“I am responsible for all the souls within the boundaries of my parish,” says Rev. John Higgins (’90), pastor of the Church of the Assumption in Peekskill, N.Y. “That is an honor, but it is also humbling and challenging, to be responsible for their salvation before God.” It is a responsibility Fr. Higgins takes seriously. He has the blisters to prove it.
At 5:30 on the morning of November 10, 2011, Fr. Higgins offered the early Mass at Assumption, then put on a pair of sneakers and began walking. At the end of the day, he reached the Archdiocese of New York’s St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, where he spent the night, and then resumed his pilgrimage the next morning. Late that afternoon, he finally arrived at his destination — St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan.
The 50-mile trek led Fr. Higgins through some of the tougher neighborhoods in the metropolitan area, where he offered prayers and blessings for the many well-wishers he encountered along the way. The sight of a priest in clerics, walking mile after mile, drew the attention of newspapers and TV stations from throughout the region, as well as a warm welcome at St. Patrick’s from His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York. Yet it was neither the publicity nor the accolades that inspired Fr. Higgins to undertake his journey. It was his solemn responsibility as a shepherd of souls.
Born in the city, Fr. Higgins is a native New Yorker who grew up mostly upstate, the second of three children and the product of Catholic education. After high school he enrolled at the College, primarily at the urging of his father, who was “looking for true Catholic education in a truly Catholic environment.” The elder Higgins was thrilled when he discovered such a college nestled among the foothills just outside of Santa Paula, Calif., and in short order, his son would be, too.
“I rediscovered my faith at Thomas Aquinas College,” Fr. Higgins recalls. “Not all peer pressure is bad, and at the College, there was good peer pressure. The majority of my peers attended daily Mass, and one of my classmates talked me into joining the Legion of Mary. That was a key turning point in my life,” he says. “It soon became clear to me that God was asking me to give my life to Him.” One year after graduation, John enrolled in the seminary program for the Archdiocese of New York.
On May 11, 1996, at the hands of New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor, he was ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Fr. Higgins then spent the next six years as a parochial vicar at a parish in the Bronx, followed by three more at a church in New York’s Rockland County. For the last six years he has been the pastor at the Church of the Assumption, a duty that ultimately led him to walk the distance of almost two marathons to the very cathedral where he was ordained.
“There is nothing like Catholic education. As G. K. Chesterton once said, there is a Catholic way to teach everything, including spelling, even if that simply means not looking down one’s long nose at those who can’t spell,” says Fr. Higgins. “The Faith should imbue every subject, the entire teaching environment. It can produce a kind of learning that cannot happen in public school.”
The Church of the Assumption has a 225-student elementary school, which Fr. Higgins considers central to his mission to evangelize, catechize, and aid his parishioners in their lives of faith. A large portion of the city of Peekskill, however, is a poor, largely immigrant community, and most of his parishioners cannot afford to send their children to Assumption School, despite the heavily discounted tuition that the parish provides. Thus Fr. Higgins’ walk to Manhattan.
Inspired by a parishioner who asked him to sponsor her in a local walkathon, Fr. Higgins decided to undertake his pilgrimage to raise funds for the school. He prepared for weeks in advance by ramping up his usual exercise regimen, and he provided live updates along the way via Twitter.
All in all Fr. Higgins’ walking campaign raised more than $69,000 for Assumption School. Admittedly, he says, “I could barely move my legs” at the Mass of Thanksgiving he offered upon his arrival at St. Patrick’s, but that was a small sacrifice to make for his school, his parish, and the souls entrusted to his care.
Reprinted from the Winter 2012 edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter