As head of the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains, the Rev. Lawrence Provenzano spent five weeks at Ground Zero saying last rites over remains brought to a makeshift morgue.
Compared to that traumatic experience, he says, taking over as bishop of the embattled Episcopal Diocese of Long Island - where his predecessor stepped aside amid a battle with alcoholism and complaints about mismanagement - is nothing.
But weeks into his reign, Provenzano faces another challenge: The Vatican last month announced it is setting up a new structure to allow Anglicans or their entire parishes to more easily switch to the Roman Catholic Church. This would allow married Anglican priests to continue to operate within the Catholic Church.
The move appears aimed at attracting Anglicans - or Episcopalians, as they are known in the United States - who oppose their church's embrace of female priests and gay bishops.
Provenzano, 54, is taking it all in stride and says he is not taking any special steps to prevent defections. "This all becomes a distraction to us in terms of really doing what we are called to do, and that is preaching the Gospel, taking care of the poor, taking care of the homeless," he said. He added that "I don't think any parish in our diocese will take this invitation" by the Vatican. There are nearly 150 Episcopalian parishes in the Long Island diocese.
Comments create a stir
Still, some of his initial comments created a stir. Shortly after Rome's announcement in late October, he wrote, "At the heart of all this is the reality that the Roman Catholic Church is willing to welcome angry, reactionary, misogynistic, homophobic people."
Provenzano, a Brooklyn native, has a complicated relationship with the Roman Catholic Church: He is a former Catholic priest who left in 1983, one year after he was ordained, joined the Episcopal Church, got married and eventually had a family. He and his wife, Jeanne, a former assistant district attorney for Hampden County, Mass., where they used to live, have three adult children.
He says he departed the Catholic Church mainly because he did not agree with the church's centralized authority structure, and he wanted a church that is more democratic and inclusive of women and others - including homosexuals.
"I have a lot of problems with denominations who will not own the fact they have gay clergy."
Bishop William Murphy, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, did not attend Provenzano's installation as bishop in September. Nor has he met with him to date. "Let's face it, it's an awkward kind of situation," said the Rev. David Joslin, who has served as an interim head of the diocese after Bishop Orris Walker Jr. took a leave of absence in June.
Episcopal church officials said local Roman Catholic bishops sometimes attend installations of Episcopal bishops. They added that they are still planning Provenzano's meetings with other local religious leaders.
Murphy's schedule did not allow him to attend the installation, said his spokesman, Sean Dolan. He added that Murphy meets regularly with leaders of other religious groups, including the Episcopalians.
Some local Episcopalians say they are pleased to have Provenzano as head of their diocese, which stretches from Brooklyn to Montauk and has about 53,000 members.
Barbara A. Wasilausky, senior warden at Trinity Church in Northport, said, "Our parish is overjoyed to have a leader of such compassion and vision at the helm."
At Provenzano's last parish in Massachusetts, he helped set up a "Church Without Walls" in which each Sunday in a park in the nearby city of Springfield a minister held religious services for homeless people.
He also became a leader of the firefighters' chaplains, and underwent intensive training in areas including search and rescue. He does not speak much about his experience at Ground Zero. "It was a very difficult time," he says quietly.
When he was named bishop of Long Island, the fire chaplains in Massachusetts presented him with a Maltese cross, the traditional badge of firefighters. Embedded in the back of the cross is a small rectangular tab. It contains steel from Ground Zero.
Provenzano wears the cross on a chain around his neck - a reminder of one of the hardest periods of his life - as he takes on his new post.