A Co Londonderry-born priest who emigrated to become the most high-profile clergyman in the US city of Tampa in Florida has died aged 87.
Monsignor Laurence E Higgins was 87 when he died yesterday at his rectory home at St Lawrence Catholic Church, a parish he founded in 1958.
He was described as “the charming Irish priest who was a confidant of Tampa’s power elite in politics, business and professional sports”.
He had been sent to start the new church at Tampa at the age of 29, five years after he took his vows.
He held the post of at St Lawrence for 49 years, retiring as the longest-serving priest in the Diocese of St Petersburg.
“That’s unheard of,” Bishop Robert Lynch told the Tampa Bay Times newspaper.
Tampa Mayor, Bob Buckhorn, was one of many people married by Monsignor Higgins.
“If ever there was an iconic figure in Tampa’s history, it’s Monsignor Higgins,” he said.
“He has been a mentor, spiritual leader and confidant to tens of thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics.”
Born to John and Philomena Higgins on the family farm in Magherafelt, Monsignor Higgins was the third of eight children.
A career in the priesthood was not always an obvious choice. He had admitted that he hated school and had little regard for authority with two colleges expelling him.
“I did not do a scrap of work,” he admitted in 2000. “I was even told by a bishop I should quit school and play professional football — ‘which is all you’re good for, Higgins’.”
In his six decade clerical career in Florida, he was just as popular with his congregation as he was with Tampa’s Mayors and millionaires.
His fast wit and timely services — which never exceeded an hour — earned him the nickname “the faster pastor.”
His funeral mass takes place on August 31 at St Lawrence Catholic Church, with burial to follow at the Garden of Memories Cemetery.