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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Monsignor Higgins steps down
After half a century in Tampa, Monsignor Higgins prepares to step down. But not aside.
By SHERRI DAY
Published June 22, 2007
TAMPA -- In a single glance, Monsignor Laurence Higgins surveys his office and takes in 49 years of memories as pastor of St. Lawrence Catholic Church. There are plaques, mounted newspaper clippings and pictures. Dozens of them. Three capture his meetings with Pope John Paul II. In others, the 78-year-old priest beams alongside basketball legend Dr. J. or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
And in one shot he is baptizing the son of Kansas City Chiefs coach Herman Edwards, a relationship nurtured when Edwards was an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Higgins was a team chaplain, a post he still holds today.
"Monsignor is an institution in this town," said former Tampa mayor and close friend Dick Greco.
Next week, the priest, who is arguably the most well-known Catholic in the bay area, will retire. On Thursday, he met with well-wishers at a reception in the church hall that bears his name.
It signals the end of an era for Higgins, a celebrity priest and pied piper of sorts who has used his influence among the rich and well-connected to benefit the poor and needy.
His friends, whom he calls by first name, are people like "George," as in Steinbrenner. But he has an equal affinity for people without boldface names. "What makes him so terribly special is he has a way of talking to every person, rich, poor, black, white, Catholic, non-Catholic," Greco said. "None of that matters to him. Monsignor is just everywhere."
Higgins, the longest serving pastor in the nearly 400,000-member Diocese of St. Petersburg, also is one of the diocese's oldest pastors. Thousands saluted him Thursday, the 54th anniversary of his ordination. A band played and three slide shows entertained the crowd.
Eager to speak to the monsignor, the crowd brushed aside Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who had come to issue a proclamation making June 21-30 as Higgins' days.
Jim and Linda Taggart stood in a seemingly never-ending line to greet the monsignor, who shook hands and wrapped his parishioners and friends in bear hugs.
The couple wanted to thank Higgins for visiting Jim Taggert several times when he was ill with cancer. "There are many good priests," Linda Taggart said. "But there's no one like that. That's a special gift."
In his lilting Irish brogue, Higgins brushes off praise. There's community work to do, sick to visit and phone calls to make to parishioners in need of counseling. The priest also has one last homily to construct as pastor.
"I don't like goodbyes, and I'm not saying goodbye," Higgins said last week. "I'm still going to be with them. (My) whole life is here."
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The retirement Higgins envisions hardly makes room for relaxing days on the beach. He'll keep an office down the hall from his old one. And he intends to don his collar for parishioners who ask him to perform funerals, weddings and baptisms.
"I hope to be able to help Father Tom in whatever way he wants," Higgins said, speaking of his handpicked successor, the Rev. Thomas Morgan from St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City.
Higgins, who remains on several nonprofit boards, hopes to keep working with the mentally ill and the indigent and an addiction laboratory at the University of South Florida that tries to determine why people are drawn to certain behaviors.
In his new life, Higgins says he'll rest on Mondays and Tuesdays. With cataracts, a double knee replacement and a gall bladder surgery that sidelined him last year, he has promised to slow down. But those who know him say it's not his style.
Instead, he prefers 16-hour workdays, said an assistant, Lazaro Gonzalez, 44. "He deserves the rest, if he'll take it," Gonazalez said.
Higgins will give his last homily as pastor of St. Lawrence on Sunday. But the very next Sunday, he'll say Mass again because Morgan won't report to work until later that week. The prospect of popping up unexpectedly seems to amuse him.
"I'll tell them they can't get rid of me, dead or alive," said Higgins, erupting into laughter.
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Born in Northern Ireland to a government administrator and a homemaker, Higgins is the second-oldest of eight children. Every night after dinner, they gathered around a picture of the Holy Father and said the rosary. A star athlete, Higgins played rugby, soccer and Irish football.
Wild behavior, he says, got him kicked out of two schools, but he's mum on what happened. "There's a song where we say 'Lord forgive me the sins of my youth,'" Higgins said with an impish grin. "I say, 'Not only forgive me, but forget them, too.'"
Higgins yearned to be a professional athlete, but his father disapproved. So he set out to become a doctor. Along the way -- he can't recall a particular moment or incident -- he felt called to the ministry.
Pride coupled with shock set in with his family, who never thought Higgins would become a priest. "He was always the one who liked fun, was always in the middle of things and was very sociable," Philomena O'Sullivan, Higgins' 76-year-old sister, said in a telephone interview from Belfast. "He was a wild boy."
Higgins graduated from Dublin's All Hallows seminary in 1953 and headed to Miami. Three years later, he moved to Tampa. The bishop gave him 10 acres of land and a mandate: Build a parish.
The young priest quickly began recruiting Catholics in the area. Hispanics comprised the bulk of his flock, a group heavy with blue-collar workers and officers from MacDill, who lived nearby.
With the bishop's consent, Higgins named the parish after his patron saint, Laurence, a deacon in charge of the poor who was burned to death by the Romans. The bishop used the American spelling of the saint's name.
Higgins began to gain a reputation as a good Samaritan and man about town in Tampa. He joined several boards and became a constant presence at banquets and athletic events. When offered a more established parish in the 1970s, Higgins counteroffered: Let him serve as pastor of St. Lawrence and pastor of St. Peter Claver, a black parish near Ybor City.
Noting his Irish heritage, the bishop wondered what Higgins had in common with African-Americans.
"I said where I come from we (Catholics) are the minorities," Higgins said. "Discrimination has absolutely no color. Neither has love, faith, justice or any of the things that count."
His request granted, Higgins stayed at St. Peter Claver for two years. Because of his work with minorities, President Jimmy Carter appointed Higgins to the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights for southern states.
Convinced that the diocese needed a strong, recognizable clergyman in Tampa, diocesan officials finally decided to let Higgins stay put.
"I think they were afraid if they got rid of him there might be an uproar, a rebellion in the city of Tampa, " said Polly Murray, Higgins' longtime assistant.
The priest who would become monsignor -- an honorary title bestowed on him by Pope John Paul II in 1983 -- got busy. He grew the parish to about 2,800 families. He also helped start three more Catholic Churches in Tampa: Epiphany, Incarnation and St. Paul.
Though much beloved, Higgins has not been immune to controversy. He was criticized after a 2002 trip to Cuba where he blessed Fidel Castro. Others scoffed when he performed the graveside service for reputed mafia boss Santo Traficante Jr.
His own man, Higgins was unbowed.
He also has taken great pains to develop relationships beyond the Christian community.
"I can tell you he's the closest thing to God I've ever met," said Barry Cohen, who is Jewish and a Tampa lawyer who had Higgins co-officiate his wedding to a Catholic bride. "There's nothing I wouldn't tell him. I love this guy."
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As his time at the helm of St. Lawrence winds down, Higgins keeps an unrelenting pace.
He rises at 5 a.m. for prayer, says Mass, squeezes in a workout and makes calls before darting around town in his Buick LaCrosse to give the sacrament to the invalid or visit hospitals.
On Father's Day, Higgins baptized Bob and Lilly Greico's youngest son. Only 6 weeks old, Nathan was baptized earlier than his older brothers because the Greicos wanted the monsignor to perform the ceremony while he was still their pastor.
"It means the world," Lilly Greico gushed after Higgins baptized Nathan. "I grew up with him my whole life."
Bob Greico agreed. Baptism by Higgins' hand is a family tradition. The monsignor baptized him in 1968.
When the ceremony ended, everyone gathered around Higgins, each angling to capture his image in their pictures. The monsignor smiled, happily at the center of it all.
Fast facts: Tampa's monsignor Monsignor Laurence E. Higgins retires June 30 as pastor of St. Lawrence Parish in Tampa. He is the longest serving pastor in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Born: Sept. 3, 1928, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland. Ordained: June 21, 1953, All Hallows Seminary in Dublin, Ireland, for the United States Missions. Pastoral Duties
1953-1958: Holy Family, Corpus Christi, and St. Mary's Parishes in Miami.
1971-1973: Interim pastor at St. Peter Claver Parish in Tampa
1958-Present: Pastor, St. Lawrence Parish, Tampa
1980-1990: Vicar general or second in command of the Diocese of St. Petersburg
1974-1990: Consulter, or adviser to the bishop, of the Diocese of St. Petersburg
1970-1980: Vicar Fornane, or supervisor of clergy
1997: Founded the Raphael Foundation for religious, charitable and educational support in the community.
1997: Established Housing by St. Laurence, a nonprofit designed to help first-time home buyers and low-income families.