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Throughout the '80s, Wenski helped establish so many Haitian missions around South Florida that travel became a burden. So he persuaded Tom Equels, a decorated Vietnam pilot and friend, to give him lessons at Tamiami Airport. Soon enough, Wenski was flying solo from Miami to Homestead and then up to Fort Pierce and back to deliver Mass in Kreyol three times a day.
In his Haitian parishioners, Wenski found a calling like that of Pope John Paul II, who at the time was rekindling Catholicism in communist Poland. Both Poles and Haitians were intensely religious people in need of leadership, the young priest believed.
And like John Paul, he became increasingly conservative, particularly regarding abortion and contraception. "I saw these Haitian women having babies in very dire straits, here in poverty without legal status," he recalls. "But they still raised those children because they saw in them some hope for the future. Then you have some coed whose father is a PhD someplace ready to get an abortion because of a lack of... hope."
But as HIV rates soared among Miami Haitians in the early '90s, Wenski's increasing moral conservatism led to confrontations with community activists. After the angry phone call from Wenski, Larry Pierre began to hear stories about the priest badmouthing him. A mutual friend said Wenski had loudly mocked Pierre after a few too many drinks at a bar in Port-au-Prince. "He even called the director of our foundation, saying I was encouraging people to have sex," Pierre recalls. "Without a doubt, he was trying to get our funding cut."
The argument had long-lasting effects in Little Haiti, to this day a community disproportionately blighted by HIV.
"We still can't even get into churches," says Johnny Rogers, a case manager at Empower U. "It's very irresponsible of the Catholic Church in Miami. Condoms are 99.7 percent safe. It's the only thing we have to keep these people alive."
"I'm a Christian," Rogers says, sitting in a small Liberty City office that draws hundreds of desperate patients pleading for medication. "But the Bible was written hundreds of years ago. The church preaches abstinence, but they're living in the real world. Their stance just causes more problems."
Earlier this month, a young, HIV-positive Haitian man came in to see Rogers. He had visited months before to pick up antiretroviral drugs and looked healthy. But now his T-cell count had plunged to near zero. He was dying: His lymph nodes were swollen, and his eyes had sunk into his cheeks. "What happened?" Rogers asked him.
"I pray now," the man answered, explaining he had stopped taking the medication and begun going to church.
"When they finally get to us, it's too late," Rogers says angrily.
Wenski also took a hard line against vodou. "My job as a priest is to preach the gospel, and that requires asking people to turn away from paganism," he says matter-of-factly.
"The guy feels like he must speak for all Haitians," Pierre says. "Not everyone is happy about that."
A year later, it was Cubans' turn to take offense at Wenski acting as one of their own. In October 1996, Hurricane Lili shook Cuba like a rag doll. The storm left tens of thousands homeless and hungry. Wenski, who had been appointed head of Catholic Charities several months earlier, saw opportunity in the crisis. The priest announced he would lead a humanitarian mission to the island.
Cuban exile radio stations were outraged. The donations would reinforce the Castro regime. One of the collection sites, the revered Cuban shrine Our Lady of Charity, even received bomb threats. But Wenski pressed ahead, even persuading President Bill Clinton to authorize the first direct flight between the two countries in months.
Wenski arrived in Havana on October 26 with 80,000 pounds of food, most of it donated by the Cuban exile community. When Cuban officials discovered political slogans scrawled on sacks of rice and beans, they threatened to send the plane right back. But Wenski waited them out. After ten days in a Havana hotel, he finally watched starving campesinos gobble up the donated food.
As with his trip to Haiti 17 years before, the timing was perfect for professional advancement. Soon he was named auxiliary bishop of Miami. He advocated for immigrants' rights but also became more publicly conservative. In 2000, he picked a fight with hospitals over voluntary sterilization of women. "Sterilization is evil," he told the Miami Herald. "It is a mutilation that frustrates the purpose of the marriage act." He even pushed — unsuccessfully — for a ban on the procedure in secular hospitals partnering with Catholic hospitals.
That position won plaudits from his bosses. In 2003, he was promoted again — to bishop of Orlando. It was another stepping stone for the ambitious priest. In May 2009, he made headlines in USA Today and on MSNBC by slamming the University of Notre Dame for giving Barack Obama an honorary degree. He called Obama "one of the most radical pro-abortion presidents" and lambasted Notre Dame for its "thoughtlessness." Two weeks before the address — in which Obama called for a civil discourse on abortion — Wenski delivered a "Mass of Reparation" in Orlando to repair the damage done by the university's "insensitivity."