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Agustin Roman dies; first Cuban to be appointed bishop in U.S.

MIAMI -- Agustin Roman, the first Cuban to be appointed bishop in the United States, has died in Miami. He was 83.

The Archdiocese of Miami announced Roman went into cardiac arrest and died Wednesday evening. He had suffered from heart disease for several years.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski called Roman a "great patriot" to the Cuban nation.

Officials said Roman and 132 other priests were expelled from Cuba in 1961. He arrived in Miami, where he became a spiritual leader and advocate first for Cuban exiles and later for many other immigrants, including Haitian refugees. He also worked closely with Protestant and Jewish leaders.

"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," Wenski said in a statement.

Roman served as a mediator during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro allowed more than 100,000 Cubans to flee by sea to the United States. He also helped negotiate a peaceful end to a 1986 riot of Cuban detainees at federal prisons in Georgia and Louisiana. He later sought to convince Cuban-Americans to support asylum for Haitian refugees.

"The passing of Monsignor Roman is not just a loss for the Catholic faithful in South Florida but for all in our community who have fled oppressive regimes or have sought refuge and comfort in the words and support of this gentle man," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. "He was an advocate for God, for fundamental freedoms, and for those whom society had sometimes forgotten."

During his early years in Miami, he urged exiles to donate what little they could afford to build the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity on Biscayne Bay. It became a beacon for exiles and to this day attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and remains a gathering point for many Cuban-Americans during moments of political crisis.

After being expelled from Cuba, Roman first went to Spain then Chile before eventually arriving in Miami. He retired as auxiliary bishop of Miami when he turned 75 on May 5, 2003, as required under canon law.

USA Today called Roman the "crisis hero." Two Hollywood movie producers sought the rights to his story.

An outsider within the church hierarchy and one of its few Latinos, he was made associate pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral. As the exile community grew roots, he moved steadily up through the ranks, becoming auxiliary bishop in 1979.

"I would like to see Cuba before I die," Roman said several years ago. "But I know that when I am in heaven, I will see Cuba even better."

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