Posts Tagged ‘St. Lawrence-Tampa’


Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

The Church of St. Petersburg bade a fond farewell to one of its best-known and beloved priests today. Monsignor Laurence Higgins, for forty-nine years the pastor of St. Lawrence parish in Tampa, went home to the Father’s House last week. The feelings of love and gratitude many felt for him was clearly demonstrated by the many who filed past his body at his beloved St. Lawrence.

He was just days shy of his eighty-eighth birthday when God came for him and sixty-three years a priest. I shall not repeat the biographical information here as the Tampa Bay Times did all that last week and they will cover the funeral as well, I am sure. I will try to share some thoughts from my perspective as his bishop for the last twenty-one years and perhaps let you see why he will be missed.

Monsignor Lawrence Higgins loved his faith and gave great credit to his parents for their role in raising him. He also loved Tampa (and disdained St. Petersburg). He loved sports, especially the Bucs, for whom he served as chaplain for as long as his health would allow. He always thought the Tampa Tribune was a great newspaper and the one across the bay was hopelessly liberal and anti-Catholic. He brought Larry Rothschild, the Ray’s first manager into the Church quietly (he did a lot of the sacraments “quietly”) and he adored John Lynch and Tony Dungy for their deep faith in God, Christ and humanity.

He was very proud of his parish, St. Lawrence, that he founded. He often said that the late Archbishop Hurley, when he assigned him to start the parish, told him to stop the invasion of the Jesuits from the South, the Redemptorists from the west and east (and there was no threat at the time from the North). Larry Higgins liked nothing better than a challenge.

St. Lawrence became a successful parish because he knew that if he ran a good school for children, their parents would follow and fill the pews on the weekends. To send your children to St. Lawrence School, one needed to register for the parish (no matter where you lived), attend Mass and support the parish through the Sunday collection, and volunteer on special projects when asked. In return, he guaranteed a first class education, almost automatic admission to Jesuit for the boys, and orthodoxy in religion. He built it and they came and they still come. Amazingly, the 2010 census identified St. Lawrence parish as having the highest concentration of Hispanic families in the whole diocese but the majority of its present worshipping community comes from outside the parish boundaries.

I always admired his ability to reach out to the underdog. He was a friend to those who suffered from many types of addiction and addictive behavior. His final community effort was in starting a program at USF in addiction and its cures. He loved St. Peter Claver, a small and always struggling parish in central Tampa with a school for mostly African-American children. In this he had two great allies whom I also admire deeply, Joe Capitano and Ted Couch. If it were not for the three of them, St. Peter Claver School would likely have closed long ago and to this day, though I have doubts about its long-term sustainability, I regularly ceded my judgments to the troika that believed, supported and sustained that important presence.

Back at St. Lawrence, Monsignor Higgins made his feelings known about a number of things from bishops to women serving Mass (he never allowed it), Eucharist under both species (he never allowed it) and married deacons (nowhere to be seen in his time as pastor). I could have forced him but he would have outwitted me some way so I took the road less travelled by. However, the community who gathered for prayer on weekends filled the Church, coming from all over Hillsborough county if they had children in the school and I would not want to begin to count the number of weddings, baptisms, and funerals the good Monsignor performed. Even after retirement, they still came knocking for his presence at major occasions and he obliged right up to the time his body would no longer allow it. Simply amazing in many ways.

About a year ago I stopped by St. Lawrence unannounced to see Monsignor Muhr, the new pastor, and Father Dornquest, the new associate. I was blocked by the police from entering the parking lot because my name was not on a list. I finally convinced the officer that I was the bishop and owned the property and I found a parking place and went into the Church (it was about four pm). It was full of the biggest men and women I have ever seen and there was Monsignor in his cassock and surplice preaching. Someone recognized me and came to my side. There was a huge coffin in front of the sanctuary. I said, “Whose funeral is it?” “Dusty Rhodes, the wrestler” came the reply and Monsignor was going on and on about the Brisco brothers and Florida Championship Wrestling. All of the WWE constituted the congregation that day. Dusty Rhodes was not a Catholic but he was a friend of Monsignor Higgins. I shook my head in amazement, wonderment and admiration.

But these last few days belonged to the simple people, parishioners of St. Lawrence, who saw Monsignor as the embodiment of the Good Shepherd of which Jesus spoke. They came to say “thanks, for what you did, for what you said, for whom you worked so slavishly.” Except for an annual vacation, like most of the Irish priests of his generation, he was on the job, 24/7, 330. When his friend from his earliest days of priesthood in Miami, Bishop W. Thomas Larkin, asked his assistance in managing the diocese as Vicar General he added that to his resume while still managing St. Lawrence. At that time he preached a “Gospel” that everything good in the Church originated in the central offices of the diocese. When he was no longer involved there, he changed the “Gospel” to the Church much be present in the larger community, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, at City Hall in Tampa, at the School Board in Hillsborough.

I will miss his presence. We had our moments but they were mostly minor and in the end, who could do anything but admire the accomplishments even if occasionally they were done, “his way, the Higgins’ way.” Of this I know – there shall never be another like him.



Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Ever wonder what our thirty+ seminarians do in the summer? Hopefully after reading this you will have some appreciation that even the beginning of a vocation to the priesthood can easily lead to 24/7/365 while still in formation. Well almost, some episcopal hyperbole to be sure but recalling that old maxim that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” we do try to keep our seminarians busy and accounted for.

The college seminarians mostly work in their home parishes during the summers, painting, mowing, sprucing up buildings and grounds. Two of our seminarians are working at Good Counsel Camp in Floral City this summer as counsellors. A stint at Good Counsel at one time was almost a prerequisite for ordination to the priesthood but now they volunteer if they wish to work there. Two of our college men are also working in Omaha, Nebraska at Creighton University for the Institute for Priestly Formation (more about this program in a few seconds).These two seminarians are at the service of those older seminarians who are in the IPF program and they drive cards, make airport pickups, serve meals, etc. And there are two seminarians working with CRS in Africa for eight weeks.

Those in theology have longer commitments. This year there are four men on what is called the Pastoral Year. We interrupt the theological education program of the seminary at the exact midpoint, between second and third year to allow those approaching ordination to have two experiences which we feel will either confirm their vocation or suggest priesthood is not for them. The first component which is currently taking place is something called “Clinical Pastoral Education” or CPE. Three of our seminarians are taking CPE at Tampa General Hospital and one is doing the same at Woodside Nursing Home in Pinellas Park. During this quite labor intensive experience, the men learn a lot about themselves and their ability to deal with the sick and dying. Under close supervision and sometimes very challenging evaluation, CPE students get an immersion course in death and dying, sickness and health, and their own capacity to listen closely, minister appropriately, and evaluate with others in the program their experiences. The three men in CPE at Tampa General spend their nights and week-ends at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ybor City (not much sleep at night on week-ends for these men) and they live and assist a wonderful pastor, Father Thomas Stokes who welcomes them annually with great Irish hospitality and priestly kindness. The fourth is living at the rector of Sacred Heart parish in Pinellas Park with Fathers Anthony Coppola and Tom Tobin. At the conclusion of CPE they will be assigned from Sept. 1, 2011 to May 2012 at four parishs in the diocese learning the art of the possible and sometimes the impossible in parish life. These four men can be found at St. Ignatius of Antioch parish in Tarpon Springs, St. Lawrence parish in Tampa, Christ the King parish in Tampa, and Nativity in Brandon.

Four other seminarians are also involved in an immersion experience, this time in the Dominican Republic learning Spanish. The program is required by our seminary and I would wish it anyway even if the seminary did not. Within fifteen years, the majority of Catholics in many areas of this diocese will be Spanish speaking and we need men able to function in Spanish. Thus, the six to eight week program in the Dominican Republic.

Two seminarians are actually enrolled in a nine week program of spiritual formation and direction at the Institute for Priestly Formation, held each year at Creighton University in Omaha. A mixture of classes on ascetical theology (how those who have gone before us have become saints), spiritual direction and a rather lengthy silent retreat, these men who will begin their theology studies this August are experiencing a much deeper engagement with the spiritual life than would be possible even in a five year program of formation such as we have in our seminaries.

Finally, nine of our theologians are assigned to parishes during the summer and while admittedly some things slow down, most find their summer experience to be enlightening at a minimum and challenging at a maximum. Of the nine, two men are deacons, having been ordained in the Spring and they are baptizing, preaching and witnessing marriages in addition to conducting inquiry classes and RCIA, etc.

So there you have it. Gainfully employed, hands not idle at all, learning the ropes and the “tricks” of the trade during their summer vacation. They all have some time to themselves to travel, relax and rest but no more than a typical working father or mother would likely have. Most are compensated for their summer in a small way but that helps pay for gas, haircuts and an occasional movie during the school year. Come August our college men will return to Saint John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, and our theology students to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts and the North American College in Rome. They have a three day convocation at the Bethany Center coming up the second week in August where they will surely share stories of their summer experiences.

I conclude by using this moment to thank those pastors who welcome our seminarians for their summer assignments. Their hospitality to those studying for the priesthood is only outdone by their witness to their own happiness and fulfillment in priestly ministry. So, our seminarians are not “kids” but we still know where they are most midnights.



Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Stained glass window at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, Waimauma. Photo courtesy of John Christian

This day before Pentecost was quite a day for me. The morning began with a large confirmation at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Wimauma where I confirmed 64 young people, almost all of whom were Mexican. Readers who are unaware of local geography in the Diocese of St. Petersburg need to know that southeastern Hillsborough county is home to many migrant workers who live in the camps or low cost housing. This part of what is too often thought of as “Tampa” is agricultural and thus the presence of our largely Mexican brothers and sisters. Most of the confirmation was done in Spanish although the generation I confirmed was clearly more comfortable in English than Spanish. However, the sponsors with their hands on the confirmands’ shoulders seemed very grateful to hear the words spoken in Spanish. Over the fifteen years I think my spoken Spanish has improved even if it remains a challenge to extemporize.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is probably our second largest concentration of Hispanics in the diocese, following only St. Lawrence parish in Tampa which has the highest concentration of Hispanics per square mile than anywhere else in our five counties. Father Demetrio Lorden, a native Spaniard, has been the pastor in Wimauma for slightly longer than a decade and he spends himself for his people. Any ceremony there must leave the Anglo propensity for good order at the vestibule door but I love celebrating the liturgy and confirmation before this very lively and grateful community of people. The music was good, the children were all over the place which was also fine, and the young people well prepared to receive the sacrament.

Where serendipity or Divine Providence comes into play is that by some application of the unexplained, at four o’clock this afternoon I said Mass at Old St. Mary’s parish in downtown St. Petersburg for the Vigil of Pentecost and then I officially blessed and inaugurated a lovely new shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here the congregation was totally Anglo. It seemed to me appropriate, however accidental, to dedicate a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe on the Vigil of Pentecost. While Scripture is silent on whether or not Mary or any other women were present at the Last Supper, the same scriptures are very clear that she was present with the apostles in the Upper Room for the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Having given birth to Jesus at the moment of the Incarnation, she was present for the birth of the new body of Christ which came about on Pentecost in the form of the Church. The Church is the new body of Christ. I think I was able to meld the Pentecost reality with the presence of Mary both on that occasion and in our new Shrine to her under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe in my homily which I will share with you below. You can form your own opinions about my success or failure.

The shrine was a gift of Federal Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich in honor of the late Monsignor John McNulty who was diocesan director of Pro-Life Activity for years and her parents, one of whom was an active parishioner of St. Mary’s while the other, her mother was loyal and dedicated to St. Paul’s. The judge’s desire was to place the shrine in such a manner on Church property that it could easily be seen from the adjacent and huge ALL CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL just to the west. A parent worried about the birth of a child or the health of a child could go to the windows facing east and toward the Church, see the Shrine to the patroness of pro-life causes and seek her intercession with Jesus on behalf of their child. It works. I wish to thank Father Cletus Watson and the Third Order Franciscan Friars who staff St. Mary’s for their toleration of this project in their property. For myself, in addition to the Judge’s pro-life concept, I wanted a place in Pinellas county (St. Petersburg and Clearwater among many communities) where anyone could come at any hour of the day or night and pray to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I hope and pray that it will be a place of short pilgrimage for all who seek her assistance.

The Prayer of Blessing of a Shrine Photo Courtesy of Vivi Iglesias

So today was devoted to the Mother of the Redeemer under the banner of the Patroness of the Americas, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. All in all, a high gear run up to tomorrow’s Solemnity of Pentecost. Happy Birthday to we Catholics who have for millenia acknowledged that the Church was born when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and they began their missionary effort.

The Shrine in the rear of Old St. Mary's, downtown St. Petersurg - Photo courtesy of Vivi Iglesias

St. Mary’s, St. Petersburg June 11, 2011

This evening the Church gathers in Vigil before the celebration of the solemnity of Pentecost, the birthday of our Church, the day on which all lethargy and lifelessness was cast aside with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Christ. In some ways it is a shame that this most important moment in the life of the Church does not usually get the attention accorded Christmas or Easter. In other places, families are not gathering to celebrate this Feast and the limited confines of space in our Churches is not challenged by overflow crowds who stand twice a year but not tonight or tomorrow.  Pentecost, the moment of making for the Church will this year come and go with only limited attention paid to it. It is a shame because it is indeed the birthday of the Church.

Among the apostles, the waiting game is over with the coming of the Spirit. From the Ascension to the moment of coming of the Spirit, Acts and the Gospels infer that they remained together in prayer, waiting for the next shoe to drop. When they signed up to follow Jesus, they surely did not expect Him to die an ignominious death. But then, despite his predictions, they did not expect him to rise from the dead either. In those precious days between Easter and the Ascension, he several times told them that he would send the Spirit, the Paraclete, who would mission them to spread the Gospel throughout the world. He told them that He would need first to ascend to the Father before the Spirit would come. They listened but they were never quite sure.

Then with the roar of the wind and with the symbol of fire God visited the earth once again, this time in the form the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity and in a few short moments, they had both the gifts needed for and the mission to preach Christ to all. There was among them, however, one person who never doubted, who waited with equanimity and patience, because she had already been gifted with the Spirit. Her name, Mary. Luke in Acts tell us that prior to the day of Pentecost, “persevering with one mind in prayer and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” the apostles were graced by her presence.  She who had given life and breath to Jesus prayed for the coming of the same Spirit so that the Church, the remaining body of her Son on earth, might be born.

Integral and essential in God’s plan for the birth of His Son on earth, Mary remained integral and essential to God’s plan for the birth of his Church. Amazingly all this took place in the same room in which Jesus Himself gave birth to the Eucharist. Thus in this place she was to give birth to the new evangelization and through her presence and prayers bless its beginnings.

This afternoon here in this Church which carries Mary’s name, we shall shortly dedicate and bless a new shrine to her under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is the patroness of the Americas, two vast continents which none of the Apostles could have even dreamt about much less visited. Here on the premises of St. Mary’s her image from the tiny village of Tepeyac, outside of present Mexico City, will welcome all who come to do precisely what she was doing at the moment of Pentecost – praying. They will come to pray to Mary to ask her Son for help in their sorrows and sufferings. They will come to pray to Mary to ask her Son to help our generation and those who follow to have the same respect for human life which God had in choosing to send his only begotten Son to live among us not as a person of wealth and privilege, but the simple son of a carpenter and his wife.

The image that this afternoon we dedicate to the glory of God and the memory of his earthly mother is that which appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak, an image and appearance originally rejected as a hoax by his bishop, but which in the succeeding centuries and decades has rallied the faithful to greater hope in the Lord.

This morning I confirmed 65 young women and men at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Waimauma. They were all Mexicans, many from the camps of southeastern Hillsborough county. At least ten took the name of Nuestra Senora de la Guadalupe and another ten the name of Saint Juan Diego. The hope of our Hispanic brothers and sisters is that the same Gospel which the apostles preached post Pentecost will continue not to be just preached but lived out in this moment in history, at this moment of need. I have no idea how many of them were documented or undocumented. It would not have mattered to Mary or to the Apostles and it should not matter to us. They trust her even when at times they distrust us. They know she will ask her Son to watch over them, protect them, nourish and encourage them and from her place in heaven she prays that the Church born today will do the same.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is also the “patroness of human life” and especially that life which is carried in a mother’s womb.  I am very proud that her image faces the massive All Children’s Hospital and those disposed to do so who worry for their children there can look down and ask her intercession on behalf of the young lives being treated there.

Pinellas county now has a place with easy access where all of those who love and respect this woman of Pentecost came come and pray. It was God’s will that we bless and dedicate this shrine on the eve of Pentecost. She was there then and she is here now. Nuestra Senora de la Guadalupe, oye nos.

Elizabeth Kovachevich, Donor of the Shrine in the memory of her Parents and Monsignor John McNulty, former pastor of Old St. Mary's - Photo courtesy of Vivi Iglesias

Saint Juan Diego to whom Mary appeared on December 9, 1591 at Tepeyak in a stained glass window at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Waimauma, Photo Courtesy of John Christian


Thursday, March 24th, 2011

For the last ten years or so, it has been my custom to offer a Lenten Mission to parishes, which approach and ask me to do it. Last year because of my longer than expected recovery, I did not give any missions and I had promised Saint Catherine of Siena in Largo that I would. So this past weekend, I finally made good on my word and showed up. Let me begin by saying that I am not a “mission preacher” in the any sense of that word. Mission preachers do it about forty weeks of the year and travel throughout the country. They have a set presentation and a more generous approach than I am able to give. I preached at all the Masses this past weekend at St. Catherine to “warm” the congregation up and encourage them to attend the mission sessions on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Typical mission preachers will also give sessions in the morning as well as the evening. I am unable to do that because of the demands of my usual day job.

But in addition to the Sunday Masses, I did share some of my insights into our faith with the people who came on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. At each parish they choose a different context in which I preached.  At St. Catherine of Siena on Monday night, Father Ken Malley the pastor asked if I would give the mission talk within the context of Mass, on Tuesday within the context of Evening Prayer, and on Wednesday night with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament following the talk. My evening talks usually run between thirty and forty minutes maximum so we try to have everyone in and out in just a little over an hour. The mind can only absorb what the “tush” can take.

For the past couple of years I have been using the triple themes of our Eucharistic Initiative, “gathered, nourished and sent” but within the context of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Or to put it another way, how can we live in Christ amid the challenges of daily living. The Gospel account of the Transfiguration was a great place to start this mission week off with the voice from the cloud saying so clearly, “listen to Him” (Jesus that is, not necessarily Lynch). Saint Catherine’s already had underway a parish commitment to “we believe, we remember, we celebrate” so I was also able to incorporate these ideas into my presentations as well.

On the final night of the mission, I offered myself to those who wish to stay at its conclusion and ask me any questions they might have: about the content of my talks, the Church in general, the diocese or the future of the faith. There has been good feedback from that opportunity to “Ask the Bishop.”

The attendance at the missions, which I already have given, has been quite good and I find that I often receive far more than I give to these occasions. Bishops are quite good at “one night stands”, like parish confirmations, but to be present and to share faith, hope and love for five days is a unique and, for me, very satisfying experience. Since this week was a “catch-up” experience from 2010, I will be giving a second parish (or the 2011) mission at St Ignatius of Antioch in Tarpon Springs, beginning on April 2, 2011 and in 2012 I will be at St. Cecilia in Clearwater and at St. Lawrence in Tampa in 2013, God willing.

At least the priests and deacons were listening! The two photos are through the kindness of parishioner Elaine Luker.

I was sorry last night to end my time with the faith community of St. Catherine of Siena who had received me so well.  As I said earlier, in the time just before the mission and as people were leaving, their stories of their faith journeys and the challenges of daily living would put my life to shame. There are a lot of holy people in this Church of ours. Thanks to Father Ken Malley and everyone at this wonderful parish in Largo for a great mission.






Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Yesterday I presented the St. Jude the Apostle Award to over 70 recipients from most of the parishes and missions of our diocese. This annual award instituted some ten years ago is given to a person or couple who in the mind of their pastor, parish council or parish staff works tirelessly and quietly for their parishes throughout the years. I often say when I give these out, “If you wanted the award you probably should not have received it, but if you feel humbled and honored to receive something you never thought of, then this day and this medal is for you.” We award it during solemn evening prayer on the Solemnity of Jesus Christ our King who precisely as “king” came to serve and not to be served. Pilate never got it when he questioned Jesus about his “kingship” but all of those receiving the St. Jude award yesterday understand it perfectly. I list of this year’s recipients by parish and/or mission appears or soon will appear on the diocesan web-site. At the same time as the awards, there were 46 alleged “saints” on the field at Raymond James Stadium (all from New Orleans of all places) while I had 74 at St. Jude’s Cathedral. How sweet was that!

Saturday night I was fortunate enough to preside at the 50th Anniversary  Closing Mass for Tampa’s St. Lawrence parish. An almost full church for Mass and over 400 for dinner in Higgins Hall afterward indicates the special place this parish occupies in the hearts and minds of its parishioners. It has had only two pastors in its fifty year history, Monsignor Laurence Higgins and for the past three years, Father Thomas Morgan, a graduate of St. Lawrence elementary. Both men were greeted by long and sustained applause for their pastoral zeal. The Sisters of St. Clare who originally staffed the elementary school were represented at the Mass and were also warmly acknowledged. A great parish with a great history closing its first five decades with the prayerful hope for many more great years, Congratulations to them.