Sins of the Father

Rev. Louis Gigante, kin to the Genovese crime family, slips from hero to slumlord

Father G. captured the limelight when he hit the streets to rebuild the South Bronx, but his family's infamy cast a big shadow. Vincent Gigante, one of Father G.'s four brothers, ran the Genovese crime family while dodging criminal charges most of his life. Their parents, Salvatore and Yolanda Gigante, had emigrated from Naples to New York City in 1921; Salvatore worked as a watchmaker and Yolanda was a seamstress. Growing up in Greenwich Village in the '40s, Vincent Gigante dropped out of junior high and boxed as a light heavyweight in several Manhattan clubs before becoming the protégé of Vito Genovese. Between the ages of 17 and 25, Vincent was arrested for receiving stolen goods, possession of an unlicensed handgun, auto theft, arson, and bookmaking. The majority of the charges were dismissed, but at age 30 he was convicted of heroin trafficking, alongside Genovese, and served a five-year prison term.

The Gigante family saga shifted into the initial stages of a Homeric epic in 1969 when Vincent Gigante was arrested again. He was indicted for conspiracy to bribe the entire police force of Old Tappan, New Jersey, that year, but the charge was dropped after psychiatrists deemed him mentally unfit to stand trial. For the next three decades, Gigante wandered around the Village in a tattered bathrobe and slippers, muttering to himself in what many believed was an elaborate ruse to avoid criminal prosecution and for which he earned the nicknames "Daffy Don" and the "Oddfather." Convinced that Gigante was running the crime family from a building across from his family home on Sullivan Street, the FBI pursued him for years. But the feds failed to nail him with the wiretapped conversations that were used to ensnare other mob figures of the time.

Father G. became the family spokesman, defending his brother's claims of mental illness and outright denying the existence of a Mafia—he argued that the Mafia was an anti-Italian stereotype created by the media and law enforcement officials. Despite Father G.'s support, Vincent Gigante was convicted in 1997 of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder for attempting to assassinate several of his enemies, including John Gotti, head of the Gambino family. The Chin was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison. It wasn't until 2003 that he admitted in court that the bathrobe theatrics were an act to avoid prosecution. The Chin died in prison at the age of 77 in 2005. As a New York Times article noted, Father G. preached at the funeral that friends and family knew him as "a gentle, kind man, a man of God."

739 and 741 Coster Street in Hunts Point
photo: Eirini Vourloumis
739 and 741 Coster Street in Hunts Point

Yet there are allegations that Father Gigante not only protected his brother, but helped him run the Genovese crime family from prison. In a deposition taken on June 12, 2006, for a civil suit filed by the federal government against the International Longshoremen's Association, George Barone incriminated the priest. Barone is a former hit man and soldier from the Genovese crime family turned cooperative witness once he was marked for death by the mob. When asked whether a mob head can conduct business from jail, he replied, "Yes, yes, they do, and probably will always continue to. Chin Gigante to the day he died was feared as the boss of the Genovese family and continuously through his brother, the priest, he sent messages out."

While his brother became infamous, Father G. mostly avoided allegations of mob ties and instead achieved his own brand of celebrity. After seminary and a two-year stint in Puerto Rico, where he learned to speak Spanish, he was ordained in 1959. He quickly won a reputation as a priest with chutzpah for halting street fights on the Lower East Side. When he was transferred to St. Athanasius in 1962, he was said to have wielded a bat on walks around the neighborhood. After the launch of SEBCO, Father G. tried his luck in politics; he unsuccessfully ran for Congress in the 1970 Democratic primary, but he won a city council seat in 1973. When his term was up, he spent a week in jail for refusing to testify before the grand jury about his conversations with reputed mob figure James "Jimmy Nap" Napoli, whom he called a "dear old friend." The priest also appeared in two films; one of them was Last Rites (1988), about a mob-connected priest in New York City.

Depending on whom you speak to in the South Bronx, Father G. inspires either devotion or disgust, but his power and influence are undeniable. His nonprofit organization expanded into a mini-kingdom with a real estate value of $50 million. Between 1978 and 2004, the SEBCO team registered 18 businesses, including six nonprofit organizations and 12 for-profit companies. Gigante is listed as CEO of five of the corporations and a chairperson of the majority of the nonprofit organizations. The money flows into the nonprofits in the form of government funds and tax-deductible donations and into the for-profit companies in the form of contracts for services, records indicate. Hunts Point I Rehab is a private company, and its financial records are not public. But Gigante's nonprofit financial records demonstrate how the money moves around his companies. SEBCO VIP Housing Development Fund, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide housing for the elderly, shows government contributions for 2004 at $37,517. Gigante's security company, Sentry Security, was paid $106,904 for services, resulting in a significant net loss. Nonetheless, the priest is listed as taking a $150,000 salary. Father G. has claimed that he never rejected wealth. "I didn't take a vow of poverty," he was quoted as saying in a 1981 Times article. "People think that I don't get paid and that I'm a saint for doing it. That's their problem."

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