Faithful mourners have come all day to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Coconut Grove as they remember retired Auxiliary Bishop Agustín Román, who oversaw the construction of the sanctuary with private funds.
The determined, quietly tenacious exiled Cuban priest died Wednesday night near the shrine, Ermita de La Caridad, of a heart attack.
“Oh my God, last night, I couldn’t believe it. We talked to him practically every time we come here,” Marta Ciceraro said.
Román, 83, was considered the spiritual leader of the exiled Catholic Cuban community in South Florida, but he reached far beyond that, especially to the Haitian community.
“He loved more than Cubans. He loved anyone that needed his assistance,” Father Juan Sosa said.
Román became a priest in 1959, but left Havana two years later after he being expelled by Fidel Castro’s regime. He spent the rest of his life in exile, ministering in Chile for four years before arriving in Miami in 1966. When he became auxiliary bishop in 1979, he was the first Cuban to be appointed to that role in the U.S.
Román drew national attention when he defused two prison riots involving Muriel refugees. But it was his "never say no" work ethic that generated legions of admirers that transcended religious affiliations.
"For me he will be a saint in the future,” Gladys Deutsch said.
People who knew the bishop, even briefly, agree that he was unmatched in helping them feel God's love. Raul Camarca said Román cemented his Catholic faith at a time when he was spiritually lost.
"Jesus called me back and I followed ... he was there, standing there," Camarca said.
Masses were held all day Thursday at Ermita de La Caridad as Miami Catholics readied for services honoring Román.
"He had been preparing himself,” Sosa said. “Letting us know slowly and very symbolically, at different times throughout the years, that he was ready to go."
A public viewing for Román is being held Thursday night at the shrine, at 3609 South Miami Avenue.
The viewing and visitation will last all day Friday through Friday night. On Saturday morning his body will be taken to the Cathedral of St. Mary at 7525 NW 2nd Avenue, where Archbishop Thomas Wenski will celebrate a funeral Mass at 1 p.m., to be followed by a burial at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery at 3 p.m.
For more information on Román’s funeral arrangements, and a slideshow of his life, see the Archdiocese of Miami’s website.
NBC 6's Donna Rapado contributed reporting.