Bishop Emil Wcela, a leading figure in the Roman Catholic Church on Long Island who worked for decades in the East End, served as seminary rector and was a scholar of scripture, has died at 91.
Wcela, who was stationed at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Riverhead for years while serving as vicar of the Eastern Vicariate of the Diocese of Rockville Center, died Saturday, the diocese announced.
Wce was remembered as a humble, educated auxiliary bishop who was willing to speak out on issues such as immigration and women in the church.
Bishop John Barres, head of the diocese, called Wcela “a humble man, an excellent scholar of scripture, a faithful pastor and a devoted bishop,” noting that he served the diocese for more than 65 years.
Barres’ predecessor, Bishop William Murphy, said Wce was a trusted adviser.
“Bishop Wcela’s great intelligence, which he used to open our minds and deepen our understanding of the Word of God, has been proven time and time again as a seminary teacher and rector of our seminary in Huntington,” said Murphy. “Our priests who studied there as seminarians testify to his skills as a teacher, intellectual and spiritual guide.”
“It wasn’t just intellectual wisdom,” Murphy added. “He was also a good and generous pastor who knew how to listen to his people and offer them the merciful love of God.”
Sister Margaret Smyth, head of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, said Wcela often celebrated Mass in Spanish for the local Hispanic community and was much loved. “He was the kindest, sweetest, most humble man you would ever want to meet,” Smyth said. “For all his stature, he never put that first.”
As an example, she remembers the first time she met Wcela. They were at a conference, and after the group finished their meal, the bishop got up, went into the kitchen, and washed his own plates.
Local scripture classes given by Wcela, a former president of the Catholic Bible Association, were well attended and well received, Smyth said.
This sometimes spoke for the local immigrants he taught. At a public hearing in Riverhead in 2016 on police cooperation in deporting immigrants who were in the country illegally, Wce called for compassion in national and local immigration debates.
“My words this morning are just a reminder that our country and our community of Riverhead are not just facing a problem, but men, women and children with human lives and human hopes for which we we share some responsibility,” Wcela said.
A few years earlier, in 2012, he had spoken out on another controversial subject: the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church.
In an article and interview in “America,” a weekly Jesuit magazine, Wcela said the time might be right for women to become deacons in the church. Deacons perform some of the same functions as priests, including preaching at Mass, witnessing marriages, and conducting baptisms.
Wcela argued that “there is evidence of female deacons dating back to the third century.” Deacons were largely abolished around 800 years ago, but returned with the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, with women excluded.
Wce grew up in Bohemia, attended St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and continued his education at Immaculate Conception Seminary, where he later became a faculty member and later rector.
He served in the parishes of Seaford, Garden City, and Farmingville, and worked for several years at St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary in Uniondale, where he taught Latin.
Wce has earned graduate degrees from Fordham University, the Catholic University of America, and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
Pope John Paul II appointed him an auxiliary bishop in 1988. He has also held positions with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in areas such as lay ministry and pastoral practices. He has written six books in a series of Bible studies, “The Word of God Today.”
A vigil is scheduled for Thursday from 2-5 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist, with a transfer Mass at 7:30 p.m. A funeral mass is scheduled for Friday at 11 a.m. at St. John Nepomucene Roman Catholic Church in Bohemia.