Tampa monsignor celebrates 60 years as priest
No one really believed he would fade from the public spotlight.
When Monsignor Laurence Higgins stepped down in June 2007 from his role as senior pastor at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, the well-wishers came out to congratulate the priest who had figured prominently in their lives.
But retire? Nah, they all said. As long as Higgins was physically able, his presence would continue to be felt.
“Everybody wants to get married or buried by him. He has a hard time saying no,” says Joe Capitano, a longtime friend and church member. “And he doesn't care who you are, rich or poor, Catholic or not. He's the best example of a people person that I can think of.”
On Saturday, the faithful will meet at Higgins Hall after the 4 p.m. Mass to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his ordination in his native Ireland. Once again, they'll gather to personally thank their pastor emeritus for his continued service.
And they will have yet another reason to raise a glass in honor of the priest who never stops. Just last month, he was awarded an honorary law degree from Ave Maria School of Law in Naples.
He joined prestigious company. Past recipients include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit.
“That was a shocker,” says Higgins, 83. “I didn't see that one coming. I'm very humbled by it.”
His only regret is that his two late brothers aren't around for the party. Eoin, a justice of the Supreme Court of Northern Ireland, died suddenly of a blood clot at age 66 – the day before he was to be installed as the chief justice of the country's Supreme Court of Appeals. And Ruri, an attorney, died at age 71 of cancer.
What would their reaction be to their little brother's honorary law degree?
“They would just laugh and say Americans are crazy!” Higgins says, chuckling. “Laurence a lawyer? He should be in jail!”
Though he jokes about it, Higgins is humbled by this latest accolade. He hails from a family with four generations of lawyers and doctors, and three generations of priests and nuns. He nearly broke the mold by first pursuing a career in sports. An All-Ireland football player, he played forward in the minors, intermediate and senior leagues.
He knew how much he would have disappointed his father by turning pro. After a brief stint in medical school, Higgins followed the calling that tugged at him as a child, entering the Seminary of All Hallows in Dublin.
“Back then, priests were the pillars of the community. It was a very noble calling,” he says in his still-thick Irish brogue. “Times have changed. Values have declined, society has declined. And the number of men going into the priesthood has suffered as well.”
Ordained on June 21, 1953, Higgins was part of the mass export of Irish clergy sent to the United States to serve the fast-growing Catholic population. After a stint in Miami, he came to Tampa in 1958, where he founded St. Lawrence – and stayed 49 years. At his retirement, he was the longest-serving pastor of one church in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. And arguably the most active Catholic clergyman in the community at large.
“I don't know where the time flies. It seemed to go by just like that,” he says of 60 years as a priest. “There are no regrets, just blessings.”
The last year has been his most difficult.
In May 2012, he lost Polly Murray, his best friend, business partner and confidante, to pancreatic cancer. She was the church's longtime lay administrator, and “pretty much ran the show,” Higgins says. Although she had battled health issues for years and he had time to prepare for her death, he still could not fathom going on without her.
“But it's the Lord's will, not ours, when it's time to go home,” Higgins says. “She's up there, with my brothers and the rest of the lot, keeping things organized. We'll all be together again.”
Of all the countless funerals he has presided over in his six decades of service, leading Murray's memorial was his toughest assignment of all.
“Her death was a turning point for him. It's not that he didn't have compassion when he counseled grieving families, but once Polly died, he felt a void like never before,” says Tampa businessman George Levy, another longtime friend. “Now he truly understands loss at a level he never could before. He understands their pain.”
And then there are the inevitable effects of aging. He's had both knees replaced – not from too much kneeling, he says, but from the rigors of playing football and tennis. Now he's suffering from circulation problems in his lower legs and dealing with balance issues.
“In my strapping youth, I could have stood on one finger and spun around,” he says. “Now I'm like a broken-down second-hand car. The parts are all worn out and need replacing.”
Though it may seem he's checked all the boxes when it comes to goals, Higgins still has something left on his bucket list: one last trip home to Ireland. This fall, he says, God willing.
Higgins' quick wit and speedy Masses – parishioners call him “the faster pastor” -- are just part of his legacy. He's still a dedicated champion for the poor, minorities and elderly, working on numerous boards and organizations to raise awareness and improve conditions for the underserved. The University of South Florida named its Alcoholism and Addiction Research Program after him. After his retirement, in honor of his years of community service, former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio proclaimed June 21 to 30 as “Higgins' Days.”
“I don't think we'll ever have a religious leader who cares as much for the Tampa community and its people like the monsignor,” Levy says. “You just can't take his passion and drive for granted. Plus, he still knows how to get a laugh. That's a good quality.”
Higgins says you can't live your faith just by words. If you're going to teach, you have to do it by your actions. He begins every day with quiet prayer to give him strength to do the right thing, and to remember “without God's grace, I couldn't lift a finger.”
Though no longer bound to the day-to-day duties of running a large parish, he can never abandon his ties to the congregants. He's connected to four generations since starting his Tampa journey. People still call every week, wanting him and only him to marry a daughter, baptize a grandson, bury a father. It's hard to say no, since he believes his most important role is supporting and promoting the family.
“A strong family, with mothers and fathers involved in their children's lives, will get this world right again,” he says. “We've lost that commitment, and we're suffering because of it. Seeing families together, that's what makes me the happiest.”
Kevin McCarron, who works in corporate real estate, knows firsthand about Higgins' devotion to family.
When his parents, Red and Arline, moved to Tampa and learned the local Catholic school could not accept all five of their children, they headed east on Hillsborough Avenue and met with then-Father Higgins to explain their dilemma. Without hesitation, he welcomed them all into St. Lawrence's school, and the McCarrons became active members of the parish. The couple sang in the choir, volunteered at the annual school carnival and became pre-marriage counselors for the church.
And when McCarron says that Higgins has been involved in all of his clan's life events, he's not kidding. In 43 years, the priest has baptized eight babies, performed seven First Communions, confirmed 10 teenagers, married four grown children and buried four family members.
“We look forward to seeing Monsignor Higgins at events whether the occasion is one of joy or sorrow,” he says, “because we know he is family.”
Radiologist Tracy Halme has known Higgins her whole life. She says there's so much more to this “Tampa icon” who oversees the benedictions at high-profile events or served as chaplain for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I know him as a simple, loyal and honest man who is present for his parishioners in the monotony and hardships that we all face at times in everyday life,” she says. “He is available at home or the church, or curbside for advice, encouragement or consolation.”
His best quality, she says, is his ability to show Christ's unconditional love and forgiveness.
“He picks you up, dusts you off and sends you back into the world to try and do better next time,” Halme says. “I believe that Jesus handpicked a young man named Laurence Higgins to become a priest, and 60 years later, he's smiling at him and saying, 'Great, great job!' ''