Agustín Román, America's First Cuban Bishop, Dies at 83

If Miami's Cuban community had a patron saint, it was surely Agustín Román, who fled Castro with a boatload of other priests and then, as America's first Cuban-born bishop, made such a political mark that current Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski compared him to Felix Varela.

Román was found dead of a heart attack last night in his car at Our Lady of Charity Shrine. He was 83. His death comes as the Catholic Church is moving closer and closer into political life on the island from which he was expelled in 1961.

Román wasn't the loud, blustering type -- but he also never shied away from his political role as de facto spiritual leader of the Cuban diaspora.

Born in 1928 in Havana, Román was a priest in Matanzas when Fidel fought his way to power; in 1961, Román and 130 other priests were kicked out of Cuba. After a stint in Chile, he came to Miami in 1967 and quickly became a leader of the exile community. In 1979, he was made auxiliary bishop.

He took his political role as seriously as his ministry. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan asked Román to visit Atlanta, where Mariel Boatlift refugees were rioting in prison. It wasn't an easy assignment. Here's how the Miami Herald described the scene:

Román and his attorney and close friend, Rafael Peñalver, walked into the besieged prison in Atlanta. Alone. Angry prisoners lurked everywhere.

Their lives in jeopardy, Román whispered to Peñalver: "Bless you, and put yourself in the hands of the Virgin."

The armed prisoners all dropped their shivs on a pile. Román kept one of the weapons in his home, framed, a gift from the federal government.
After he mediated a compromise, ABC News named him "Person of the Week" and he earned national praise.

In Miami, Román's most lasting legacy might be the Our Lady of Charity Shrine on Biscayne Bay, which he spent seven years raising donations to build.

Román had been retired since 2003, and the past several years must surely have brought mixed feelings to the iconic priest. He spoke often of his desire to return to Cuba someday and his inability to do so; yet the Castro regime has slowly brought Román's Catholic Church back into his favor on the island, culminating with Pope Benedict XVI's visit last month.

Here's what Archbishop Wenski had to say about Román's legacy:
"The Archdiocese of Miami has lost a great evangelizer who tirelessly preached the Gospel to all. And the Cuban nation has lost a great patriot. Bishop Roman was the Felix Varela of our time."
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink