Autobiography of Father John Higgins
I am a Convert to the Catholic faith. I grew up in Southern California as a Methodist and became Catholic when I was 19. As a kid I used to go to my buddy Eddy’s house on Sunday mornings. He lived across the street from a big Catholc Church, St. Emydius in Lynwood, CA. He was Presbyterian. We were little scoundrels and had no idea why, but we would throw rocks at the Catholics as they drove their cars into the parking lot.
One hot and smoggy in the early 1960s I went to his house. Eddy wasn’t home. So, I walked across the street and saw the doors of that Catholic Church open. I went inside. There was a little place where you could wash your hands and face. I looked around inside the dark cool Church. There were people inside! It wasn’t even Sunday and there were people praying! I thought it must be some kind of special occasion so I waited for a “service” to start. There was none. It was fairly quiet. Women with babies, older people, kids and men came in and prayed. I saw a Police car outside and thought there might be trouble. But he simply knelt, made a gesture of a cross over his head and chest, took a minute or two to pray and then stood up, went down on one knee for a moment left. I was astounded! I sat and tried to comprehend what was going on. There was an aura of peace, but it was more than that. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt and knew something was there that I was unaware of. I went next door and rang the bell of the house. A kind woman answered the door and had me sit on a little bench. A young priest came into the hall andt talked to me for a few minutes. He asked what I wanted. I said I wanted to be a Catholic. He smiled nad said said I’d have to have my parent's permission to do that. I went home and asked my mom and she said “Never go back to that Church again!” So, I did what many boys would do. I was disobedient. I’d sneak over to that Catholic Church every chance I got. Sometimes I’d go with a Catholic friend to Mass after we had come home from Methodist Church. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was beautiful. This was before Vatican II, so I didn’t understand much of what the Priest was saying. But there was more than understanding in a logical way. There was an understanding in a Spiritual way that I didn’t even know existed.
When we moved to another suburb, Downey, California, I would sometimes stop in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church for a few minutes during high school and while going to a Community College. I just liked the peace and quiet and that aura of something. Nobody paid much attention to me. They didn’t know that I was ignorant of what and Who was there. But they knew.
I went through several jobs, one of which was at a Convalescent Hospital which is now about ½ mile south of the Parish where I have been since 2003 as Pastor.
Years later I became a Catholic while working in at St. Mary’s Hospital in Long Beach, CA. I was living in Downey, still and at work I would walk into the Chapel in the Hospital on occasion. I watched how the Sisters treated the patients. Now, a lot of folks say that they recall Nuns as being mean or strict and sometimes cruel. These sisters were the opposite. They were loving and kind and strict about only a few things, and that was their own behavior which was based on prayer, the Sacraments, faith, hope and love. One day a fellow orthopedic technician invited me to go to Mass with him at St. Anthony’s in Long Beach. It was a holy day of obligation. He knew I wasn’t Catholic but after Mass he said that he’d been watching me and that he thought I should see a Priest and take instruction. And so I did. I went to the rectory of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church to seek guidance and instruction. At the time I was going to Cerritos Community College part time and working full time. I met with Fr. Gary Bauler, with whom I am still friends. He welcomed me and gave me instruction in the Catholic faith.
A few years went by and I was a sporadic attendant at Mass. There were a lot of times I was more interested in what I called “fun” (drinking and going out with girls and hanging out with friends) than in taking my Catholic faith seriously.
One Easter week I went to the Colorado River with a large group of friends. I don’t remember all of the details but I found myself sitting at the edge of that river and thinking that my life was being wasted and I had no direction. I got a ride back home and went back to Mass. It was Easter Sunday 1974 when I was in the last pew of OLPH and the Priest walked in during the Procession. I had a tremendous urge to follow him up the center aisle. I thought to myself “You have gone absolutely crazy!”
I called and talked to the young man who had taken me to Mass from the hospital that day. He invited me to his house for dinner. By then he had a wife and two young children. When he opened the door he said: “I smell incense!” I asked what he was talking about and he responded that he’d always known I would be a Priest. I laughed. But by the end of dinner he had convinced me to look into it.
I called the Archdiocese and Fr. Gary Bauler spoke to me. He was now director of Vocations. I went in for an interview and he told me he’d take me to the Seminary. I was working in the bookstore at Cerritos College and told them I needed a couple of says off. The manager said “Yes, I expected this. You’re going to see about being a Priest. I just kind of knew you were headed in that direction. Go! We’ll be praying for you!” Before I left, however, he gave me a book to read. It was “The Seven Story Mountain” by Thomas Merton. That visit to the Seminary and that book changed my life again. I went to the Seminary that August. I had a tough time learning how to study, but I loved life in the Seminary. Oh there were times I was confused and didn’t know how to work hard, but I learned with the help of some Priests and other seminarians. I graduated from college and went on to the School of theology. I was ordained on June 6th, 1981 by Timothy Cardinal Manning.
In 1987 I came to the realization that I was in deep trouble with alcohol. With the help of several good friends who were recovering alcoholics I got help in Alcoholics Anonymous. God has truly worked a miracle in me as the desire to drink was lifted from me. Today I have no desire for alcohol. God has taken that away, hopefully with a lot of my character defects. I’m sure some still remain.
I have now been a Priest 40 years and the Church where I threw rocks is 3.4 miles away from my parish now. The Church where I became a Catholic is about 1.5 miles away. I’ve seen some pretty goofy things, including a “Clown Mass” and a Priest giving out jelly beans instead of Holy Communion. I’ve seen some wonderful things, including Msgr. Stephen Downes who has been retired for many years and still visits the sick in hospitals daily. I’ve done jail ministry, taught Catholic Church History and Doctrine in a Catholic High School, been Administrator of a mostly Spanish Speaking Parish and again in a largely Chinese neighborhood. I’ve been Chaplain to Sheriffs, Police, Highway Patrol and am now the Chaplain for our Firefighters.
I have also seen some wonderful things, some of them I call “Miracles”. There is the miracle that happened in Goleta Valley Hospital when I was called to do a sick call. I knew the charge nurse there very well, so I just walked into the E.R. to find that the man had been pronounced dead. There were three firefighters there waiting for the death certificate. I saw he had a brown scapular on and said “Nurse K. he’s got an old Scapular on. When I touched it he opened his eyes and in an Irish brogue said: “Father, I’ve been waiting for you. I want to go to Confession”. I almost fell over. One firefighter got me a chair, but I stood there in awe. I didn’t do anything. The nurses put the EKG leads back on him and the doctor came out asking what was going on. He’d already completed the death certificate. That man lived another several years. Now, I didn’t do that. I just witnessed it! I’ve had other experiences which I call Minor Miracles, the Miracle at the Hitching Post Restaurant in Buellton, CA, the Miracle of meeting St. Pope John Paul the Great and him putting his hands on my head. The miracle of the reaction of deep faith in so many people during the COVID pandemic and the daily miracle of the Sacraments in our own lives, which I tend to take for granted if I am not constantly reminded by people and experiences that I have regularly. Sometimes those experiences are n the setting of Parish life, sometimes when I am with firefighters on a call, sometimes in a grocery store or talking with a Police Officer or a homeless person or a person who seems lost and confused.
I love being a Catholic. I love being a Priest. I love celebrating the Sacraments and I just tried to think of which of the Sacraments is my favorite. I can’t decide. I love them all. I love receiving them and sharing them with others. I’ve had some tough times in my life and met some wonderful and some not so wonderful people. I’ve been in wealthy parishes and very poor parishes. I’ve learned a lot (including the wonderful folks who helped me learn Spanish!) and the people who have forgiven my mistakes and the Priests who have forgiven my sins.
I just retired as Pastor of the Parish, but live here at St. Raymond in Downey and help out with Sacraments and other things. I also volunteer to do Mass in German at St. Stephen’s Parish in Los Angeles. I still host a Men’s Prayer Group on Monday evenings.
I love just being with faithful people and with people who are searching for God’s will in their own lives.