TAMPA — Carmen DeJesus, 76, never got the opportunity to meet Monsignor Laurence E. Higgins, who died last year in his Tampa rectory home. If she had, she would have thanked him for his part in founding the San Lorenzo Terrace I, an apartment complex built on church land for seniors who have "almost no money," she said.
The best she could do, she said, was come pay her respects during the unveiling of the statue of the monsignor.
"He was a great man," said DeJesus, who arrived an hour before the ceremony started. "I wish I could have met him."
More than 500 people attended the unveiling of a bronze statue honoring Higgins, founder and pastor of St. Lawrence Catholic Church.
Originally from Northern Ireland, Higgins traveled to Tampa in 1958 to found the parish. During his 49 years as pastor, he made a significant impact on the community, helping build Tampa's commercial and social service infrastructure and serving on numerous community and charitable boards.
Many of those in attendance described him as a leader who cared most for those he ministered.
Along with the statue, a section of Himes Avenue between Caracas Street and W Hillsborough Avenue was renamed Monsignor Higgins Avenue.
The event was attended by former and current politicians including Mayor Bob Buckhorn, City Council member Charlie Miranda, former Gov. Bob Martinez, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.
But few could claim to have known Higgins as long as Marie Pandolfo, 93, who was a founding parishioner at St. Lawrence.
Pandolfo sat in a wheelchair behind much of the crowd and said that she could not see the statue due to her poor eyesight, but that it was important for her to attend.
"He used to walk from his house to the church, and if I was outside he would ask me 'How are you doing? Do you need help? Are you sure you don't need help?' " Pandolfo said. "He always made sure that everyone was okay."
Father Tom Morgan, who replaced Higgins as St. Lawrence pastor and later became pastor at St. Jerome in Largo, said the former parish leader was a humble man who didn't expect statues in his honor. The monument would mean more to the living than it would have to Higgins.
"This is about us in a way, because each of us in the community of Tampa have been profoundly touched by a unique individual," Morgan said.
Contact Jonathan Capriel at [email protected]