DOWNEY - Fr. John Higgins, he with a voice like a boombox and as big and burly as they come, has been the warm and outgoing pastor at St. Raymond's Catholic Church since 2002, responsible for the spiritual welfare of some 2,000 registered, core Catholic families (and about 1,000 unregistered families), plus anyone who on occasion may wander in and seek succor from the parish, which in this day and age may number more than one realizes.This is alright with him, he says, because this accords with his two-pronged pastoral program of ministering to, and serving, people and "showing them Christ's love, and making them feel welcome, whoever they are." An integral part of the parish is the self-sustaining St. Raymond's School, dedicated to educating K-8 children. It has a current enrollment of 312 students. Adding to Fr. John's duties just the other week was his acceptance of a new role as chaplain of the Downey Fire Department. The department has been without one for about five to six years, according to Fire Chief Lonnie Croom, since deputy fire marshal Rob Rowe retired. Rowe, a deacon like Councilman Mario Guerra, served as chaplain for the department then. Part Irish, with German and English blood thrown in, Fr. John is blessed with a bountiful sense of humor, and he dispenses it with gleeful abandon. He chuckles at the fact that people he meets for the first time are liable to get scared of him, because of the intimidating way he dishes out a joke-but, at bottom, he says he's really a "teddy bear." As such, Fr. John feels comfortable with Downey's firefighting group. He himself has noticed during prior occasional visits with them, he says, that the firemen are full of mirth and playful like himself. In fact, he confided that he and the fire chief have been recently exchanging e-mails, one challenging the other to reduce their weight. On Monday, Fr. John said, "As of this morning, I weigh 265 pounds. I've actually cut down on my food, although I like anything with the word, 'food', in it." Fr. John is a young 62. "I'll be 63 in December," he said. He loves to cook and says he likes nothing better than swordfish on a grill with a whole avocado and French bread, with sparkling Martinelli juice. He adds that his "huge, big, black Labrador" lolls by his side as he indulges in a favorite pastime: looking up the roots of words. He's aware, he says, as part of his upcoming ministry at the fire department, that he will be available to "talk about anything with the personnel, assist with charity functions, even bring lunch or supper to a fire house, or find other clergy for people who'd rather speak to someone of their own faith community." Functions will also include giving counsel, especially in "death or difficult" situations, ministering to those with critical injuries, and giving comfort to the personnel's afflicted families. This includes on-scene as well as post-accident situations. At any rate, Fr. John says he looks forward to meeting all the personnel and being of service in any way he can. If he can be of service in other things, he is making his cell phone number, (562) 964-8462, available or one may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking to the future, in order to enable him to perform his firefighter chaplain's duties better, he plans to attend two training sessions: the first is scheduled in January in San Luis Obispo, the other in Sacramento in April. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, Fr. John, an only child, says he was brought to California when he was three years old. After living first in South Gate, then in Lynwood, his family moved in 1965 to Downey. He graduated from Downey High in 1965. During this time, he attended the First Methodist Church on Downey Avenue as well as the United Methodist Church on Florence Avenue. He was raised by a Methodist mom and Methodist, Lutheran and Christian Science grandparents. He says the seeds of his conversion to Catholicism ("God works in mysterious ways") were sown in his heart one weekday afternoon when by chance, while waiting for a friend to show up, he happened to enter a Catholic church and saw this group of about 30 congregants praying and seemed to be joyfully singing and worshipping in contrast to the woeful attendance - on Sundays! - he observed at his Methodist church. He was simply awed by it all, he says. His mom was in tears when he told her he was converting to Catholicism. Fr. John became a Roman Catholic at Our Lady of Perpetual Help at age 21. He was working then at St. Mary's Hospital in Long Beach as an Orthopedic and Emergency Room Tech. He would spend seven years at Cerritos College (yes, he's a little slow, he jokes) before entering, in 1974, St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, where he would be ordained to the priesthood in 1981. His first parish was American Martyrs in Manhattan Beach, followed by his assignment at Santa Barbara, where he was campus minister at the Catholic high school there and taught Scripture, Church History and Catholic Doctrine. He also served, in succession, as an associate pastor in Goleta, West Los Angeles, and Ventura, and as the parish priest in Santa Maria and Monterey Park. While in Santa Barbara, Fr. John served as a part-time chaplain at the Santa Barbara County Jail, and with the Santa Barbara Police, as one of their chaplains. He was also involved with chaplaincy with the Ventura CHP and the Ventura County Jail. So he's not exactly unfamiliar with the job of chaplain. He in fact brings an assortment of experiences and insights that should prove invaluable to the fire department. It should be a match made in heaven. By the way, his mom converted to Roman Catholicism, too, 10 days before she died. "It was," Fr. John says, "one of my sweetest joys."
********** Published: September 29, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 24