Diocesan News

Lawler Annual Dinner Honors Lay Community Leaders for First Time

Bishop Robert Brennan with the late Bill Lavin (left) in the summer of 2022, one of the honorees at the Kathie & Christopher Lawler Foundation Dinner Dance. Father William Sweeney and Kristen Franchock are also pictured. (Photo: Courtesy of Florence Lavin)

BELLE HARBOR — The St. Francis de Sales Parish community came together to honor two members of the diocese that have supported senior priests at the annual Kathie & Christopher Lawler Foundation Dinner Dance, held at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club on July 29.

The honorees this year were Jimmy Austin, the executive director at Diocesan Food Services, and William ‘Bill’ Lavin, honored posthumously for the decades he spent in service to the Diocese of Brooklyn.

For the first time, the honorees of the annual dinner were not members of the priesthood.

“Though there are certainly senior priests that are worthy, we thought this year that we would honor two laypeople that have done so much in their own respective ways for the senior priests,” said Thomas Lawler, founder of the Lawler Foundation.

This year is the first year the dinner has been held since the pandemic, and the first year it was held at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club. In previous years, it was held at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston. The yacht club “meant the world” to Lavin, his wife Florence said. 

“He bent over backwards to work in it, help it, save it, keep it going and promote it among the younger people,” she said. “He did the same thing in his community.”

Lavin died on Dec. 5, 2022, at age 78, and is survived by his seven children and Florence, his wife of six years. Born in the St. Vincent Ferrer parish in Brooklyn, Lavin moved to Rockaway with his family and immersed himself in the Belle Harbor community. He was elected to the parish council at St. Francis de Sales Church in 1979.

“One of the things my father always said was that if I gained a dollar, the church gained $1.50,” said Maureen Sawyer, Lavin’s oldest daughter. 

To Sawyer, the message that her father left behind is clear: “You give back to what gave to you.” She is heavily involved in her parish community in Connecticut, where she serves as president to the PTA to her children’s school.

”He just inspired giving back. He felt like he was given a gift, and he said that his gift was meant to be shared, and he did it 10-fold,” Florence said.

To name a few of his contributions to the diocese, Lavin served as the chairman of the board at St. John’s University, the director of the Cathedral Club of Brooklyn and Queens, a trustee of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Investment Committee, and a member of the Rockaway Development Corporation.

“I hope that people realize the gifts that they have been given, and to share them. This entire community, no matter if they are on top of the world or below, helps one another and it’s just a wonderful legacy,” Florence said.

Close to Lavin’s heart was the Lawler Foundation, and Lawler was brought  to tears when he reflected on the time they spent together in bringing the foundation to life. A countless number of hours were spent turning the “pipe dream” of the foundation into the service it is today, Lawler said, and it was with Lavin’s constant support that it came to fruition.

“The work of the foundation and taking care of some of the needs of the senior priests of our diocese was a very special mission for Bill Lavin,” said Msgr. John Bracken, an honoree at the 2017 Lawler Foundation Dinner Dance and member of the St. Francis de Sales clergy, during a Mass celebrated prior to the dinner.

The Kathie & Christopher Lawler Foundation was established in the memory of long-time diocesan employee Kathie and her son, Christopher, who were killed when Flight No. 587 fell onto their Belle Harbor home on Nov. 12, 2001. The foundation’s mission is to support the senior priests in the diocese, raising funds that go directly to their care. 

“He lived and died for his family,” Bill Lavin Jr., the oldest son of the honoree, told The Tablet. “He lived and died for his community. He lived and died for the Church.” 

“We can’t mention senior priests and not mention Jimmy Austin,” said Lawler. “He is synonymous with senior priests.”

In his role, Austin ensures that food is distributed to senior priests in the diocese and Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston.

“Over the years, many of the senior priests have expressed gratitude and appreciation for the services the [Lawler Foundation] provided. The foundation enhances their lives. They make their lives better, and the priests are so appreciative. I am proud to be recognized by this wonderful foundation,” Austin said.

In the Mass celebrated prior to the dinner, Msgr. Bracken expressed his overwhelming gratitude to the Lawler Foundation.

“You can never say thank you enough. If you go through life and miss one opportunity to say thank you, it never comes back again. So tonight, for the senior priests of our diocese, I say thank you. Thank you to Tommy [Lawler], thank you to the Lawler Foundation, and thank you to all of you that support the wonderful work that the Lawler Foundation does on behalf of our senior priests,” he said.