Bishop Thomas Wenski leaves the Orlando Diocese to become the archbishop of Miami with the reputation as an eloquent speaker with an affinity for the poor, a Catholic leader who could transcend denominational lines, and a man of humor who liked jokes that began, "A priest, a minister and a rabbi walked into a bar. …"
"It certainly is a loss for the Diocese of Orlando and a day of rejoicing for the Archdiocese of Miami," said the Rev. Gregory Parkes, an administrator of the Catholic Diocese.
Wenski, 59, replaces Archbishop John C. Favalora, who is approaching the mandatory retirement age of 75. In doing so, Wenski returns to the South Florida of his birth and the place where he first became a priest in 1976.
"It's a place that will test all his talents," said Sister Elizabeth Worley, who has known Wenski since his Miami days.
In his acceptance speech Tuesday at the headquarters for the Miami Archdiocese, Wenski pointed out that while he was "coming home" to Miami, he was leaving the Diocese of Orlando after nearly seven years.
He said he was "deeply grateful" to the people of the diocese, both clergy and laity. "They welcomed me and always made me feel at home in Central Florida."
Appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to replace Favalora, Wenski is scheduled to be installed as Miami's fourth archbishop June 1. His successor has not been named.
The Miami Archdiocese covers three counties with a Catholic population of 736,089. The Orlando Diocese's nine counties have 400,923 Catholics.
Wenski made an impression in Central Florida's immigrant community with his advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to become legal residents.
He supported it in his sermons, he blessed immigrant protesters marching down Orlando's streets and attended some of their rallies as he joined with religious leaders from other faiths to present help for immigrants as a moral imperative.
Wenski often celebrated Masses in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole, making the faithful from Latin America and Haiti feel at home.
"Addressing the Haitian community in their own language was a plus, because you could feel that spiritual force on your side and you knew that he cared," said Marie-Jose Francois, a Haitian activist in Orlando.
Many described Wenski as "visionary." That vision included launching an ambitious $150 million capital improvement drive in the middle of a deep recession, which drew criticism from hard-strapped parishioners. The $10 million renovation of St. James Cathedral is seen as both his lasting legacy to the Orlando Diocese and a colossal extravagance by some parishioners.
His reputation for inclusion didn't extend to everyone. The Rev. John E. Hamatie, who has known every Catholic bishop since the creation of the diocese in 1968, said Wenski rarely acknowledged or extended a hand to his congregation at St. George Orthodox Church, just a few blocks from the bishop's office.
"Bishop Wenski is the least-know Roman Catholic bishop to us," Hamatie said. "I hope whoever follows him would be more outreaching, especially to the Orthodox Church."
Within the Jewish and Muslim communities, Wenski was known for his willingness to participate in multi-faith events and forums. Rabbi Jonathan Siger, executive director of the Central Florida Hillel, was a panelist on one of those forums.
"He will be missed. He had a tremendous impact on the community, not only on the Catholic community, but the greater Orlando community," Siger said.
Other religious leaders credit Wenski for organizing or participating in multi-faith prayer meetings and community events such as one focused on Central Florida residents who had lost their jobs or homes to the recession.
"He would say for our faith to have feet we ought to demonstrate that in what we do in the community. He did that time and time again," said the Rev. Errol Thompson, pastor of New Life Missionary Baptist Church in Orlando.
Members of the Catholic Diocese credit the media-savvy Wenski for raising the profile and public image of the Catholic Church in Central Florida. He enjoyed writing op-ed pieces, conducting press conferences and engaging the media. Television lights didn't make him blink.
"He was not afraid to use the media to promote our Catholic teachings and social message. That is something the other bishops had not previously done," Parkes said. "He is definitely a champion of the poor, the marginalized and the unborn."
In selecting Wenski's successor, Pope Benedict will need to find a man who shares Wenski's dedication to cultural and ethnic diversity; champion the poor, disenfranchised and ignored; and speak loudly and eloquently for the tenets of Catholicism, his supporters said. If he can speak Creole, as Wenski did, that's a plus.
"His leadership across ethnic and language boundaries has been a real model for the rest of us and a really unifying force for the diocese," said Paige McRight, executive presbyter of the Central Florida Presbytery (PCUSA). "His ability to be a pastor to people beyond the boundaries of language and culture will be his legacy."
Victor Manuel Ramos of the Orlando Sentinel and James D. Davis of the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel contributed to this report. Jeff Kunerth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5392.
A LOOK AT BISHOP WENSKI THROUGH THE YEARS IN ORLANDOCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times