Rising from Rock Bottom

Mark Tompkins was cruising down Interstate 10 in San Antonio, Texas, on his motorcycle in March 2014. A doctor specializing in foot and ankle problems, he cut out shortly before noon after seeing patients and examining their charts.

Riding the bike was one of his favorite hobbies. And he was planning to die doing it that day. Alcoholism and depression were putting a choke hold on him. He had never recovered from a painful divorce, and on weekends he would stop at a liquor store and buy a gallon of wine. Always, by the time he went to sleep that night, the bottle was empty. But the booze didn’t cure the pain he felt deep inside, so he looked for another way out.

“I was suffering from really bad depression, ” says Tompkins. “That’s when I got it in my mind that I was going to end it. I jumped off my motorcycle in the middle of Interstate 10 in San Antonio. It was March 18, 2014. I went tumbling down the highway. I was missed by five or six cars going 65 miles an hour. It was pretty much a miracle that I survived. ”

An Ongoing Miracle

Today, the miracle of physical and spiritual healing continues for Tompkins. The latter came through treatment and, in April 2014, his journey to Trinity Sober Homes (TrinitySoberHomes.org) in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The first and only Catholic sober house in the country, it was a perfect fit for Tompkins, who had grown up Catholic but never really embraced the deeper, spiritual side of the faith. He classified himself as spiritual but not religious; but that all changed when he walked through the doors of Trinity Sober Homes. This refuge for men with alcoholism launched its first house in 2012. It now has three houses serving a total of 41 men who are 40 and over.

“I started to really look into my relationship with God, ” he says. “I was able to live that at Trinity with other people who were doing the same thing. It just really made it come alive for me. It’s my life now. ”

After staying there for about a year, he moved out of St. Gabriel House and in with three other men who also had lived there. Eventually, he found his own apartment, where he lives today.

He is still a frequent visitor to the homes, where Father Bob Hart celebrates Mass is celebrated once a month. Father Hart, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, himself sobered up in 1985. A spiritual coach with Trinity Sober Homes, he plans to continue celebrating Mass as a way of giving back what he received when he first started his journey into recovery.

Paying It Forward

In fact, that theme of giving back is why the homes exist in the first place. It started back in 2009, when a middle-aged executive named Tim Murray found himself on Father Martin Fleming’s doorstep in St. Paul, where he had been helping men in recovery since the 1970s. Back then, he had opened several houses on his property called Bethany Village. He had seen firsthand how the disease of alcoholism had destroyed the lives of people he knew, and he simply wanted to help these men pick up the pieces.

One of the many troubled men he met was Murray, whose life was a train wreck of broken marriages and broken dreams. A CEO for several companies during a successful business career, he drowned his ambitions in alcohol. He had reached the point where he would fall asleep in his car after his favorite St. Paul bar closed, then wake up the next morning and stumble into work. He hoped the other employees wouldn’t notice, but that’s hard when you’re their CEO.

Finally, he hit rock bottom in August 2009 when he got drunk, rolled down St. Paul’s famous Ramsey Hill, and was pulled to his feet and taken to detox by several men in recovery themselves. Sharing a room in close quarters with other drunk men finally shocked him into taking a look at his own life. Murray checked into treatment, completed the program, then walked out looking for a place to live.

That’s when he discovered what so many alcoholic men find out: there is a shortage of space for older men looking for a sober home. At the same time that his search led him to the doorstep of Father Fleming, it also reconnected him to the Catholic faith of his childhood. This chance encounter was the first of many of what he now calls “God shots. ”

“I have a great-uncle who’s a monsignor, I have an aunt who’s a nun, and I was an altar boy myself, ” Murray says. “I said, ‘Father, I don’t think I can go back to the Church. I’ve committed too many sins. I’m too embarrassed, and I can’t do it.’ And, without blinking, he reached over, touched my forearm, and said: ‘Tim, the Church is a hospital for sinners; it’s not a museum for saints. And now that you’ve come back to the Church, there have been nothing but choruses of angels cheering in heaven for your return. Welcome back.’ ”

Welcome Home

The welcome mat was never pulled away during his two-year stay at Bethany Village. As Murray got stronger in his recovery, Father Fleming brought up the idea of offering housing to other men trying to stay sober. He would keep Bethany Village open, but the 87-yearold priest now had a man with energy and business acumen who could add to it. Thus, the two men together decided to launch Trinity Sober Homes.

The first home, St. Michael House, opened early in 2012. Later that year, St. Gabriel House opened. Finally, in 2016, St. Raphael House opened its doors. A total of 112 men have reaped the benefits of a Catholic sober home experience. Murray is proud to point out that 71 percent of these men have stayed sober. And he is equally proud to note that most of them have grown in their faith, thanks to resources such as spiritual coaching, regular Masses, and Catholic paintings and statues scattered throughout the homes. It is nearly impossible to roam any hallway without some reminder of the Catholic faith.

“Father Fleming talks a lot about the importance of the centrality of the Jesus event, keeping Jesus at the center of all we do, ” Murray says. “The spark of the divine exists within all of us. For those of us who are drug addicts and alcoholics, a lot of that got covered up by lots of gunk. And what the program and confession allow us to do is clear that gunk so that that ember, that spark of the divine, can glow more brightly. If you get enough men close enough together in community and if you don’t try to program but just step back and let the Holy Spirit breathe a little breath sometimes you can get a flame of love and community that is like nothing else. That’s what happened to me, and that’s what happens here. We have men who are ready to leave but don’t want to because you can’t find this anywhere else. ”

There are no forced conversions here, only lots of opportunities to encounter God in a setting that builds fraternity among the men who live together, each paying a modest rent of $795 a month. That helps offset the total cost of $1.8 million that it took to buy and remodel the three homes. Financial help from Premier Banks and the generosity of donors keep the doors open and recoveries staying on track.

A Philosophy of Wellness

Tompkins shudders to think about where he and others would be without Trinity Sober Homes. He thought he had the world by the tail when he finished medical school and residency in his 20s and started working as a doctor in Pittsburgh. He poured himself into his work and got married not long after he started practicing medicine.

“I met the beauty queen and had the fairytale wedding, ” he says. “She ended up having an affair within a year and a half. It was just a horrible, horrible divorce, and that’s when my drinking became more of an issue. I had some suicidal tendencies.

“And then I had a [new] relationship [with a woman after the divorce]. I finally trusted somebody again. I fell in love, but it turns out she was carrying on a dual relationship at the same time. It devastated me, and I had some financial problems in the practice. I was suffering from terrible depression. That’s when I got in my mind that I was going to end it. ”

Tompkins now shares his story freely as a way to encourage other men battling the demons of alcohol and drug addiction. He recently gave his testimony at the annual fund-raising banquet for Trinity Sober Homes last September. In attendance was Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who was installed in the archdiocese four months prior. He gave a few remarks and also said a blessing.

“Archbishop Hebda is just a wonderful, new breath of fresh air to us. We’ve had an opportunity to meet with him several times, ” Murray says. “I don’t want to speak for him, but my sense is that he is thrilled that this is a lay-driven ministry. ”

No doubt, Archbishop Hebda would be impressed with the quality of the homes. These are not run-down apartments that look as if they are run by a slumlord. Rather, they are tastefully decorated and filled with fine art and furniture. Ornate woodwork can be found in almost every room and hallway, and the backyards feature beautiful, well-kept gardens. It’s all in keeping with a philosophy that Murray says is important to the recovery process.

“Father Fleming believes very strongly and I concur in a dress-right, feel-right philosophy, ” he explains. “He learned this in the military. Men begin to transform in their lives when they are in an environment where they feel good about themselves. The beauty and quality of these homes create an environment that makes you say to yourself, I may feel like a loser, I may feel like a Catholic that can’t come home, I may feel like I am unworthy, but like the prodigal son, I am welcomed back.

Guardian Angels

Murray calls himself blessed to be able to witness the recovery journeys of so many men, some of whom might not be alive without the help of the program. In a matter of seconds, he can rattle off the names of men whose lives have been transformed while living under the roofs of Trinity Sober Homes.

“I think about Tom J., who struggled, relapsed, and came back, ” Murray recalls. “His wife died while he was in the house. She had terminal cancer. And he made the decision to continue to stay with us so that he wouldn’t have his children lose two parents at the same time, since he was at the point where each time he was relapsing, he was close to dying. I think about [the family] now being reunited, and I think about how, despite the loss of their mother, those children have regained a father.

“I think about some of the guys living here, like Mike G., who’s been here five years and will probably continue to live with us [for the long term]. He’s an ex-Marine who came here with a chip on his shoulder and is now the most loving, welcoming guy in the house. He’s the first one to say, ‘Hey, welcome to the house.’ He’s sort of like the house mom. He takes people under his wing. ”

The guardians of the houses the three archangels after whom the houses are named certainly have had a hand in the homes’ successes. Murray and Father Fleming both wanted unmistakably Catholic names for the homes to go with their unapologetically Catholic identities. After discussing several possibilities, they decided that archangel names were a perfect fit, starting with St. Michael.

“St. Michael really is seen as the archangel defeating the dragon, the serpent, Lucifer, ” Murray notes. “And to us, alcohol represents all of that. And so the image of St. Michael having Satan or the serpent under his foot, poised with a sword, is exactly the kind of hope we want to give to men, which is, ‘Hey, with God’s help, you can get your alcoholism or drug addiction under control.’ Archangels are God’s helpers and God’s messengers. ”

The question is: Will there be another house to name after an archangel?

“That’s the $64,000 question everybody asks, ” Murray says. “Most people in business define success by growth. But I don’t think that’s the right metric. Success should be and is defined by what percentage of our men are sober 12 months after they’ve stayed with us.

“I really believe that the long term is not in my hands. When people ask me what my long-term plan is, I say, ‘Do you know what my long-term plan is? To be sober when I go to sleep tonight.’ Everything else is in God’s hands. ”

Dave Hrbacek holds a BA in journalism from the University of Minnesota and is a photographer for The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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