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

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

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

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

Although it is doubtful these pilgrims are heading south specifically 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 officials say marks the first time a foreign territory has been officially added to 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 Dominican Republic and Haiti, the Turks and Caicos is actually a chain of 30 small islands boasting some of the best snorkeling and sea-fishing in the Caribbean region, not to mention sparkling beaches and year-round sun. Not many other parishes in the four-county Newark archdiocese can match that.

North Jersey wound up overseeing the Turks and Caicos in large part because of McCarrick's close ties to the Vatican, and also because he founded a special missionary seminary in New Jersey to train foreign-born priests.

McCarrick has pledged to send those priests wherever they are needed, and the need was obvious in the Turks and Caicos. In the 200 years since the islands have been under the British crown, its Catholics never had a resident priest--only a cleric who would stop in for a few months during the winter.

"You can't build up a church if you're only staying there for half a season," McCarrick said. Pope John Paul II agreed, and a year ago formally gave McCarrick the job of looking after the spiritual well-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 to a three-year stint as the first full-time head of the mission, which includes two other priests and a pair of seminarians.

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

Yet for all its obvious enticements, this exotic locale isn't some Club 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 and another to work here. We don't go around in Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts. We are here on a mission to bring Christ to the people."

And that mission poses a host of pastoral challenges, from the 100,000 tourists zipping in and out on holiday to a dirt-poor resident flock of fewer than 5,000 Catholics spread over 8,000 square miles of ocean.

The islands are best known as an offshore tax haven for the well-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-round residents. Most of the inhabitants are black descendants of African slaves, Hispanics and, increasingly, Haitian refugees.

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

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

The rectory at the Church of Our Lady of Divine Providence in Providenciales, for example, is little more than a one-bedroom house built for a single part-time priest. Today, it must accommodate several priests and seminarians who have to sleep in the living room, which also doubles as the office.

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

"It is really a mission," said the Rev. Thaddeus Zuber, the former pastor of St. Mark's Church in Rahway, N.J., who spent three weeks in the islands last May to fill in for one of the missionaries. Zuber, who is now retired, went to Providenciales as part of McCarrick's plan to encourage older pastors to visit the islands for a bit of R&R while at the same time giving the resident priests a break.

But the most challenging community is also the largest--the thousands of tourists who jet in, usually for a few days, two weeks at most. The vacations are usually structured and all-inclusive, and the resorts provide for every possible need, so few people would visit the local Catholic church on Sunday mornings.

"People who do come to Mass (from the resorts) are amazed," Baldacchino said. The North American churchgoers at the resort are a tempting source of badly needed funds for the rest of the church on the Turks and Caicos, Baldacchino said, but he is also sensitive about guilt-tripping folks who have come to relax.

"We don't particularly advertise the poverty. But we do mention at Mass that we are at the beginning of a mission," said the 39-year-old pastor.

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