Archdiocese of New York criticizes Cecilia Gentili’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.
Todd Maisel

The Archdiocese of New York issued a statement on Feb. 17 strongly criticizing the funeral of the late trans activist Cecilia Gentili at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, describing it as a “scandal” and claiming that the church was deceived.

More than 1,000 people turned out to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Feb. 15 to mourn Gentili, an immigrant from Argentina who made a name for herself in New York City through her work as an advocate in support of immigrants, sex workers, transgender individuals, and others. Gentili’s death was announced via Instagram on Feb. 6, prompting the community to gather the following day for an initial memorial service at Judson Memorial Church in the Village. A cause of death was not revealed. 

While the funeral itself — which was streamed on YouTube — appeared to take place without incident at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Catholic groups started voicing outrage in the aftermath of it as video clips of the service circulated online. A social media page on X called CatholicVote posted a widely-shared clip from the funeral when a speaker described Gentili as “this great whore, St. Cecilia, the mother of all whores.” That clip had more than 735,000 views on X as of Feb. 19. Gentili, a former sex worker, had launched a clinic with Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in 2021 to provide free healthcare services for sex workers in an affirming, supportive environment.

The archdiocese’s statement, however, was vague, leaving it unclear exactly where the funeral crossed the line.

“Thanks to so many who have let us know they share our outrage over the scandalous behavior at a funeral here at St. Patrick’s Cathedral earlier this week,” wrote Rev. Enrique Salvo, the pastor at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. “The Cathedral only knew that family and friends were requesting a funeral Mass for a Catholic, and had no idea our welcome and prayer would be degraded in such a sacrilegious and deceptive way.”

Salvo added: “That such a scandal occurred at ‘America’s Parish Church’ makes it worse; that it took place as Lent was beginning, the annual forty-day struggle with the forces of sin and darkness, is a potent reminder of how much we need the prayer, reparation, repentance, grace, and mercy to which this holy season invites us.”

Salvo said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, directed the church to offer “an appropriate Mass of Reparation.” According to the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ website, acts of reparation are intended to offer God compensation or make amends for one’s sins or the sins of others against Christ. The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, for example, held a Mass of Reparation in 2019 to acknowledge the shame of sexual abuse of children and adults by clergy.

The growing public attention surrounding the funeral sparked questions about whether Gentili’s religious beliefs were inconsistent with the Catholic Church given that the funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In a Q&A with Interview Magazine late last year, Gentili opened up about that topic, saying she used to go with her grandmother to the Baptist Church and also used to go to the Catholic Church, but said both were “traumatic experiences” for her, “so I came to identify as an atheist, but I know that so many trans people have been able to find a relationship with faith in spaces that include them.”

In that same interview, Gentili said, “It feels good to go to church, not because I fully agree with this church. But walking in a space that is considered a temple gives me goosebumps every time.”

For years, St. Patrick’s Cathedral has been a place of controversy in the LGBTQ community. Most notably, it was the site of the 1989 “Stop the Church” demonstration against the Catholic Church’s harmful policies towards LGBTQ people, abortion, and HIV/AIDS. Despite significant coverage of Pope Francis’ efforts to soften some of the Catholic Church’s positions on LGBTQ issues, the church remains very hostile to queer rights to this day.

Photographs and candles pay tribute to the late Cecilia Gentili during a previous memorial service at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan on Feb. 7.
Photographs and candles pay tribute to the late Cecilia Gentili during a memorial service at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan on Feb. 7.Donna Aceto

In a statement responding to the church’s criticism, Gentili’s family said, “We brought precious life and radical joy to the Cathedral in historic defiance of the Church’s hypocrisy and anti-trans hatred… We bestow sainthood upon Cecilia, for her life’s work, for how she ministered, mothered, and loved all people regardless of HIV, immigration, or employment status. Her heart and hands reached those the sanctimonious Church continues to belittle, oppress, and chastise, and she changed the material conditions for countless people, including unhoused people and those who needed healthcare. The only deception present at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is that it claims to be a welcoming place for all.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, which represents LGBTQ Catholics, disagreed with the church’s response and voiced skepticism about the archdiocese’s claims.

“I don’t know how the archdiocese’s staff could have been so ignorant about Cecilia when the request was made,” Duddy-Burke told Gay City News in an interview on Feb. 19. “Our church should be offering hospitality to anyone — it is as simple as that. Condemning people for what they do in grief and how they tell the truth of a life is just wrong.”

Duddy-Burke described Gentili as an individual who used her status in New York’s community to “do good for others at the margins” and that she “modeled what Christian service was about, even if she didn’t claim the title Christian.”

“To take the step of publicly condemning the funeral just seems unwise, unchristian, and uncharitable,” she said.