Archbishop Thomas Wenski: Tea Party conservative and church radical

Archbishop Thomas Wenski: Tea Party conservative and church radical
Illustration by Jesse Lenz

Dressed all in black, the biker roars his 1,800-cc Harley-Davidson Street Glide to a halt on the gravely shoulder of Florida Avenue in Lakeland. Ray-Bans hide his eyes. With his spike-topped black helmet glinting in the South Florida sun, he more closely resembles a Prussian soldier than Easy Rider.

Lucas Benitez spots the motorcyclist and his palms begin to sweat. All day, the stocky Mexican with a buzzcut has led a thousand Latino tomato pickers on the 11-mile march from Plant City to Lakeland to protest the stingy pay of $50 per two tons of fruit torn off the vine. When he looks at the biker, all he can think is: Not another pinche redneck picking a fight.

Then the heavyset motorcyclist steps from his machine and ambles toward the marchers. "Buenas tardes," he says, holding out a hand. "I'm Bishop Thomas Wenski."

Wenski delivers a special Mass for visiting Cuban priests at Miami's Shrine of Our Lady of Charity this past November 8.
Michael McElroy
Wenski delivers a special Mass for visiting Cuban priests at Miami's Shrine of Our Lady of Charity this past November 8.
Wenski's sister, Mary Engle, shows off a photo of her brother meeting Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in June.
Michael E. Miller
Wenski's sister, Mary Engle, shows off a photo of her brother meeting Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in June.

Pulling a faded black Army cap over his graying hair, the Orlando bishop falls into stride alongside the protesters in their bright green T-shirts. When they reach the headquarters of the nation's largest supermarket chain, Publix, Wenski climbs onto the back of a produce truck.

"In this long march of ours," he says in Spanish, Bible in hand, "we may feel tired, but we will never tire of seeking justice and a better life for all our brothers and sisters."

That was April 17, 2010. Three days later, Pope Benedict XVI named Thomas Gerard Wenski the new archbishop of Miami. He now oversees the religious life of more than a million Catholics in one of the church's most internationally significant but challenging strongholds.

Wenski is unlike anything the church has ever seen. He's a hard-charging, hog-driving cleric and licensed pilot who speaks six languages fluently. In the past seven months, he has come on like a blessed freight train, booting dozens of longtime priests from their too-comfortable parishes and suing the City of Miami for $140 million. He's risked the ire of Miami Cubans by engaging the island's communist government and had his phone tapped by the Castro regime. Just two weeks ago, he helped open the first seminary in Cuba since the revolution.

But on social issues, he has become a rabid, Tea Party-style conservative whose ban on even discussing condoms might have led to hundreds of Haitians contracting HIV.

"We are 30 years into an epidemic that has cost millions of lives," says Vanessa Mills, director of AIDS resource center Empower U. "It doesn't matter if you're the archbishop of Miami. Anyone denying that condoms save lives is being incredibly irresponsible."

On a cool October night in 1969, a river of shaggy college students winds across the dimly lit central quad of the University of Miami as campus police look on. The students clench candles, handmade signs, and the occasional joint. One of the marchers, a chubby 18-year-old with a seminary haircut, sings John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" in a deep, off-key voice. He thumbs prayer beads in his pocket and drops the cuss words from chants: "One, two, three, four. We don't need your... war!"

Like many of the baby-boom protesters of that era, Tommy Wenski was born into a working-class family with immigrant parents. His father, Chester, had come to the United States from Poland as a young child. After fighting for his adopted country against the Nazis, Chester Wenski ran a small stuccoing business and painted houses in the fast-growing Palm Beach County town of Lake Worth. He was happy to have a steady job, a car in the driveway, and a Polish beer waiting for him in the refrigerator after a long day spackling the suburbs in the hot Florida sun.

Tommy was born October 18, 1950, in West Palm Beach, the first of two kids. His mom, Louise, made sure the boy and his younger sister, Mary, were raised Catholic. Mother Wenski was Polish-American, born in Detroit, and so devout she had almost become a nun. She attended mass every day at Sacred Heart Church and sent her children to school there. Louise and Chester spoke Polish to one another, and young Tommy grew up proud of his roots. "I had a keen sense of my identity as a Polish-American," he recalls. "Those hyphens don't make anyone any less American." For the rest of his life, he would see immigrants as kindred souls.

By third grade, Tom had decided to become a priest. After school, he would make his sister dress up like an altar boy and then transform water into wine in their bedroom. He was a quiet, bookish child, but no saint. When he was 7 years old, he convinced his sister to climb a ladder to the roof and left her there for an hour. "He is extremely smart and very persuasive," says longtime friend Father Kenneth Whittaker, whom Wenski coaxed out of retirement to preach at Our Lady of Mercy in Deerfield Beach. "When you listen to him, it's a little bit like a trap."

At age 13, Wenski left home to attend St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, a now-defunct high school for priests in Southwest Miami-Dade. It was 1963, four years after the Cuban revolution, and the Magic City was transforming as thousands fled the island for the security of South Florida. Wenski threw himself into learning Spanish, rehearsing monologues in his sparsely furnished room at night, and practicing them the next day on waitresses in Little Havana. He sang Olga Guillot's boleros to pick up Cuban slang. His friends called him el cubanazo, "the super Cuban."

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