I was going through my calendar for Bulletin articles a few months ago and I noticed "World Day of Prayer for Vocations" on May 7th. I thought what a great idea to interview our newest "recruit" Fr. Tommy.
What a simple article that would be - he is so upbeat and funny- his story would be a "breeze" - I even joked with him asking him if he saw "the light" in the fruits and vegetables since he was a Manager at HEB.
What a difference a day makes, not to mention two and a half hours sitting at Starbucks with our newest priest.
We started our conversation with the usual questions: Where were you born (Pasadena, Texas) how many siblings (three sisters)? That was the last thing I wrote as he began his story...
Dorothy Hopper had very little formal education when she married Stan at twenty years old. They had a civil ceremony since she was not Catholic. Stan was a practicing Catholic and so Dorothy embraced the Catholic Church and after converting she quickly became very involved with St. Pius V Parish in Pasadena.
Three little girls were born into the Hopper family and after a few years Stan pressed his wife to learn how to drive a car and then to work outside of the home, something unheard of in the 1950's.
Once Dorothy was gainfully employed at a drug store she arrived home one night to find a letter from Stan letting her know he would not be home for dinner that night, or in the near future.
Dorothy focused herself on being a faithful Catholic and supporting her little girls to get by as best they could. Stan would stop by every once in awhile and during one of his visits Dorothy became pregnant. Realizing she would be on her own, Dorothy figured that if she took her vacation in nine months and wore large smocks she could keep her secret --- well Tommy Hopper had other ideas! He came into this world three months early weighing three pounds.
There were so many complications Fr. John McCarthy (who later became Bishop McCarthy) came from St. Pius to baptize the baby - but the records were never filed in the hospital. After a month Tommy was well enough to come home.
Time marches on and little Tommy Hopper attended St. Pius School and when making his First Communion was "Re-baptized" and this time it was recorded.
At the age of ten, Tommy began attending Public School when a distant relative stopped paying the tuition for St. Pius. By now he and his mother were living by themselves. To make ends meet Tommy began working odd jobs at age thirteen, anything to help bring money home. School took a back seat and rather than just drop out, when he was nineteen, he took the GED at San Jacinto - he didn't even wait or cared if he passed.
All the while deep in his heart Tommy felt God had some plan for him, even though by this time attending Mass was a distant memory.
When Tommy was twenty-three his father was making one of his infrequent visits and wanted to attend Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Pius (yes, Tommy did wonder what time the Mass started). Having missed the entire 1970's Tommy had not seen the many changes going on involving Mass and the liturgy of the church " what a shock" and he loved it! He began attending classes for lapsed Catholics and a year later was confirmed at St. Pius, and then immediately stopped attending.
Still wondering what God's "big plan" was, Tommy drifted from job to job. After some time he again returned to St. Pius. Tommy's life was really on track now, he was a manager at HEB, was dating a lady and even had some money in his pocket. He spent more and more time volunteering with the different ministries and helping in any way he could at the church.
One weekend there was a vocation retreat and he thought "what the heck" and attended. During the retreat he was told sorry, but he was too old. That was all right with him.
A couple of years go by and one Saturday night Tom was the sacristan at Mass. Fr. Mario Arroyo turned to him and said, "You should be a priest." And can't you just hear Fr. Tommy saying "rightttttttttttttttttttttt."
Fr. Mario knew not to press him and just invited him out to lunch to discuss it - before he knew it Fr. Tommy was signing a paper saying he would check into it. There was seminary in Wisconsin, especially for late in life vocations. "Tom had vacation in January and so went to check it out (in the dead of winter - who says God doesn't have a sense of humor). He liked what he saw and decided to try. His main problem was his lack of an education and since he would be attending the University there, he needed his GED scores.
Off he went to San Jacinto and when he requested his grade to be sent, the registrar told him, "Well there was a fire - and our records were destroyed, but you can take the test in five minutes because one is just starting." Now here is a man who hasn't looked at a textbook in thirty years and if he didn't pass he would have to wait another year to enter the seminary.
Fr. Tommy sat down and asked God to show him if this was His plan and the rest is history - Off he went to Wisconsin and spent the next eight years attending college (the only one in his family to do so) and then graduate school.
The time finally came to be ordained and Fr. Tommy's one request was to have the ceremony at St. Pius V instead of the Cathedral. It is very rare to be baptized, make your first communion, confirmation and be ordained in the same church. And now we are lucky to have him for his first assignment.
When I thought about writing this, my head was spinning - so I took some advice from Fr. Tommy when taking the GED - God, please show me what to do? He did!
PS: Fr. Tommy, you said you could write a book, I'm waiting for the movie. Too bad Bing Crosby or even Telly Savalas are no longer with us.