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Murray recalled as anchor to Tampa church's leader

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 05:01 AM
TAMPA -

As Tampa's unofficial chaplain, Monsignor Laurence Higgins has presided over thousands of funerals, weddings, baptisms and community events in his 54 years here.

Friday, he'll oversee the toughest assignment in his storied Catholic ministry: the funeral of his best friend, business partner and confidante, Polly Murray.

"She was everything," Higgins says. "Her whole life was spent in service to others, never herself. It's what she did best, taking care of people."

Murray, 79, died Sunday at home with her family, Higgins and beloved boxer Ben by her side. Though she suffered from several health issues in recent years, it was pancreatic cancer that took her swiftly in the end.

"Polly never let on how sick she was," says Tampa businessman George Levy, who also is battling cancer. The two friends spoke every week by phone to support each other. "She was always up and positive. It's how she lived her life. She didn't let this disease change that."

The viewing will be at St. Lawrence Catholic Church between 10 a.m. and noon Friday, followed by the Mass celebrated by Higgins.

The family suggests donations in Murray's memory may be made to one of her favorite organizations, the Judeo Christian Health Clinic.

Higgins and Murray worked side by side at St. Lawrence for almost a half century, retiring together in 2007. The newly arrived Irish soccer player-turned-priest and the young mother met as neighbors and became fast friends. They had a shared fervor for their faith and the fledging mission that was established as a parish in 1959.

A year later, Murray was hired as the lay administrator. St. Lawrence would flourish under their direction, eventually adding a grade school, an early childhood center (named for her), media center, a gym and a stately event hall on a 20-acre campus. The church, which spawned several other congregations, now is home to some 3,000 families.

Higgins insists that "without Polly, none of this would have happened." As the gregarious one, he got the public accolades. But he always gave her the credit for being the one in the background, doing all the hard labor without the attention.

"She could lay bricks. She could sit down with people who had deep pockets and raise money. She could cook a marvelous meal," he says. "There was nothing she wouldn't do or attempt to do."

She didn't give up after being widowed at a young age with six sons to raise: Kevin, Timothy, Patrick, Michael, Ruri and Lorcan. Higgins credits her tough spirit to her lineage: Murray had ancestral ties to Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers President Gay Culverhouse says Murray was the "only person I know who could keep up with the monsignor." And true to form, Culverhouse says, Murray was more focused on her sons and Higgins than her own imminent death.

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco agrees. He wonders how Higgins, his longtime friend, will get along without the partner who kept him on track.

"It's an understatement to say that she handled everything," Greco says. "He's touched so many lives and given so much to this community because Polly had his back. Now that life support is gone."

Higgins says not to worry. With God's help, he will carry on. Besides, he knows what Murray would want for him.

"She would tell me to keep on working," he says. "And believe me, I better keep at it, because I'll have to answer to her one day in heaven."


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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