of those years, Father Thompson simultaneously ministered as priest-chaplain at Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, an all-girls high school. Adding on to his responsibilities, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz appointed him in 2008 as vicar general, second in authority in the archdiocese.

“I would bet 95 percent of the parishioners would not know that he was also vicar general,” related fellow Holy Trinity parishioner Dan Kelley. “There was no sense that he was diverting any attention from what he needed to do to lead the parish.”

“He was at every Mass, he was at every meeting,” Joan Kelly summarized.

Father Chuck even found time to greet the students of Holy Trinity School in the morning as they arrived.

“I don’t know how he did everything,” said Amy Nall, assistant principal and dean of studies at Sacred Heart Academy. She described the many ways that Father Thompson was present to the high school community while he was priest-chaplain, including celebrating Mass on holy days, being present for special occasions and leading the staff in prayer before the school year started.

“His focus is always on the people with whom he’s working,” Nall said. “So when you stand to talk to Father Chuck in the vestibule or in the hall at school, you’re his focus.”

Then-Father-Charles Thompson processes in to celebrate his first Mass on May 30, 1987, at St. Bernard Church in Louisville, Ky. Pictured, from left, Father Joseph Fowler, the parish’s pastor; then-Bishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Memphis, Tenn.; and Father Thompson. (Photo courtesy Father Dale Cieslik)

Then-Father-Charles Thompson processes in to celebrate his first Mass on May 30, 1987, at St. Bernard Church in Louisville, Ky. Pictured, from left, Father Joseph Fowler, the parish’s pastor; then-Bishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Memphis, Tenn.; and Father Thompson. (Photo courtesy Father Dale Cieslik)

Some of the stories of Father Chuck’s kindness have left an indelible mark on the memories of those who knew him. Father William Burks, pastor of St. John Paul II Parish in Louisville and a longtime friend, recalled a story from about two decades ago. He had a meeting with Father Thompson at the main offices of the Louisville Archdiocese. Father Burks’ mother was waiting for him in a car, and he made a brief mention of that to Father Thompson.

“He said, ‘Let me get out there real fast and say hi to her,’ just as nice as can be,” Father Burks recalled, impressed at the gesture from a man with so many things on his to-do list. “He went out of his way to say ‘hello.’ ”

Prior to his appointment as vicar general, Father Thompson served as the judicial vicar and director of tribunals for the Archdiocese of Louisville from 1993-98. The role of judicial vicar included answering difficult Church law questions, including weighing requests for the annulment of marriages.

“He had a real pastoral approach to canon law. He was very careful to read individual situations and the complexity of situations,” said Father Ray. “He listens first and tries to figure out the context of the situation he’s dealing with.”

“I know Archbishop Thompson to be a good listener and able to hear and reflect back to all the engaged parties what the situation appears to be, and what are some good ways to solve it,” explained Dr. Brian Reynolds, chancellor of the Louisville Archdiocese.

Former parishioner Jodi George also pointed to the archbishop’s ability to listen and respond to all sides of a disagreement, describing him as “fair and balanced.” She recalled a difficult situation that he handled in her faith community, St. Augustine Parish in Lebanon, Ky., where decreased enrollment was threatening the future of its school.

“He led with a very firm perspective on why that school is there, and what has to be done in order to keep it there,” she said, crediting him with keeping the school’s doors open. “He was extremely firm, but yet understanding.”

Difficult situations and judgments never dampened Father Thompson’s keen sense of humor, nor his passion for sports. Multiple parishioners noted his dedication to the University of Kentucky, which has an ongoing rivalry with the University of Louisville. His dedication to UK’s sports teams often led to humorous statements about the required vestments for liturgical celebrations.

“When he had to wear red, which is the University of Louisville color, he would always make a comment that that’s the only time you’re ever going to see him wearing red,” laughed Dan Kelley.

“When my daughter was little and he was just getting to know her, because [her school] was the Holy Trinity Eagles, he would call her a buzzard,” said Joan Kelly, breaking into laughter herself. “She just didn’t know how to handle it. It was hilarious to watch.”

None of the parishioners expressed surprise when they learned their beloved Father Chuck was appointed to lead an archdiocese. They even sent their congratulations to the Church in central and southern Indiana, confident that the people were gaining a leader who constantly followed God.

“The faith comes first,” Dan Kelley said. “He’s not an executive that happens to be a priest. He’s an extraordinary priest that happens to be very good at making executive decisions and being a leader of the people.”

“The archdiocese is all of your parishes working together. But it takes a shepherd who can unite folks,” summarized Reynolds. “I think that’s what his gift to you will be.”
 

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.)

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