New York Jesuit parish is the final stop for boldface Catholics

  • Family members watch as the casket of entertainer and civil rights activist Lena Horne is carried away at her May 14, 2010, funeral at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York. (CNS/Reuters/Brendan McDermid)
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New York

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's funeral will be held Tuesday at the Roman Catholic church of St. Ignatius Loyola, a Jesuit-run parish in Manhattan that has often served as the venue for bidding a final farewell to the rich and/or famous.

Among the well-known Catholics whose funerals were held at St. Ignatius:

  • Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: The widow of John F. Kennedy died in 1994, and while she was a longtime member of the Church of St. Thomas More several blocks away, the Kennedy family chose the larger St. Ignatius for the funeral.
  • Aaliyah: The singer and performer was killed in a place crash in the Bahamas in 2001, and her funeral procession had an estimated 800 mourners.
  • Lena Horne: The famous African-American singer and civil rights advocate died in 2010 and was a regular communicant at St. Ignatius (as is her daughter).
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Oscar-winning actor died in February 2014 after a relapse with heroin. He was raised Catholic but was not a churchgoer. Yet he had a keen interest in the faith and took on many roles and projects related to Catholicism.
  • Oscar de la Renta: One of the world's most famous fashion designers, he died in October 2014 at 82 following a long battle with cancer. He was buried after a star-studded funeral Mass at St. Ignatius.

Why choose that particular parish?

The top three reasons are the same responses you get to almost every question about New York: location, location, location. The Upper East Side is home to the wealthy and the well known, many of them Catholic. St. Ignatius is their parish church, and their contributions help maintain the church as a grand sanctuary with a reputation for great music and fine liturgies.

Yet even if the deceased was not a regular at the parish, the church has several other factors in its favor.

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For one thing, it is large and can handle the hundreds of mourners who turn out for big-name funerals (even as many more are often turned away).

In addition, it is run by the Jesuits, the largest male religious order in the world (Pope Francis is a member). The Society of Jesus is renowned for ministering both to the powerful and influential -- Jesuits were once criticized as "confessors to kings" -- and for their missionary work to those at the margins of society.

The order also has a certain degree of independence from the local diocese, which is convenient if the deceased had a reputation that might have created difficulties for the archbishop, in this, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

While no one is saying so publicly, some or all of those factors may have worked in favor of the decision to hold Cuomo's funeral at St. Ignatius.

Certainly the turnout is expected to be large, and the crowd is going to be full of boldface names and big-time pols. Cuomo's own home parish farther downtown is too small to hold such an event.

Cuomo, as shown in the extensive news coverage following his Jan. 1 death, had a contentious relationship with some Catholic leaders, mainly over his willingness to defend abortion rights (even as he proclaimed his personal opposition) and his bona fides as a Mass-going Catholic.

St. Patrick's Cathedral is currently undergoing extensive renovations and isn't really in the best shape for a liturgy like this one, even if that's what Cuomo wanted. But avoiding the cardinal's parish circumvented any possible complications or controversies, and was a win-win for everyone.

The Jesuits don't like to talk about their role in burying anyone, much less trumpeting their record as eulogizers of celebrities; several declined to comment about St. Ignatius or arrangements for the Cuomo funeral.

Even the parish's website was downplaying things: A brief notice said only that the 12:10 p.m. Mass on Tuesday had been canceled. "We apologize for any inconvenience," it said, with no explanation.

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July 14-27, 2017

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