NEWARK, N.J., (RNS)--The more than 3 million New Jersey Catholics whowoke one recent Sunday to freezing temperatures and snow on the groundcould be forgiven an inward groan at the thought of trundling off toMass. Mother Nature was supposed to give up winter for Lent.

But never fear. The Archdiocese of Newark has come up with asolution to warm any Mass-goer's heart: a chill-proof parish in theTurks and Caicos Islands. It is a tourist's fantasy in the West Indiesthat, in a unique arrangement with the Vatican, has been placed underthe ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Newark.

Now there's a deal to take the sting out of the phrase "Sundayobligation."

"It is beautiful," said Newark Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, whohas been to the islands several times--quick administrative trips thathave, however, left him little time for the sort of recreation thatdraws more than 100,000 fun-and-sun seekers each year to the Turks andCaicos, most of them Americans.

Although it is doubtful these pilgrims are heading southspecifically to go to church--1,340 miles as the crow flies, to be precise--several New Jersey priests will be ready for them under a setup church officialssay marks the first time a foreign territory has been officially addedto an American diocese.

As anyone who has been to the Turks and Caicos can testify,McCarrick couldn't have picked a better place to set the precedent.

A British colony located about 90 miles north of the DominicanRepublic and Haiti, the Turks and Caicos is actually a chain of 30 smallislands boasting some of the best snorkeling and sea-fishing in theCaribbean region, not to mention sparkling beaches and year-round sun. Not manyother parishes in the four-county Newark archdiocese can match that.

North Jersey wound up overseeing the Turks and Caicos in large partbecause of McCarrick's close ties to the Vatican, and also because hefounded a special missionary seminary in New Jersey to trainforeign-born priests.

McCarrick has pledged to send those priests wherever they areneeded, and the need was obvious in the Turks and Caicos. In the 200years since the islands have been under the British crown, its Catholicsnever had a resident priest--only a cleric who would stop in for a fewmonths during the winter.

"You can't build up a church if you're only staying there for half aseason," McCarrick said. Pope John Paul II agreed, and a year agoformally gave McCarrick the job of looking after the spiritualwell-being of the islands' small and oft-neglected resident flock.

"Once, the people went without Mass for four months," said the Rev.Peter Baldacchino, a Newark priest whom McCarrick assigned last year toa three-year stint as the first full-time head of the mission, whichincludes two other priests and a pair of seminarians.

The upshot is that the Newark archdiocese now includes asun-bleached archipelago in a diocese that is already one of thenation's largest and most ethnically diverse.

Yet for all its obvious enticements, this exotic locale isn't someClub Med for New Jersey Catholics.

"Many tourists say, `What did you do to get this assignment?'"Baldacchino said with a laugh. "But it is one thing to be a tourist andanother to work here. We don't go around in Hawaiian shirts and khakishorts. We are here on a mission to bring Christ to the people."

And that mission poses a host of pastoral challenges, from the100,000 tourists zipping in and out on holiday to a dirt-poor residentflock of fewer than 5,000 Catholics spread over 8,000 square miles ofocean.

The islands are best known as an offshore tax haven for thewell-to-do and an occasional transit point for illegal drug shipments. "It is a place where people come to make money," Baldacchino said.

But wealthy expatriates are a minority among the 17,000 year-roundresidents. Most of the inhabitants are black descendants of Africanslaves, Hispanics and, increasingly, Haitian refugees.

These are immigrants who scrape by on fishing or, more likely, byworking at the resorts in the tourist industry that supplies most of theincome for the islands. "There are extremes--the very rich and thevery poor," Baldacchino said.

The diversity means the Newark priests must minister to French,British, Indian and American expatriates as well as Creole-speakingHaitians and Spanish-speaking Latinos, all with barely enough money tocover each month's budget, much less launch new programs.

The rectory at the Church of Our Lady of Divine Providence inProvidenciales, for example, is little more than a one-bedroom housebuilt for a single part-time priest. Today, it must accommodate severalpriests and seminarians who have to sleep in the living room, which alsodoubles as the office.

Getting around the island is no small adventure, either, since themission's only transportation is an 18-year-old van that is designed toseat 15 but often packs up to 28 and costs $200 a month to gas up.

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