Monsignor Laurence E. Higgins was the founder and pastor emeritus of St. Lawrence Catholic Parish of Tampa, Florida in the Diocese of Saint Petersburg. Higgins served as pastor from 1958 to 2007, the longest tenure of any priest in the diocese.
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). A star athlete, he played rugby, soccer and Irish football. He was talented enough to become a professional athlete, but since his father disapproved he set his sights on becoming a doctor. Those plans changed when he recognized a calling to the priesthood.
“There were four generations of law and medicine in our family, and three generations in the priesthood and sisterhood,” Higgins said. “As a child I always wanted to be a priest and then I forgot that for awhile when I got into sports. I started medical school but then recognized I wanted to help people in a different way.”
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 P. Hurley gave Higgins 20 acres of cow pasture at Hillsborough and Himes Avenues along with a mandate: “Build a parish.” The young priest began recruiting Catholics in the area. Hispanics, Italians and Midwesterners comprised the bulk of his flock of 200 families, a group heavy with blue-collar workers and military from nearby MacDill Air Force Base. 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.
Higgins wanted to name the parish after St.Laurence, an early Church deacon who spent his life serving the poor, martyred during a wave of Roman persecutions. Archbishop Hurley consented but had him change the spelling to the alternative “Lawrence.”
In 1961 the parish school opened with four classrooms and 91 students, followed in 1989 with the Polly Murray Early Childhood Center, named in honor of Higgins’ long-time parish administrator, and in 1994 with the multi-purpose center, Higgins Hall, recognized as one of Tampa’s premier event venues.
When offered a more established parish in the 1970s, Higgins requested to stay as pastor of St. Lawrence but also take on St. Peter Claver, a predominantly African-American parish near Ybor City. Noting his Northern Irish heritage, the bishop wondered what Higgins had in common with African-Americans. “I told him where I come from, we (Catholics) are the minorities,” Higgins said. “Discrimination knows no color. Neither do love, faith, justice or any of the things that matter.” His request granted, Higgins guided St. Peter Claver from 1971-73. During this period President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights for southern states.
Over the years Higgins also played a role in starting three more Catholic parishes in Tampa: Epiphany, Incarnation and St. Paul.
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 Consulter (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.
Though much beloved, Higgins had not been immune to controversy. He was criticized by some after a 2002 trip to Cuba where he blessed Fidel Castro and by others when he performed the graveside service for reputed mafia boss Santo Trafficante, Jr.
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 Prison 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.
In April 2007 Higgins announced his retirement as the pastor of the parish effective June 30, 2007, while remaining as pastor emeritus and continuing his efforts on behalf of the poor. Upon his retirement, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio proclaimed the week of June 21 to June 30, 2007 as “Higgins Days.”