One Final Twist in the Rev. Louis Gigante’s Colorful Life: A Son

New York Times [New York NY]

December 26, 2022

By Michael Wilson

Father Gigante, a towering figure in the Bronx, left a $7 million fortune entirely to the son he had while he was a priest.

The Rev. Louis R. Gigante was always larger-than-life. A Roman Catholic priest, the son of Italian immigrants and brother of New York mobsters, Father Gigante swaggered through the crime-ridden and crumbling South Bronx with a baseball bat and a development company that built thousands of apartments for the poor.

But it turns out even the legend could not live up to the true scope of Father Gigante’s full life. After he died in October, his will revealed two more startling facts: He was a multimillionaire. And he left nearly all his fortune to a single beneficiary — his 32-year-old son.

The revelation discloses publicly a brash defiance of one of the tenets of the Catholic Church, that priests must remain celibate. The discovery was made in recent weeks by the journalist Salvatore Arena, a former New York Daily News reporter who is preparing a book proposal about Father Gigante and looked up his last will and testament.

“I almost fell out of my chair,” Mr. Arena said.

As was his way, Father Gigante also appeared to have made minimal effort to hide his son from the outside world in the way that other priests have in the past. The reverend’s personal life had been the subject of decades of whispering in the Bronx and was an open secret among those closest to him.

Father Gigante may have evaded church scrutiny of his personal life through sheer force of personality, in much the same way he used his outsize persona to rebuild desolate streets surrounding his parish, broker back-room deals as a Democratic kingmaker and loudly defend his criminal siblings. It may have seemed hard to fathom that through a late stretch of those busy years, he was also raising a son in a quiet suburb north of the city.

Luigino Gigante was born in 1990 and raised in Somers, N.Y., in Westchester County, an hour drive from Father Gigante’s parish, St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church in the South Bronx. He and his father lived with the boy’s mother and were by all appearances an unremarkable suburban family — until the time came every day when Dad put on his Roman collar and returned to being Father.

“We had a quiet life,” Mr. Gigante said in an interview in Manhattan, where he goes by Gino. “He was proud of me. We did everything together.” As for the fact that his father was a priest, “it was just like another quirky thing,” he said.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, said Sunday that several individuals he had spoken to in the church knew nothing about Father Gigante’s son “beyond rumors.”

“While each case would be evaluated and addressed on its own merits, a priest who fathers a child would be expected to provide support for the child and mother. In general, though, priests who have children leave the priesthood, usually voluntarily,” Mr. Zwilling said.

Mr. Gigante said he had been told over the years that the archdiocese hierarchy was aware that Father Gigante had a child and chose to look the other way. He said he was told a version of this scenario as recently as his father’s funeral.

It is difficult to overstate Father Gigante’s prominence by the time Luigino was born. He had founded the South East Bronx Community Organization, or SEBCO, in 1968, a first step in rebuilding Hunts Point, a scene of rubble and decay, and he expanded the operation through the 1970s and 1980s.

The company was the centerpiece of what became a network of nonprofit and for-profit organizations in the service of building, managing and providing security to the new properties. In recent years, Father Gigante earned an annual salary of $100,000 as president of SEBCO and additional sums, often higher, through the companies that drew a profit, including Building Management Associates and Tiffany Maintenance.

Those earnings accumulated to what Father Gigante’s will estimates at more than $7 million, practically all of which he left to his son, placing it in a trust until he turns 40.

In the past, when asked about his wealth, he shrugged. “I didn’t take a vow of poverty,” he said in a profile in 1981. “People think I don’t get paid and that I’m a saint for doing it. That’s their problem.”

At the same time, he charged into politics, and, undeterred by his loss in the congressional primary in 1970, he went on to win a leadership role in the local Democratic district and also served briefly as a city councilman.

“At first there were those who felt it was wrong for a priest to be a politician,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “But then when I did a few favors for them, these same people changed their minds.”

His family name was more widely associated with one of his brothers, Vincent (the Chin) Gigante, boss of the powerful Genovese family of the New York Mafia. In later years, Vincent Gigante would become an odd fixture outside his home in Greenwich Village, shambling up and down streets in slippers and a bathrobe in what was seen as a yearslong ruse to feign mental illness and avoid prosecution.

Father Gigante stood by his brother, saying he was truly ill and suggesting the Mafia was an invention of the media. He was active in other high-profile moments; in 1989, he put up $25,000 to secure the bail of one of the Central Park Five.

At one time, the priest lived in the rectory at St. Athanasius, but by 1990, he was commuting to the house in Westchester, friends said. It was there that his son was born.

Attempts to reach Mr. Gigante’s mother were unsuccessful; he said she didn’t want to speak to reporters.

Priests have fathered children since the church’s earliest days — indeed, clergymen once had wives and children. But around the 12th century, celibacy became a condition of joining the priesthood, in letter if not always in practice.

Today, there are enough priests who have broken celibacy vows and fathered children that the Vatican created a set of general guidelines for dealing specifically with them, which were revealed in 2019. There is also a global support group for children of priests, Coping International, with some 50,000 members in 2019.

Some of those children were products of rape; others were never acknowledged, including a man who discovered that the priest he grew up believing was his godfather was actually his father.

Years ago, a priest discovered to have had a child would have been instantly dismissed from duty. But in the guidelines released in 2019, the church expressed more flexibility in cases in which the priest recommitted to celibacy and openly acknowledged his child (assuming neither parent wished to marry).

Mr. Gigante said his father’s life as a priest was a simple fact in the house, one that was not well hidden.

He said his father would introduce him to friends with a jokingly lyrical flourish borrowed from the Bible: “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Mr. Gigante said, “I was no secret.”

Several people interviewed for this article who lived or worked in the South Bronx during Father Gigante’s tenure there said there were frequent whispers.

“There were always rumors,” said Wanda Salaman, who, as the executive director of the community-based group Mothers on the Move, crossed paths with Father Gigante. “Like they say, those urban legends or whatever.”

But there was much work to do, and no one seemed inclined to investigate further, she said.

For those who worked closely with Father Gigante through SEBCO, there was no need to whisper. “It was common knowledge — no one really blinked about it,” said Peter Cantillo, a former community board district manager who went on to work at SEBCO. “Father was larger than life.”

Sister Eileen McGrory, with the Sisters of Charity Center, knew of Father Gigante, but not that he had a son. She considered how it had been kept quiet. “There may have been people who said, ‘Well, look at all the good he’s done — let’s take a breath,’” she said.

Indeed, his friends believe the priest’s good will outweighed whatever outrage might have arisen. “People felt he was just such a great guy, he did so much for the community,” Mr. Cantillo said. “He was a man, he had a child. The Frank Sinatra song — ‘I did it my way’ — embodies him. He did everything the way he wanted to.”

Father Gigante remained an associate pastor at St. Athanasius for 12 years after Gino was born. In 2002, he retired from the Archdiocese of New York at the age of 70. Mr. Gigante said his father wanted to spend more time with him as he became a teenager. The church would later erect a statue of Father Gigante outside its front door.

In 2021, two lawsuits were filed charging that Father Gigante had sexually abused a girl in the early 1960s when she was about 10 years old and a boy in the 1970s when he was 9 or 10 years old — two of hundreds of cases filed involving priests under the state’s Child Victims Act, which lets victims sue for claims of past sexual abuse. The cases were still pending at his death. Mr. Gigante said his father vehemently denied the accusations.

Mr. Gigante attended the City College of New York. He said that before he began there, his father warned, “You may have people asking about me.”

“I said, ‘Yes, if they ask about you, I’m just going to say you’re my father,’” he said. “To be honest with you, I didn’t really care.”

Throughout college, only once did a professor ask about Mr. Gigante’s family — and it was in regards to his famous uncle “Chin,” he said.

His father would say, “Your name doesn’t define who you are, your actions do,” Mr. Gigante said. “He always wanted me to be who I wanted to be.”

As time went on, after Father Gigante retired, any modicum of discretion seemed to vanish. Mr. Gigante worked for a time at SEBCO, where everyone knew him as the boss’s son.

Mr. Gigante went on to open a popular e-sports and internet cafe and coffee shop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Waypoint Cafe, in 2017. His father attended the grand opening, he said.

After Father Gigante died on Oct. 19, Mr. Gigante organized a funeral Mass at St. James Catholic Church in Chatham, N.Y. He said a friend of his father’s from SEBCO told him a story that sounds like the blend of truth and legend that surrounded Father Gigante throughout his life.

“After you were born, your father was called down” to the archdiocese headquarters in Manhattan, Mr. Gigante recalled the friend saying. Later, Mr. Gigante was told, his father returned and said, “‘They asked me if I had a son, and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and left,” the friend recalled. “‘And that’s that.’”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

Michael Wilson is a reporter on the Metro desk and has written extensively about New York City, its culture and crime. @MWilsonNYT