As a Roman Catholic leader on a mission in the Turks and Caicos Islands for the last 15 years, Monsignor Peter Baldacchino helped build the church’s presence on the islands as more and more people arrived from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines.
Baldacchino, who also is a priest in the Archdiocese in Newark, N.J., will now bring his experience to Miami after being named Miami’s 10th auxiliary bishop by Pope Francis on Thursday.
He will be ordained on March 19, the day of the Feast of St. Joseph.
“His work there, which also involved reaching out to Hispanic and Haitian immigrants, well equips him for the duties he will assume as an auxiliary bishop in our diverse and dynamic archdiocese,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski said as he made the announcement at the Pastoral Center in Miami Shores. “As a priest he has worked not as a bureaucrat but as a pastor, not in ivory towers but in the trenches.”
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Wenski last had a second in command three years ago, when the auxiliary bishop was assigned the top spot in St. Augustine. Looking over 108 churches and missions, 57 schools, and more that 1.3 million Catholics in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, Wenski said that “it’s hard to be in two places at once.”
“There is always something going on and I try to be there for everyone,” he said. “I think this will be the perfect fit for him.”
Wenski said the appointment got caught up in the transition between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.
The most recent Miami auxiliary bishops were Bishop John Noonan, who was appointed in 2005 and was named bishop in Orlando in 2010, and Felipe J. Estévez, who was named Bishop of St. Agustine in 2011.
Miami’s best-known auxiliary bishop was Agustín A. Román, who died in 2012. Román, the son of a poor farmer in Havana, was appointed in 1979 and retired in 2003. He became a symbol of strength for countless Cuban exiles.
Born in Malta, Baldacchino, 53, was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark in 1996. After serving as a parochial vicar in New Jersey, he was assigned to Our Lady of Divine Providence Mission in Turks and Caicos in 1999. His mission: to spread Catholic teachings across the islands.
Over the past 15 years, the British-dependent territory, 575 miles southeast of Miami, has seen an increase in Haitian, Dominican and Filipino immigrants, many of whom are Roman Catholic. In the 1970s and ’80s, Anglican and Baptist churches were the primary options for the British islands. At the time, Roman Catholics had to wait for a visiting priest.
As more immigrants arrived, several Roman Catholic churches opened for a more consistent presence across the islands, which have a population of 30,000 people — far less than Miami.
Baldacchino, who speaks five languages, including Creole and Spanish, called his work fulfilling. When he started in the islands, there were only nine worshipers on Sundays. Over the years, the number grew to 1,000.
“He did great work in the Turks and Caicos Islands,” said Turks and Caicos Premier Rufus Ewing. “He will be dearly missed in the Turks and Caicos Islands, but I trust that his promotion is to the benefit of the Turks and Caicos Islands people whom I know he loves dearly.”
Baldacchino said Thursday that he was surprised by the announcement, but was looking forward to learning about South Florida.
“This opens up a lot of possibilities for me,” he said.
He conceded he has a lot to learn about South Florida.
“Right now I am trying to follow, rather than lead.”
Wenski said “it will be a quick turnaround” for Baldacchino before he assumes his position. He will attend several meetings with Wenski over the next two days and then go back to Turks and Caicos to wrap things up. He will go on a week-long prayer retreat before returning to his new home, where he looks forward to trying new things.
“I hear the Cuban coffee is better than espresso,” he joked. “I’ll have to see.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.