PLAZA TERRACE — Father Thomas Morgan slept for three months in a tent that shook all night. Bombs constantly went off in the dark.
It was early 1991, and Morgan of Tampa was serving as a chaplain with the Marine Corps in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm.
The experience was challenging but he was glad to be among the troops. With death being a real possibility, some felt closer to God and their faith.
Morgan faced another, less daunting, challenge last year when the legendary Monsignor Laurence Higgins retired in June after almost half a century of service at St. Lawrence Catholic Church. Morgan became pastor of the parish on N Himes Avenue.
"No one could ever be Monsignor Higgins," Morgan said. "My desire is to be the best parish priest that I can be and to be available. If I do that at the end of the day, then I've done what God wants me to do."
Higgins' advice to Morgan?
Don't mess up at a baptism, a funeral, or a wedding, Higgins told his successor. That's not the time you want to mess up because people are not going to forget.
Morgan said he is not intimidated by the legacy that Higgins left behind.
Morgan has known Higgins since his childhood. He attended kindergarten through eighth grade at St. Lawrence School, before going to Tampa Catholic High School.
As a government major at Florida State University, he had his interest spurred by politics — until February 1977 when he came home to visit his family in Tampa. The following day, during Mass at the University of South Florida Catholic Student Center, he had his vocation.
"On Feb. 12 things changed, it was that dramatic," he said. "There was something in my heart that said: This is what you need to do."
Morgan still got the opportunity to fulfill his taste for government during his stint in the Persian Gulf War.
"I have served my country," he said. "I have done my part; I had gone to war."
Before St. Lawrence, Morgan previously served at St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City.
"He had all the experience he needs to have," Monsignor said. "He is now in charge, and it's wonderful."
He thinks that Morgan has done very well during his first year. In a way, the two men are the same because both have the desire to serve people.
Morgan calls his time at the church "an unusual year, difficult in some ways."
While he was grieving his father's death, a limited fire caused smoke to rise throughout the church. However, Morgan took the opportunity to make some renovations. The church's walls are now of a lighter color, the tabernacle has been moved from the chapel to the church and the bells have been repaired, he said.
Another challenge came with "myself being new and people trying to get used to you," he said.
Yet, Higgins, 79, said that parishioners welcomed the change.
"The community knows that when you get to a certain age, you have to pass the toga over to the new generation," he said.
Jennifer Prado, a parishioner, agrees.
"He has been very warmly welcomed," Prado, 49, said. "You can't help loving him."
The church's school is a big priority for Morgan. He wants to be more involved by praying with all the students and focusing on the youth "in a way that they feel like this is their home."
Morgan has a profound respect for other faiths and admired Mother Teresa even more after her struggles with God were revealed in her diaries last year.
"Father Morgan is a very gentle person, very kind and very compassionate," said Frank Murphy, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.
Morgan also supports Higgins' more controversial approaches to the faith, such as the time when he blessed Fidel Castro during a trip to Cuba.
"I think we should put aside fear," Morgan said.
"Be not afraid. What does it hurt to talk to somebody?" Morgan said, quoting Pope John Paul II.
Alessandra Da Pra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3434.
"My desire is to be the best parish priest that I can be and to be available. If I do that at the end of the day, then I've done what God wants me to do."
Father Thomas Morgan