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  1. Opinion

Editorial: The rich legacy of Monsignor Higgins

Monsignor Laurence Higgins, who died Wednesday at age 87, was sent to Tampa in 1958 to found St. Lawrence Catholic Church. He turned a religious vocation into a civic contribution that shaped this region for the better.
Monsignor Laurence Higgins, who died Wednesday at age 87, was sent to Tampa in 1958 to found St. Lawrence Catholic Church. He turned a religious vocation into a civic contribution that shaped this region for the better.
Published Aug. 25, 2016

It says something about the commonality of man that a child born in the sectarian divide of Ireland would one day become the soul of an immigrant city an ocean away. Monsignor Laurence Higgins, who died Wednesday in Tampa at the age of 87, turned a religious vocation into a civic contribution that forever shaped this region for the better.

Like many callings, though, his started out small, as he was fond of retelling with the usual wink of an eye that promised a terrific yarn. Born near Belfast, Higgins grew up playing soccer and Irish football — "a wild boy," his sister recalled, who by his own account slept late, skipped classes and "did not do a scrap of work." One bishop wrote him off; only after being expelled from college twice did a mentor from his earlier days give him a second chance. That second chance led to the priesthood. And it led Higgins to Tampa, where over decades he worked to ensure that young people who followed him also had a second chance to make something of themselves.

Higgins was sent to Tampa in 1958, at the age of 29, to found St. Lawrence Catholic Church. Built amid swamp and scrub north of where Raymond James Stadium now sits, its early congregations included many Hispanics and blue-collar Catholics from West Tampa. Parishioners warmed to his Irish wit and personal touch; St. Lawrence grew, and Higgins turned his attention to starting three more parishes in the city.

His drive, charm and energy expanded the Catholic presence in Tampa. And with that profile, Higgins become a sought-after dinner guest and confidant of Tampa's political, business and social elite. Though that drew some criticism his way, Higgins wouldn't hesitate in pushing rich and powerful friends to advance projects that helped the poor. Both as a board member for charities and behind the scenes, he championed a long list of causes, from the Boys and Girls Clubs and cancer research to affordable housing, addiction assistance, legal aid and teen confidence-building programs.

His contributions to the Roman Catholic community are reflected in his honorary title of monsignor, bestowed by Pope John Paul II in 1983. But Higgins' real reach was extending his faith beyond the church. He believed in the goodness of his adopted city, but he also focused his parish and the power structure on those being left behind. He believed no great city could turn its back on its own. He was a character with a sharp mind and a quick wit who reminded those who asked that they had a responsibility to work for the greater good.

Higgins was an inspiration to generations of people who sought his spiritual guidance, and his warm embrace on their best and their worst days made him part of the family and fabric of Tampa. He symbolized what people can accomplish together rather than apart, and in that sense, his rich legacy is here to stay.

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