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"He was a big bull," recalls Bill Horton, who played the occasional football game against the portly priest-to-be. "It wasn't easy to get around him. I think he was full-grown at birth." Off the gridiron, Wenski was also mature beyond his years. Even among his fellow seminarians, he was well known for passionate speeches in support of César Chávez and Florida farm laborers. "He was always on another mission for social justice," Horton says.
Wenski was caught up in the times in other ways. Unlike most of his classmates, he attended demonstrations against the Vietnam War and Kent State student killings in 1970. He challenged his professors on church policy, including priest celibacy and barring women from the profession. His natural charm, warmth, and intelligence won over professors who otherwise might have seen him as a rabble-rouser.
After graduating from Vianney, he attended St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. He worked hard, spending his sparse free time mowing lawns for the elderly or perfecting his Cuban-accented Spanish.
"We almost never saw him," says his sister, Mary Engle, now 59 years old and a legal secretary. She shares her sibling's long Polish nose, sallow skin, and flaxen hair. She's shier than the archbishop and humble. She attends church once a week but isn't as religious as her brother. "Who is?" she asks.
When Wenski became a priest in summer 1976, his sister and 3-year-old niece, Angela, attended the ceremony. As little Angela saw her uncle lay down on the floor to be ordained, a tradition that symbolizes dying and then rising like Christ, the child became terrified. "Is he dead?" she yelled. But at 26 years old, Wenski was just being reborn.
His first assignment was at the largely Hispanic Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Allapattah. Though his Spanish came in handy, a group of 50 Haitians in the back of the large, blocky church caught his eye. Mostly refugees who had fled the murderous regime of François "Baby Doc" Duvalier, they clapped and sang with abandon.
Wenski learned a few phrases in Kreyol, and soon those casual greetings turned into classes at Florida International University. By 1978, the young priest found himself living for three months in the tiny Haitian village of Ducis. He braved tropical storms to give Mass in remote chapels and came down with dengue fever. He had found his people.
Larry Pierre will never forget the phone call.
It was the early '90s, and AIDS-related deaths had reached an all-time high in the United States. Hundreds were perishing every month in South Florida, many in Miami. Fear and misinformation were rampant. Yet a young female volunteer from Pierre's nonprofit, the Center for Haitian Studies, had returned buoyant from a presentation on AIDS prevention at Little Haiti's largest church, Notre Dame d'Haiti. Parishioners had approached her afterward asking for condoms and more information, she excitedly told Pierre. Faced with the virus's devastating effect on the Haitian community, they figured it was a solid start.
Then the phone rang. It was the church's priest, Thomas Wenski.
"I received a call from him and said, 'Hi, Tom. How you doing?'" Pierre remembers. "But he shouted, 'I'm not calling you to bullshit around. I'm calling you to tell you don't you dare distribute information about condoms at my church."
"I wasn't expecting that from a priest," Pierre says.
After three feverish months in Haiti, Wenski had returned to Miami in 1979 as one of only a few Kreyol-speaking priests in the region. Archbishop Edward McCarthy immediately put him in charge of a larger group of Haitians at the giant, blue-domed Saint Mary's Cathedral at NW Second Avenue and 75th Street. But Wenski had bigger plans. While most Miamians wondered about the fate of the tens of thousands of Cubans pouring into the city, the young priest focused on the scores of Haitians washing ashore. They needed a church of their own.
Wenski searched for months for a suitable site. Finally, he found one: Notre Dame Academy, a shuttered Catholic girls' school at NE Second Avenue and 62nd Street. But when he proposed transforming the empty building into a Haitian church, many Miami Catholics and some priests objected, arguing it would be like herding them into a ghetto. But with McCarthy's blessing, Wenski went ahead.
Notre Dame d'Haiti opened in 1981. Even as he was struggling to start services, Wenski lobbied the Reagan administration for the right to visit Haitian immigrants locked up at the Krome Detention Center, a tent city surrounded by barbed wire near the swampy Everglades. Finally, on Christmas 1981, Wenski and McCarthy were allowed in. The young, Kreyol-speaking priest gave Mass to 500 refugees. They were gaunt and weak from a hunger strike, but they sang, danced, and cried at the sight of their first visitors in months.
The next year, Wenski picked up the first group of Haitians released from Krome and drove them in a battered, old school bus to Notre Dame d'Haiti. Soon the new church was a magnet for thousands of other Haitians fleeing riots and famine at home.
Wenski earned the trust of many by walking around the neighborhood with a German shepherd at his side. He even caught robbers inside Notre Dame several times, once locking an invader in the pantry until police arrived.