Agustin Roman, the beloved emeritus auxiliary bishop of Miami who was considered the spiritual leader of South Florida's Cuban exile community, died Wednesday night of a heart attack. He was 83.
A humble, gentle man with an iron will and a steadfast moral compass, he was viewed by older Cuban exiles as a champion of freedom and faith. Roman, who had retired in 2003, served his God and his people, said those who knew him.
He made his final public appearances in Miami during Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba last month and on Easter Sunday after the pope honored Cuban-born Rev. Felix Varela by bringing him closer to sainthood.
Roman had suffered from heart disease for several years. He was found slumped over the wheel of his car on the grounds of Our Lady of Charity Shrine, known in Spanish as Ermita de la Caridad del Cobre, where for decades he lovingly served his flock and carried the Cuban exile banner.
"The Archdiocese of Miami has lost a great evangelizer who tirelessly preached the Gospel to all," Archbishop Thomas Wenski said in a statement late Wednesday. "And the Cuban nation has lost a great patriot. Bishop Roman was the Felix Varela of our time."
"The Catholic Church has lost a beloved, humble spiritual leader," said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami.
As word of his death spread, parishioners began to gather Wednesday night at La Ermita in Coconut Grove.
The Rev. Juan Rumin, the chapel's rector, joined mourners in prayer and offered words of comfort: "Roman in now in front of God," Rumin said in Spanish. "A man of God has died and also a glorious Cuban."
Funeral arrangements were not complete Wednesday.
Roman was stricken in his car as he was being driven home after his daily prayers at the shrine, which he had helped build. He had suffered cardiac arrest, was transported to nearby Mercy Hospital and, following extensive resuscitation efforts, was pronounced dead shortly before 8:45 p.m.
Roman was prepared to die, said the Rev. Juan Sosa, who has known him since 1979.
"His legacy is one of total commitment in service to the poor, to the needy, to the church, to the homeless and to the exiles," Sosa said.
Sosa said that while Roman's death is sad, it serves as a source of inspiration for others to follow his example "of selflessness and sacrifice."
Roman was honored on March 4, before the papal visit to Cuba, by the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews.
His death also comes as the shrine, home to a replica of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, celebrates the 400th anniversary of her apparition in Cuba.
Roman spent more than half his life in exile, first in Spain, then in Chile and the United States, yet he never surrendered to bitterness, never lost hope.
"I am a Cuban, and I will always love the country where I was born," Roman once said. "I hope that before I go to heaven, I will see Cuba again. But I love America, too. This is the country that welcomed me."
Roman earned national attention as a mediator when Mariel detainees rioted in 1987 and seized portions of federal prisons in Atlanta and Oakdale, La.
In April 2003, he retired as auxiliary bishop emeritus. That year, he wrote a column for The Miami Herald that urged South Floridians to support
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