Monsignor Laurence Higgins, who built a parish and helped build Tampa, dies at 87

Published August 24 2016
Updated August 25 2016

TAMPA — Monsignor Laurence E. Higgins, the charming Irish priest who was a confidant of Tampa's power elite in politics, business and professional sports, died Wednesday (Aug. 24, 2016). He was 87.

Monsignor Higgins died at his rectory home at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, the parish he was sent to Tampa to found in 1958. He had been in and out of the hospital for the last couple of years, had struggled in recent months and succumbed to heart failure.

He was the pastor at St. Lawrence for 49 years — "that's unheard of," Bishop Robert Lynch said — retiring as the longest-serving priest in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

"If ever there was an iconic figure in Tampa's history, it's Monsignor Higgins," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was married by the monsignor. "He has been a mentor, spiritual leader and confidant to tens of thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics."

The funeral mass will take place at 11:30 a.m. Aug. 31 at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, with burial to follow at the Garden of Memories Cemetery. Visitation will be noon to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. All will be open to the public, consistent with the monsignor's wishes.

From Ireland with love: Athlete-turned-priest left a lasting impression on Tampa

Monsignor Higgins was sent to Tampa at age 29, five years after he took his vows. In the six decades that followed, he not only created a community of faith at St. Lawrence, but helped build Tampa's commercial and social service infrastructure, serving on so many community and charitable boards he lost count.

As Tampa's most high-profile clergyman, his circle of friends was huge, taking in mayors and millionaires. Away from the pulpit, he supported some of their big projects, like the New York Yankees' Legends Field, built with $30 million from county taxpayers. But he also used his influence with the rich and powerful to help the poor and needy.

"The seeds that he planted long ago have grown into trees so tall that they offer shade to all around, and send their own seeds on to a hurting world," said Tampa surgeon Sylvia Campbell, president of the Judeo Christian Health Clinic.

"I've been around a lot of clergy, including an audience with Pope John Paul II, but nobody like Monsignor," said shopping mall developer and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. "He's like a street saint. He knows how to connect with regular people. And by the time you walk away, you feel a closer connection to God."

'A wild boy'

The son of John and Philomena Higgins, Monsignor Higgins was the third of eight children — five girls and three boys — born on a Derry County farm in Northern Ireland.

Larry Higgins grew up 39 miles southwest of Belfast in Magherafelt, an Irish name that means "the town among the rushes." His father farmed, exported seeds and worked as a government administrator. His mother was a homemaker. Every night after dinner, the family gathered around a picture of the Holy Father and said the rosary.

The Higginses were an accomplished clan, with four generations of lawyers and doctors, and three generations of priests and nuns.

Growing up, young Larry thought of the priesthood early, but his path to the clergy ran across the soccer pitch. He and his friends learned soccer using a tennis ball because they didn't have a soccer ball.

An All-Ireland forward, he played on two teams that won national championships in Irish football, a mix of soccer and rugby.

"He was always the one who liked fun, was always in the middle of things and was very sociable," Philomena O'Sullivan, the monsignor's then 76-year-old sister, said in a telephone interview from Belfast in 2007. "He was a wild boy."

And as a college student, he was a hellion. By his own account, he hated school, refused to study and showed no respect for authority. He broke curfew, slept late, skipped classes and challenged professors on the days he did show up. During the food shortages of World War II, he tried to lead a student strike because he didn't like the fare in the college cafeteria.

Two different colleges expelled him.

"I did not do a scrap of work," he recalled in 2000. "I was even told by a bishop I should quit school and play professional football — 'which is all you're good for, Higgins.' "

After the second expulsion, he caught a break. The ex-president of his first college interceded on his behalf, partly because of the Higgins family's good name, partly because he was willing to take the chance on the headstrong young man.

That act of faith made a difference. Higgins settled down and graduated from a third college. He studied medicine at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Dublin for nearly two years, then changed his mind and enrolled at All Hallows Seminary, which trained missionaries, also in Dublin.

"I wanted to help people in a different way," he said in 2013. "Going into the priesthood is the best thing I ever did because of the people. It's the people that make the pastor, not the pastor that makes the people. You're taking care of them in sickness and health, in good times and bad, and the people appreciate it so much."

'The faster pastor'

While in seminary, Higgins became part of a wave of priests sent to serve the Catholic Church's growing membership in the United States.

He spent five years in Miami, then moved north in 1958.

In Tampa, he was put in charge of 20 acres of church-owned land on N Himes Avenue. Jesuit High School had just been built, but much of the rest of the area was swamp and scrub oaks, with no football stadium down the street. North Dale Mabry Highway and Waters Avenue didn't even have a stoplight.

Higgins went door-to-door to find parishioners. He said his first Mass on Feb. 8, 1959, to a congregation of 216 at Hillsborough High School. Three months later, the parish added a second service at the Army reserve center in Drew Park. And four months after that, a third service was launched at the Wellswood Civic Center.

Asked to suggest a name for the parish, Higgins submitted three — two he thought the bishop would reject, plus Laurence, a deacon martyred in the year 258 when the Roman emperor ordered all clergy to be put to death. Legend has it that the deacon gave the church's treasures to the poor rather than turn them over to Rome.

The bishop accepted the name, but Americanized it to Lawrence.

St. Lawrence's early congregations attracted many Hispanic worshippers, blue collar workers and service members stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. Father Higgins soon had a reputation as a quick wit with a crisp, to-the-point manner of speaking. His services started on time and clocked in at an hour or less. Parishioners called him "the faster pastor."

But like the adolescent footballer, the priest sometimes chafed against the authority of the diocese in St. Petersburg.

"In many ways Monsignor Higgins is unique," Lynch said. "In some ways, speaking as the bishop, I'm glad there was only one Monsignor Higgins that I had to deal with."

Ignoring policy, Higgins once bought a building without the knowledge of the bishop — one of Lynch's predecessors. He later took that bishop on a tour without mentioning that the church already owned the building. The bishop was not impressed.

"Someone was praying for me," Monsignor Higgins later recalled, "because I was able to sell it at a profit and get out of it before he caught on."

He grew the parish to about 2,200 families. He also helped start three more Catholic Churches in Tampa: Epiphany, Incarnation and St. Paul.

In the 1970s, the church offered Higgins a more established parish. He declined, asking to stay at St. Lawrence and also take on the pastorship at St. Peter Claver, a black parish near Ybor City.

What, the bishop asked, do you have in common with St. Peter Claver's African-American members?

"Where I come from we (Catholics) are the minorities," Higgins replied. "Discrimination has absolutely no color. Neither has love, faith, justice or any of the things that count."

After Higgins' two years at St. Peter Claver, then-President Jimmy Carter appointed Higgins to the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights for southern states, where he served along with the late Rev. Leon Lowry and the late Rev. Abe Brown, both also of Tampa.

"I think we avoided serious race problems in Tampa because he stood up for what was right and fair," Brown said in 2007. "People respected him and followed his example. We needed that kind of leadership in that strange era."

'A lot of praying'

As his church grew, he worked in the diocese administration, volunteering with organizations including the Hillsborough County Bar Association and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He said Masses and traveled with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the team's dismal start in 1976. ("A lot of praying," he recalled.)

"Monsignor was everywhere in this community," said philanthropist Susan Sykes, who served with Higgins on the board of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. "If he was close to an organization, you knew it was a worthwhile cause to support."

He served on the boards of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute Foundation, the Higgins Alcohol and Addiction Program at the University of South Florida's Institute for Research in Psychiatry, the Florida Treatment Center and many others.

"A friend of the addicted, the dispossessed, the lonely, the aging," Lynch said. He also established the Housing by St. Laurence program to help first-time home buyers and low income families.

"He was involved in so many things behind the scenes … the Port Authority, the Boys & Girls Club, the Salesian Sisters," attorney and Tampa native Joe Garcia said. But "for all the influence and connections he had, he never showed that off. He just wanted to get things done."

Over the years, the walls of his parish office filled up with handshake photos with Pope John Paul II, who bestowed the honorary title "monsignor" on Higgins in 1983, plus President George H.W. Bush, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, basketball legend Julius "Dr. J" Erving and many others.

Around Tampa, he worked closely with the city's power structure, playing tennis and vacationing with former Mayor Dick Greco, and counting New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as a friend. Before he was mayor or governor, Bob Martinez met Higgins the day the priest walked into Martinez's restaurant with professional wrestlers Jack and Jerry Brisco. When Martinez was inaugurated as mayor, Higgins offered the invocation.

"My father had a great belief that ... you change things from within," Monsignor Higgins said in 1994. "You change the world by working together."

So he advocated for downtown redevelopment and urged the Hillsborough County Commission to pay for a new Yankees spring training stadium. The stadium would bring jobs, he said, adding, "Orlando is eating us alive."

If others thought his advocacy was inappropriate, Monsignor Higgins did not flinch.

In 2007, when strip club owner Joe Redner ran for the City Council, he urged his congregation to keep family and morality in mind when they voted, "because companies thinking of moving to Tampa certainly will."

Nor did he say no when the daughters of Santo Trafficante Jr. asked him to bury their father, a man long suspected of running the Mafia's rackets in Florida and Cuba.

" 'He's in the hands of God. It's God that's going to do the judging,' " Higgins later recalled that he said at the grave. "What I said was what I believe. ... The church has never even judged Judas. Nobody's ever said in a public statement, 'Judas is in Hell.' "

In 2002, Monsignor Higgins courted controversy again by joining Greco and other Tampa leaders on a quietly arranged trip to Cuba and giving a blessing to communist dictator Fidel Castro.

Greco's wife, Dr. Linda McClintock Greco, suggested the blessing. Castro and the monsignor looked at each other, and Castro, who understands English, nodded yes.

Putting both hands atop Castro's head, Monsignor Higgins prayed in the Latin that Castro had learned in Jesuit school: "May God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit descend upon you and bless you. Amen."

Then he added in English: "May God give you strength to do His will. Amen."

That willingness to extend himself in faith was typical.

"Most religious leaders stick to their own congregations," said Leonard Levy, community leader and former owner of Hillsborough Print. "His reach went way beyond that. ... His heart went out to everybody."

And that, Monsignor Higgins often said, is where he found his joy.

"I'm so happy God sent me to Tampa. This is my place," he said in 1998. "Hopefully I'm going to live and die here, with the people I love."

Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Michelle Bearden is a Times correspondent. Times staff writers Sherri Day and Christopher O'Donnell and senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.