Agustin A. Roman had been ordained a only couple of years in 1961 when Cuban security forces grabbed him and 125 other priests and piled them onto the outbound Spanish liner, Dongo, which happened to be sitting in Havana's harbor.
According to colleagues, it was a formative event in the life of the man who this week played a key role in the peaceful conclusion of dangerous takeovers at two prisons.
"When someone is put out of his own country at the point of a gun, it's bound to have a profound impact," said Msgr. Brian Walsh, executive director of Catholic Community Services in Miami, where Roman, 59, serves as an auxiliary bishop.
Roman spent the first five years of his exile in Chile before coming to Miami in 1966 to begin a ministry to Cuban exiles. One of the first things he did in Miami was to begin raising money to build the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity on Biscayne Bay, next to Mercy Hospital.
The $450,000 replica of a Cuban shrine to the patron saint of the island nation quickly become both a symbolic and tangible rallying point.
For homesick refugees, "the shrine is the closest they can get to home," said Walsh. "There is not an hour of the day or night that you can go by there and not find people visiting the shrine, with cars from all over the country."
In his 21 years in Miami, Roman, who was consecrated as the first Cuban-born bishop in this country in 1979, has devoted himself largely to the refugee ministry.
He is frequently heard on Spanish-language radio and TV stations in Miami, largely on religious programs. Roman is "known and respected within all groups in the Cuban community," Walsh said.
While closely identified with the exiles, Roman has generally steered clear of refugee politics. Walsh characterized him as "conservative and very anti-Communist -- no liberation theologian, just naturally a very cautious man and naturally a very conservative person."
That has not kept him from taking a stand when he feels the occasion demands.
Earlier this year in a statement on behalf of the detainees, many of whom continue to be imprisoned indefinitely after they have served their sentences, Roman said, "The indefinite imprisonment of human beings who are not serving their sentences due to crimes they have committed cannot be justified."
Roman has conducted correspondence Bible study courses for inmates in Atlanta, and on occasion traveled there from Miami to say mass.
He strongly opposed the recent immigration agreement with Cuba that helped spark the prison takeovers.
"Everyone needs to get moving," he told listeners of a Miami radio station recently. "There neds to be a letter from each family. This is the moment to respond against injustice."
His validation of the conditions for surrender was a major factor in ending the disturbances in Atlanta and Oakdale, La.
"I believe if they had brought him in earlier, we could have all gone home," said Donald Thompson, one of the hostages at the Oakdale facility.
"That's all they kept saying: 'Just bring in the man from Miami. If he says it's okay, you can go home.' The minute they saw him, they let us go."
Staff writer Morris S. Thompson contributed to this report.