Longtime Priest Honored for Work

By D'Ann Lawrence White
Tampa Tribune (Florida)
July 4, 2007

A special event is planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination.


The Tampa Tribune

They admit their 30-year friendship sounds like the beginning of a not-so-politically-correct joke.

"A Catholic priest and a Baptist preacher were playing tennis one day," began Monsignor James C. Lara.

The punch line is more poignant than humorous.

Lara had been in Brandon, helping the fledgling Nativity Catholic Church grow for eight years, when he met the Rev. Fred H. Boehmer, newly assigned to one of Brandon's oldest churches, First Baptist Church of Brandon, in 1976.

"I guess it was unusual for a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister to hit it off, but we did," Boehmer recalled. "There was just this great fellowship between us. We were as close as brothers could be. We'd play tennis every Wednesday morning from 6 to 7:30 a.m. And he'd come over and have dinner with me and my wife [Vida], and we'd go over and have lovely dinners with him at the rectory. We may not have agreed theologically, but, at the end of the day, we both believed in God, and that's all that really mattered."

"We had such a wonderful relationship," Lara agreed.. "It was a close community, and we formed the Brandon Ministerial Association and did a lot of things together to benefit the community, something you didn't usually see different religions doing. But we worked for the greater good."

When Boehmer retired in 1995 after nearly 20 years at First Baptist and 40 in the ministry, there was no question that Lara would have a place of honor at the head table of his retirement party.

A longtime friend of both men, Vince Ferraro, a member of Nativity, said they jokingly referred to Boehmer as "the pope" at the party, just to raise Lara's hackles.

Now that Lara is retired as well, and living in Clearwater, the two friends don't see each other as much as they'd like to, although they manage to get in an occasional game of tennis or round of golf.

Nevertheless, when Nativity Catholic Church began making plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lara's ordination to the priesthood, he insisted that Boehmer have a place at the head table.

"When we talked this week and I said I understand there's going to be a big celebration, he said he wanted me at the head table. I was really honored that he'd think of me, especially with all the Catholic dignitaries attending," Boehmer said. "So I plan to be there."

Boehmer won't be alone.

Hundreds of old friends plan to be on hand for the event Saturday, including former Nativity parishioner B. Lee Elam, who met Lara before he came to Nativity.

Elam was attending Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Clair-Mel in 1965 when a young, inexperienced priest from Spain was assigned to the church. Though small in stature, Lara was larger than life when it came to leadership skills, Elam said. He followed Lara to Nativity and left only when Nativity became so large that it led to the formation of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Seffner and St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, of which Elam is a charter member, 20 years ago. Resurrection Catholic Church in Riverview became a mission church to Nativity as well.

"Father Lara is very special to me, not only because he married me and my wife, Pat, but also because he was one of the most conscientious priests the church ever had," Elam said.

Like many boys in Spain after the Spanish Civil War, Lara entered the seminary at a young age - 10.

"It was the only outlet for many young men," Lara said. "And the people's faith was very strong. And now, looking back, in spite of my shortcomings and setbacks, I believe I was following God's plan. But at that age, you really haven't experienced life."

He was ordained in Spain in 1957 and received his first assignment as an associate pastor in Jacksonville.

"While I was at Blessed Sacrament, I sensed that Brandon was going to really grow," he said. "I was working on my doctorate in Spanish literature but felt I needed another challenge, so I asked them to send me to Nativity. The idea of building a new parish was really exciting."

At the time, the church consisted of just the original chapel.

"The first thing I realized was that we needed a school," he said. "The people thought I was a little bit arrogant. I was following an older priest, and they gave me hell. But if you provide good leadership and empower the people, they'll respond."

At the time, Lara said there were about 400 families in the parish, and the church was collecting about $400 or $500 a week.

"I started encouraging them to tithe for a new building. We built the social hall and started having dances. Then we started the carnival [Novemberfest], and people responded. And the collections went up, and we were able to start the school. By that time, people started backing me up," he said.

Not only did he found a school for kindergarten through eighth grade with the help of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, but also, under his watch, the church formed a men's club, Knights of Columbus, women's guild and food pantry to feed the area's poor.

In addition, his was the first church in the Diocese of St. Petersburg to form Small Christian Communities, or home prayer groups. The trend began in Spain and England and was endorsed by the Vatican. Nativity's numbers grew to 56 groups with 500 to 600 people.

Ferraro recalled approaching Lara about becoming involved in a men's Christian mission called Promise Keepers, which gathered a million men in Washington, D.C., in 1997 to show their passion for God, family, church and their fellow man.

"That was our first ecumenical outreach. He told me to run with it and do whatever I needed to do to get the men of the community involved," Ferraro said. "We had men of all churches meet at Nativity, and Father Lara supported us all the way."

Lara also is responsible for an overseas mission in the Dominican Republic that has become his legacy.

While visiting the little town of La Victoria, near Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, Lara was horrified by the poverty he encountered. He rallied the Nativity parishioners, who helped build a nutrition center for pregnant women and babies, a school and other facilities. And despite his insistence that his moniker never be hung on the front of a building, the auditorium in La Victoria bears his name.

Although he's received his share of accolades, Lara also has his detractors.

He refers to one moment in his priesthood as "the time they tried to crucify me."

In 1987, he was accused of abusing the daughter of the church's former music director when she was 14. The parents sued, and the suit was "amicably resolved" in 1990.

Nevertheless, he continued as pastor at Nativity until age 65, when he retired eight years ago.

Retirement, however, is a bit of a misnomer. He started a Spanish Mass for the Colombian population at St. Luke the Evangelist in Palm Harbor. "They make my life worth living," he said.

He also serves as an associate priest at St. Brendan Catholic Church in Clearwater and Nativity. In between, he golfs, reads and gets together with friends. "I never eat by myself," he said.

"I have a good life, but I have to say the happiest days of my life were spent in this parish," he said, referring to Nativity.

The celebration for Lara on Saturday will begin with a Mass at Nativity, 705 E. Brandon Blvd., Brandon, at 4 p.m. The Most Rev. Robert N. Lynch, bishop of the St. Petersburg Diocese, will preside. A reception in the social hall will follow.


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