Founder, longtime priest of St. Lawrence Catholic Parish in Tampa passes away at the age of 87

Posted at 8:30 AM, Aug 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-24 18:03:33-04

Monsignor Laurence E. Higgins, the founder and longtime priest of St. Lawrence Catholic Parish in Tampa  passed away early Wednesday morning at his parish rectory home. 

Higgins was 87-years-old.

Higgins was a priest from 1958 to 2007 and he held the title of the longest tenure of any priest in the St. Petersburg Diocese. Higgins retired in 2007 as a pastor, however he remained as a pastor emeritus and he continued his work for the poor. 

Bonnie Gravette is fighting off a cold.  That's on top of dealing with *three chronic health conditions, which have made it impossible for her to find health insurance.

So getting free care at the Judeo Christian Clinic in Tampa is a lifeline.

"It's been a blessing.  Without Judeo, i don't know what I would've done," said Gravette.

This clinic was one of the deep passions of Monsignor Laurence Higgins, who died Wednesday.  He was instrumental in establishing the clinic, and spent many years serving on the board and helping raise money for its operations.

"He worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the poor and needy," said Kelly Nelson Bell, executive director of the Judeo Christian Clinic.

"He'd say, 'This is the stuff the church needs to do.' And he'd say it really passionately, and he meant it," said Father Tom Morgan, who took over as pastor at St. Lawrence after Msgr. Higgins.

Higgins founded St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa and served as its pastor for 49 of his 60 years in the priesthood.

"I think everyone, especially everyone here in the beginning, and even those who came later, simply just loved him.  Just loved him," said Fr. Morgan.

His fellow priests and his parishioners agree that Monsignor Higgins was always there for those in need, and used his compassion to serve dozens of charitable organizations in Tampa Bay, which he remained involved with until just a few weeks before his death. Higgins even spent time as a chaplain for the city's pro sports teams.

"He was extraordinarily gifted and he turned those gifts to the service of the gospel," said Bishop Robert Lynch with the St. Petersburg Diocese.

Everyone who knew him describes his charisma as contagious and say his spirit will live on through his countless contributions in the community.

"Any time you had the opportunity to talk to Monsignor he'd tell you how much he cared about the people of this community.  And that resonates with not only the service we provide, but through the individual patients because of the philosophy and the mission we carry forward," said Nelson Bell.

Higgins will be laid to rest on Wednesday, August 31 at 11:30 a.m. at St. Lawrence Catholic Parish. His wake will be on Monday, August 29 and Tuesday, August 30 from noon to 9 p.m. Burial will be at the Garden of Memories Cemetery. All services are open to the public.  

A news conference was held at St. Lawrence's Higgins Hall at noon on Wednesday. 

Watch some of the video on the ABC Action News Facebook page.

St. Lawrence Catholic Parish sent the following information about Monsignor Higgins' life:

Born September 3, 1928 in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland to government administrator John Higgins and homemaker Philomena, Higgins was the third-oldest of eight children (Eoin, Mary, Ruaidhri, Philomena, Maeve, Anne, and Margaret).

Higgins was ordained a Catholic priest on June 21, 1953 at All Hallows Seminary in Dublin, Ireland. Soon thereafter he was sent to the United States and assigned to the Florida Diocese of St. Augustine. He worked in Miami at Holy Family, Corpus Christi, and St. Mary's Parishes before being transferred to the mission territory of the Tampa Bay area in 1958.

Upon his arrival in Tampa, Archbishop Joseph Hurley gave Higgins 20 acres of cow pasture at Hillsborough and Himes Avenues along with a mandate: "Build a parish." The Parish was canonically established in 1959 with Masses celebrated in barracks in Drew Park, in the auditorium at Hillsborough High School, in the chapel at Jesuit High School, and at  the Wellswood Civic Center until the provisional church building was completed in 1961.  As the Parish eventually grew to include 2200 families, finances enabled the permanent church to be constructed and dedicated on April 5,1981.

Over the years Higgins played a role in starting three more Catholic parishes in Tampa: Epiphany, Incarnation, and St. Paul.  While still at St. Lawrence he served as interim pastor at St. Peter Claver from 1971-73 when  President Jimmy Carter also appointed him to the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights for southern states.

As a priest Higgins was appointed the Vicar General (second in command) of the Diocese of St. Petersburg from 1980-90 under the late Bishop Thomas Larkin.
Previously he had served in the roles of Consultor (adviser) to the bishop and Vicar Fornane (supervisor of the clergy).  In 1983 Pope John Paul II gave him the title of "Monsignor Prelate of Honor" and subsequently in 1988 "Protonotary Apostolic," the highest rank of Monsignor. Higgins has served as chaplain for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rowdies and was frequently sought by Tampa Bay area media outlets to comment on controversial and church-related issues.

Higgins gained a reputation as a good Samaritan and became a constant presence at civic and athletic events. His contributions to the community include serving on the board directors of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute Foundation, Judeo Christian Health Clinic, "Higgins Alcohol and Addiction Program" at USF's Institute for Research in Psychiatry, Florida Treatment Center, Project Return, Gold Shield Foundation, MOSI, Crisis Center of Hillsborough County, Boys and Girls Clubs, Tampa and West Tampa Chambers of Commerce, Ybor City Development Corporation, the Outback Bowl, and many others.

He founded the Raphael Foundation in 1997 which supports programs for the disadvantaged such as MacDonald Training Center, Meals on Wheels, Judeo Christian Health Clinic, Abe Brown Ministries, and Trinity Cafe.  He also established "Housing by St. Laurence," which is dedicated to helping first-time home buyers and low-income families, and San Lorenzo Terrace I and II, a HUD project of retirement apartments for low-income seniors.

A celebrated member of the Tampa Bay community, Higgins received numerous honors including  the "Outstanding Service" Award from the Cuban Civic Club in 1974, the Sertoma Club "Service to Mankind" Award in 1986, the "Citizen of the Year" Award from the Tampa Civitans Club in 1994, the "Ethics" Award from the University of Tampa in 2000, the "Gonzmart Family Ambassador" Award from the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2004, the Jewish National Fund Tree of Life "Lifetime Achievement" Award in 2011, and the Tampa Bay Lightning "Community Hero" Award in 2016. He received an honorary law degree from Ave Maria School of Law in 2013.

A website has been created to honor his life.