Rev. Thomas F. Composto

Known as the Pope of Whitelock Street, he was a product of the social activism of the 1960s

  • Father Thomas Composto
Father Thomas Composto (Baltimore Sun )
March 22, 2011|Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

The Rev. Thomas F. Composto, a Roman Catholic priest who devoted his life to being a peacemaker on the streets of Reservoir Hill, died of complications from pneumonia Wednesday at University of Maryland Medical Center. He was 72.

"He was a combination of deep reverence and yet was also a very joyful person," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "He was a true shepherd of his people. He was a man of loyalty and vision."

Born in New York and raised in the Prospect Park section of Brooklyn, he was the son of Frank and Concetta Composto. His father, Frank, was a New York State Supreme Court judge and his mother, Concetta, was a teacher of juvenile delinquents. He was a graduate of Brooklyn Preparatory School and entered the Society of Jesus. He came to Baltimore to study at the old Woodstock College, a Jesuit seminary in Baltimore County.

According to news articles, he became interested in Baltimore's social issues and started work at the St. Francis Neighborhood Center in Reservoir Hill, a section south of Druid Hill Park.

When his religious superiors asked that he give up his post, he refused and remained — for four decades. Friends said he walked the streets, made friends, said a Sunday Mass and married couples. He had no church building.

Known as "the Pope of Whitelock Street," Father Composto came to what a 1994 Baltimore Sun article described as "a desolate stretch of Baltimore" during the "social activism of the 1960s."

"You could call me dedicated," he told a Sun reporter that year. "I'm combative because I've been hurt personally by higher-ups in public service or church service who wouldn't do what they dedicated themselves to doing. Most of them just want to climb. So many people have used this neighborhood as their social laboratory, and then they leave. We've tried to be a voice for the marginal people of this neighborhood, to let them know that somebody gave a damn about them and cared enough to stay."

"He was technically not recognized by the Jesuits," said Sarah Tarighi Murphy, director of the St. Francis Neighborhood Center. "He told me, 'I made a promise to this community and I'm not leaving.' He never did. The way he served defined what service means. He loved people unconditionally, without prejudice, without judgment."

Ms. Murphy said that Father Composto saw his mission as constantly evolving as Reservoir Hill changed. "He knew what needed to go, what needed to stay and what needed to change."

Father Composto described Reservoir Hill in an essay he wrote in the 1970s: "I would sit on the steps of the old St. Francis Neighborhood Center at 936 Whitelock, just to look, check out the scene, 'signify.' There was always something going down ... or about to."

For many years, the neighborhood center had a dental clinic run by Dr. John K. Taylor III, a friend.

"He influenced people in small, personal ways and drove them to be better individuals," said Dr. Taylor. "He was a confidant to many who sought him out. He could rub elbows with the most powerful businessman and the most lowly. They all loved him."

A neighbor, Paul Reyes, described his friend as "Jesuit-trained, Buddhist-oriented, with a razor wit and insight. He was a teacher, a philosopher, a pragmatist, a musician and a benevolent force of nature."

He recalled seeing Father Composto on the streets of the neighborhood: "I walk out the front door and see him up at the corner of Linden and Whitelock. There he is explaining to a drug dealer twice his size that the dealer's and the dealer's mama's eternal salvation will be in grave jeopardy if he didn't go sell his poison somewhere else.

"Sitting on the porch steps at St. Francis with him, I always smiled in wonder as virtually everyone who walked by said, 'Hi, Father Tom.' "

Friends said that Father Composto made friends across the city but was often out of sight. He once set up a poor box at the old Kavanagh's Bar on Madison Street. In 1974, he told an Evening Sun reporter, "We work quietly here."

Friends said Father Composto enjoyed a nightly dinner at The Dizz restaurant in Remington. They also said he was a generous tipper.

"He loved our crab cakes," said one of its owners, Elaine D. Stevens. "He was the happiest person. His little laugh made everyone laugh. He'd bring in the couples he was getting ready to marry. They would discuss life together."

"You met everyone sitting near you because a meal there with Father Tom was a family dinner," said Mr. Reyes. "He talked to everyone, and they responded with smiles and conversation."

Services were held Saturday at the community center.

Survivors include a brother, Frank Composto of New City, N.Y.; and a sister, Jean Magrino of Branchville, N.J.

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