As a youngster growing up in Alabama and Atlanta, Ryan Higdon loved the outdoors, competitive swimming and vacationing on the beach. He was raised a faithful Catholic, but becoming a priest never crossed his mind.
That changed in high school, after his family moved to the Austin suburb of Round Rock, “and aspects of the Catholic faith began to make more sense to him,” according to a story appearing in Catholic Spirit magazine.
His journey in the clergy has now landed him as the leader of St. Louis Catholic Church in Waco.
“I was part of an amazing youth group at St. Thomas More Catholic School, and by my junior year, I discerned that God may be calling me. I was on fire,” Higdon said in an interview Friday.
He applied to the Diocese of Austin, earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Dallas and continued graduate work at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, he said.
In the past seven years he has served in Bryan and College Station, most recently ministering exclusively to students, many attending Texas A&M University, at the St. Mary’s Catholic Center in College Station. He served as their pastor, providing counseling, hearing confessions and celebrating mass.
Then he received another call, this one from the Austin Diocese’s Bishop Joe S. Vasquez, informing him his rotation in College Station was ending and St. Louis Catholic Church in Waco was his new parish home. He arrived in July carrying the title of administrator, later to become pastor.
“It’s a traditional step between parochial vicar and pastor,” Higdon said of the designation.
He said he has passed through Waco a couple of times in his life, but never spent much time in the city.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity,” he said.
His predecessor at St. Louis Catholic Church, Father John Guzaldo, has been reassigned to St. Luke Catholic Church in Temple, Austin Diocese spokesperson Christian González said.
“Most terms last six to seven years,” González said.
Church policies have evolved since the 1970s and 1980s, when it was not unusual for a priest or pastor to serve a parish for decades, “if the fit was right,” he said.
Monsignor Mark Deering became a fixture at St. Louis Catholic Church after arriving in Central Texas in 1953. Waco proved to be his first, and only assignment, where he led efforts to break down religious and racial barriers. He was a founding member of the Waco Conference of Christians and Jews, became an honorary alumnus of Baylor University and attended meetings of the Waco Rotary Club more than 50 years. He embraced the community until his death in 2016, though he once told the Tribune-Herald he “thought he was in hell” when he felt the Waco heat.
“I’ve been made aware of the history of the parish,” Higdon said, indicating he realizes he has sizable shoes to fill at St. Louis Catholic Church.
Deering loved to tell the story about the time he was stopped by a highway patrolman as he raced for Dallas one Sunday to attend a Dallas Cowboys football game. He was a huge fan and attended several Super Bowls.
The officer peered into the back seat, noticed a hefty supply of liquor, and asked Deering to explain. Deering said he looked behind him and exclaimed, “Oh, Lord. It’s another miracle. When I left Waco, it was holy water.”
As for Higdon, he took part in a promotion involving Bryan-based New Republic Brewing in 2016. The brewhouse concocted a large batch of “Ale Mary” beer, and donated half the proceeds to the St. Mary’s Catholic Center in College Station, where Higdon was serving as associate pastor.
Higdon referred comment to the Austin Diocese when asked about sexual abuse revelations that have rocked the Catholic church in recent years, including a recent Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed claims of sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children over 70 years in six dioceses.
“As I read the report, I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach,” Austin Diocese Bishop Joe Vasquez said in an interview published by the diocese. “I was sickened and outraged by the findings. The crimes attributed to former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick and to the priests of those dioceses are unspeakable. Rightly so, many of our faithful are outraged by the findings.
“Sexual abuse goes contrary to the vocation of the priesthood. As priests, we make promises before God and his church to live a celibate life and to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society. As clergy, we know that we are blessed with the gift to serve the people of God, just as Christ did. … There is no doubt that the Pennsylvania report has undermined the credibility and confidence in us as bishops and the hierarchy of the church. People are wondering, for good reason, how they can trust church leaders when such horrific acts were allowed to take place in our church.”
According to the church’s report, Vasquez said he is aware of three cases involving sexual abuse of a child in the Austin Diocese since 2002. A “few” reports of inappropriate conversations or use of questionable language have been reported and acted on by the diocese, according to the report.
The Catholic Church established the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, and church officials have used psychological and psychiatric testing to assess seminarians and determine if they are “holy men of God who will fulfill their sacred vows of celibacy” and protect society’s weakest, Vasquez said, acknowledging the tests are not perfect.