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The Brother I. Leo O'Donnell Archives at Christian Brothers University

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Brother I. Leo O'Donnell Archives
Kay Cunningham, Director
Phone: 901-321-3432


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The Br. I. Leo O'Donnell Archives are located outside of, and at a distance from, Plough Library.

  • To view Archives material, visitors must schedule an appointment.
  • Archives material can only be used under the supervision of a librarian and may not be checked out.

About the Higgins Collection

The Reverend John Joseph Higgins Collection

A Scholarly Collection of a Missioner donated to Christian Brothers University
by Judge & Mrs. Thomas Aquinas Higgins, Katherine Higgins Brogden, and Margaret Higgins Thompson
"to honor a man called by God to be his missionary"


The Brother I. Leo O'Donnell Archives of Christian Brothers University is pleased to present this special collection of the personal library and readings of Reverend John J. Higgins M.M. This collection owes its existence to the loving care of his brother and sisters whose vision in preserving the books and making them available to scholars makes this a cherished gift to the University. The collection, at present [3/31/95], contains 158 books and pamphlets.

As you will read in the text that follows, Father Higgins was one of those extraordinary people who heard an inner voice calling him, and who chose to answer by leaving his family and his homeland to help others. He did not think of these acts as out of the ordinary, nor did he think himself "special". He simply thought of himself as a man answering God's call. In a society with too few heroes, we easily see his sense of mission as a role model for generations.

We salute and thank the Higgins family of Nashville for their generosity in making this collection available through the O'Donnell Archives.

Father John J. Higgins

When future writers weave together the rustic and colorful history of the Catholic Church in Tennessee, it will be appropriate to look well beyond the borders of the state - indeed, even the country - to those areas affected by Catholics whose roots and home are in Tennessee Catholicism.

One such Catholic was a young man from the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, Tennessee. His mission, which he cared for with great zeal, was the Republic of Bolivia in South America, once part of the Inca Empire.

reverend john joseph higginsJohn J. Higgins, son of John Francis and Margaret McGee Higgins of Nashville, announced to his parents at the age of 20 his decision to become a priest with the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America (Maryknoll) and serve in its missions. His decision was one which would take this young man, a product of the Catholic education system of the Nashville diocese, into a world not experienced by many, and to that point in history which had not been experienced by any other Tennessee priest - a world of abject poverty, steeped deeply in a culture very different from anything he had ever known.

Born in 1925, John J. Higgins, the eldest of four children, was baptized, educated and first received the sacraments in the Cathedral parish in Nashville. He attended Father Ryan High School and later was graduated from Peabody Demonstration School. He continued his studies at Peabody College until September, 1945, when he entered the Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining, New York. At the seminary he was to receive his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Religious Education degrees.

His first years of seminary life were spent studying philosophy, one year was devoted to work and prayer at the novitiate in Massachusetts. The last four years were spent in the study of Theology.

Ordination ceremonies were held in New York on June 14, 1952, and the newly ordained Father Higgins, a 26-year-old native Nashvillian was assigned to the Diocese of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Before traveling to his assigned mission, Father John celebrated his first Solemn High Mass in his home parish on June 22, 1952, with his longtime pastor, mentor and spiritual guide, Monsignor Albert A. Siener, preaching the sermon.

Monsignor Siener's words spoke eloquently of what the young priest's vocation meant to his parents and to the diocese. He said, "While we regret that he will not remain with us to serve in the diocese of his birth, we rejoice and are proud to have him represent us in the ranks of that glorious missionary Society of Maryknoll, which has distinguished itself in so many mission fields of the church. Our hearty good wishes and prayers go with him into far off Bolivia where he will carry on the great work of Maryknoll."

First Years

The first years of his ministry saw young Father Higgins assigned to parish work in the Church of Santa Ana of the Cala Cala district of Cochabamba, Bolivia (in the central portion of the country). He also served the parishes of El Paso and Condebamba, among the Quechua-speaking indigenous population.

It was in his first parish, located in a rural area, that Father John decided to build a new church. Friends of his grandfather, Charles J. McGee, who worked for the Tennessee Central Railroad, saw to it that the Bolivian people his grandson was serving would hear not only the gospel preached by a native Tennessean, but would hear the peal of the church bell which had once been a part of a Tennessee Central steam locomotive. Later, Father John J. Considine was to write of this "Tennessee-Bolivia" connection in an article in the Maryknoll magazine, Field Afar.

Although his time was divided between his missionary circuit assignments, Father John also worked diligently to build a clinic at Condebamba and staffed it with Maryknoll Sisters. In the same area he helped form a farming cooperative for some 25 indigenous Bolivian families.

In Cochabamba, Father Higgins became not only physically but also psychologically close to the people he served, and they to him. A proficient linguist, he was fluent in Latin, Spanish, the Indian dialect of Quechua, Italian, French and Portuguese. He read German and studied Russian. An avid reader, he acquired a profound understanding of the history and struggle of the native Bolivians.

Thoroughly knowledgeable about Bolivian history, Father Higgins lectured on many subjects and was sought out by scholars for precise information on Bolivian culture and history.

Second Assignment

His knowledge of Bolivian history caused him to devote much attention to the restoration and embellishment of the colonial and national monument of the San Pedro Temple in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, where he was stationed in 1959. In 1962, he was named pastor of San Pedro Parish. In this parish, Father John ministered to some 40,000 parishioners, much of his traveling was done on motorcycle or horseback, as the rugged terrain prevented the roads from being accessible except in the dry season. The colonial church building he worked to restore fascinated him as it was originally constructed in the 16th century.

Semi-Feudal System

Agriculture and mining are important to Bolivia. Agriculture is limited to producing potatoes, barley, quinoa, broad beans, wheat, alfalfa and coca. Most important is the potato, however, which is dehydrated and frozen to form chuno, a staple which keeps indefinitely. Some two-thirds of the land must lie fallow, and what is farmed is inadequate to produce food for the whole population. Over 50 percent of the food must be imported. Nearly all farm work is performed by hand by the indigenous people.

A semi-feudal system of land tenure existed until 1952, when plots of land from the vast haciendas (up to 10,000 acres each) were divided among the indigenous Bolivians - who were given 25 years to pay for them. Eventually, once productive estates became little more than kitchen gardens. There was little productive land below 14, 000 feet above sea level not being used.

Of the minerals (gold, silver, cooper, antimony, bismuth, tungsten, lead and zinc), the most important is tin. Bolivia is the only country in the world which mines tin commercially. Ores are complex and the veins difficult to locate after so many years of mining. The mines are so high in the Andes that only the indigenous people can perform sustained labor in the thin, rarified air.

The life of indigenous Bolivians is hard, at best. In one area, the ore-bearing rock is so hot that the miners wear only breechcloths and rubber boots. The temperature in the mines varies from 120 to 125 degrees and the humidity ranges from 90 to 95 percent. Rock dust fills the air and 60 percent of the miners contract tuberculosis. At the end of the day, miners come from the sweltering mine into the cold air of the Altiplano and to their unheated homes.

Infant Mortality, Life Expectancy

By the time Father John reached his mission in Bolivia the population had not increased much over the years, with the high infant mortality rate, as a result of exposure to cold, malnutrition, and lack of hygienic conditions. The life expectancy of a native Bolivian was 35 years, among the lowest levels in Latin America. In certain highland areas, the number of children who died before their first birthday was equal to the number born each year.

Life was hard for both crops and animals. Finding fuel to cook with or to warm one's family by was difficult. Clothing and blankets are made from the wool of sheep and llamas. Most of the Indians chew coca (from which the drug cocaine is derived), as it serves to numb the senses and mask the appetite. Life for many was an endless struggle, to wrestle, from a stubborn environment, enough food and wool on which to live.

Centuries of bitter experience with the white population had taught the indigenous people to have as little as possible to do with the white men (a carry-over from colonial land-owner days).

'Beggar Sitting on a Chair of Gold'

A French paleontologist once described Bolivia as a "beggar sitting on a chair of gold," a recognition of the contrast between the severe poverty of the many parts of the country and the richness of its underdeveloped resources. An excessive dependence on mining brought a catastrophic collapse to the economy in 1953, when the tin industry failed. Acute inflation followed, and the U.S. fearing that Bolivia would return to its former Socialist-Marxist government, initiated a program of aid.

First Banking Co-Op

While serving in La Paz, Father John established that nation's first banking cooperative and introduced the indigenous population to banking. The concept of placing money in a bank was highly suspect to many of them. And, the idea of money earning interest was even more bizarre to their culture.

Father John spearheaded the establishment of the San Pedro Savings and Credit Cooperative in April 1964, and within three years had enrolled some 830 members, who amassed over $30,000 in savings, much of which was deposited a dollar at a time. Bolivians' incomes were about $50 per month at the time.

The October 16, 1988 issue of U. S. News and World Report quoted Father John as saying, "When we started, we held a 9 week course just to get across the idea that money would be safe in something besides jewelry and gold nuggets. And the idea you could put $100 in the bank and get back $110 in a year, without doing anything, was completely mystifying."

Visiting Prinsoners

In addition to his concern for the economic and spiritual welfare of his parishioners, Father John also made a special point to visit the imprisoned. He organized the Congregation of Jesus of Nazareth, and the women of the parish assisted in many of the temporal needs of the prisoners. He also aided many of the prisoners in staying out of jail once released.

Saint Vincent's Clinic

Another of Father John's projects was the Saint Vincent Clinic, where the needy could come for help. One of his last decisions before returning to the States was to move the clinic nearer the Maryknoll Sisters' house. The Sisters had come to Bolivia at Father John's request and they were involved in many spiritual and social good works. A food kitchen was also begun under his leadership, and some 80 people were fed a hot meal daily - oftentimes the only meal they had all day.

Wanted to Die Among His People

Father John Higgins, in his 15 years of ministry to the people of Bolivia, returned to his native Tennessee only on a few occasions. Once was in 1964 on the occasion of the death of his father. He sang the Mass of Resurrection for his father's funeral at the Cathedral in Nashville.

His last trip home brought tragedy for all who knew him. The Maryknoll Society had flown Father John to Washington, D.C., for a series of tests in September, 1967. Sadly, the tests revealed that Father John had terminal cancer. He was then flown to Nashville for treatment. Only three weeks later the 42-year-old priest, known as Father Juan by those he loved and served in Bolivia, died on September 26, 1967.

He was buried from the Cathedral of the Incarnation where the Mass of the Resurrection was sung by the Very Reverend John J. McCormack, Superior General of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. Father John Higgins was laid to rest at Calvary Cemetery in Nashville. He was survived by his mother, two sisters (Mrs. Morris H. Brogden and Mrs. Walton C. Thompson) and his brother (Judge Thomas A. Higgins), all of Nashville.

Father Higgins told his mother shortly before his death, "If I had known of this in La Paz, I would have stayed to die among my faithful and have been buried in Bolivia."

On the octave of Father Higgins' death, a Mass was celebrated in his honor at his parish of San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia.

Tied to His People

When one looks over the 15 years Father John spent in priestly devotion to his "people," one might appropriately recall the words of his first pastor, Monsignor Albert A. Siener, on the day Father Higgins celebrated his first Solemn High Mass in the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.

"The priest has titles of honor, which endear him to his people. He is the shepherd who watches over and guards his flock from danger, who leads it into green pastures and goes in search of lost sheep. He is a mediator between God and man. He is an ambassador, a herald bringing to men the glad tidings of redemption. He is a minister of Christ and a dispenser of His mysteries. But of all the titles there is none more significant nor more honorable than that of Father.

This title sums up in a word all those dear ties which bind him to his people. He is the spiritual father who regenerated them in baptism and made them children of God, who watches over them with parental care; their unfailing friend in time of need, their counselor in affliction, the sharer of their joys and sorrows. The priest may receive from the church other titles of distinction, but none can ever be dearer to him than that of Father"*
*Adapted from: The Tennessee Register, April 13, 1987.

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