tampabay.com

Renowned monsignor plans to retire in June

Higgins is the longest serving pastor of a single parish in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

By SHERRI DAY
Published April 3, 2007


TAMPA - Monsignor Laurence Higgins, arguably the bay area's most-recognized Catholic and its most well-connected priest, has announced his retirement.

Higgins, who founded St. Lawrence Parish in Tampa in 1958, plans to step down as pastor of the church on June 30. The 78-year-old priest has led the church for more than four decades, setting a record as the longest serving pastor of a single parish in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, diocesan officials said.

"When many people think of the Catholic Church, they think of Monsignor Higgins," said the Rev. Len Plazewski, head of vocations for the diocese. "Obviously, his retirement leaves a void, but his faithful service is an example to other priests to continue to be faithful until the end."

The monsignor's retirement comes as no surprise as the Catholic Church requires its priests to begin retirement discussions once they reach 75. But Higgins showed little sign of slowing down until last spring, when he had an extended stay in the hospital after gall bladder surgery. He eventually recuperated and returned to work.

Higgins, who announced his retirement plans at church Sunday, did not respond to an interview request Monday.

Plazewski said the monsignor will serve as pastor emeritus at St. Lawrence and continue to make his home there.

Though Higgins will give up daily administrative duties for the parish, he will likely pitch in with clergy duties such as saying Mass.

Bishop Robert N. Lynch, head of the nearly 400,000-member diocese of St. Petersburg, tapped the Rev. Thomas Morgan to succeed Higgins. Morgan, 48, currently pastors St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City.

Morgan plans to leave that congregation on May 31, take a month's vacation and report to St. Lawrence on July 1, according to a letter the priest wrote to his parishioners.

Lynch praised Higgins' work both inside and outside of the church, where he served on dozens of boards and civic groups.

"Active in the community of Tampa and a very successful fundraiser for a vast collection of charitable works, Monsignor Higgins has brought to every task a pastor's heart and a priestly zeal."

Higgins' influence held tremendous sway outside church walls. A list of the priest's friends reads like a who's who of Tampa's rich, famous and powerful.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner calls Higgins a personal friend and a "great leader and great person."

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco describes Higgins as a down-to-earth guy.

Former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez says Higgins is an intellectual who has cultivated friends with the intent of helping others.

While the monsignor will step down from the pulpit, it is unlikely that he will leave public life, his friends said.

"I don't think he's going to withdraw from a number of things," said Martinez, a St. Lawrence parishioner. "He's going to be a hard man to slow down. I know he wants to and all that, but that's not been his life so he's going to have to learn to do that."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at (813) 226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.