The Rev. Thomas Chambers, who led a successful turnaround effort at what is now the University of Holy Cross in Algiers starting in the late 1980s, died Tuesday. He was 83.
His death was confirmed by Ron Yager, chief operating officer at the Willwoods Community, a Catholic nonprofit affiliated with the Archdiocese of New Orleans where Chambers served as president until he retired in August.
In declining health, Chambers left New Orleans in September to live with fellow retired priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
“He was a wonderful man — always kind, always encouraging,” Yager said. “We’re going to miss him dearly.”
A close friend, the Rev. Christopher Nalty of St. Stephen Church, described Chambers as someone who took on the responsibilities and sacrifices of becoming a priest with joy rather than stoicism — an example that helped inspire Nalty's own decision to join the ministry.
Outside of his responsibilities in the church, Chambers led an active life, Nalty recalled, playing racquetball, jogging regularly and traveling often. He had a wide circle of friends in the laity.
“I knew a lot of priests growing up, and I didn’t always think they were very happy,” Nalty said. “He was just a model for me of someone who gave up a lot but got so much happiness from it.”
Nalty recalled one trip they took together that seemed to encapsulate Chambers' outlook. They were watching a sunset in California over a glass of wine. “All this, and heaven too,” Chambers said.
Having grown up in Shaker Heights outside Cleveland and earned his degree at Notre Dame, Chambers went on to teach at the university and serve as vice president for academic affairs at Ursuline College in Cleveland for more than a decade.
He arrived in New Orleans to lead Holy Cross, then known as Our Lady of Holy Cross College, in 1987, finding the school under-enrolled and in debt.
Bringing a considerable fundraising prowess and an open-door policy toward students, he more than doubled enrollment and improved the school’s financial picture, leaving it with a considerable endowment by the time he stepped down in 2003.
He also broke ground during his tenure on a new building to house counseling services, now known as the Chambers Counseling Center.
“He was a very effective president,” said David "Buck" Landry, who has served as the school’s president since 2014. “He had a great reputation within the community, did a lot for the school, raised a lot of money.”
After leaving Holy Cross, Chambers remained in New Orleans, taking the helm at Willwoods, which oversees public TV station WLAE and offers affordable housing and other services. He remained there until declining health forced him to retire.
Yager said a wake and funeral will take place sometime next week in South Bend. Details were still being finalized.