Ed Koch’s Catholic Send-off
The former mayor, who had a deep relationship with Catholicism, will be memorialized in a Mass at St. Patrick’s
That same year, Koch joined the cardinal on a pilgrimage for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, in the wake of the murders of three Catholics killed by a Protestant gunman there. “I’m going to be the first Jewish soldier in the Cardinal’s Christian Army,” he announced. The trip was planned to allow for meetings with various dignitaries in both the republic and Northern Ireland, but the centerpiece was a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in the republic where, in 1879, 15 people had seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. “What we didn’t know was that the three days of the pilgrimage were built around a Triduum of Masses, meaning there were three a day. Ed was not one to take sitting easily for long stretches, but he did make it through the first three services without demonstrating too much agita,” Clifford Chanin, the Mayor’s deputy press secretary at the time and thereafter an occasional member of his Saturday lunch group, recently recalled. “I also think he was flattered by the regular acknowledgements that he received from the altar for his participation.”
When David Dinkins won the Democratic primary in the summer of 1989, effectively ending the Koch mayoralty, Cardinal O’Connor showed up at Gracie Mansion on election night to again provide support. As the Mayor noted repeatedly, the Lubuvitcher Rebbe didn’t call on him in his time of need, but the cardinal did.
The cardinal died in 2000 but remained a presence in the Mayor’s life. The Mayor kept his memorial card on his desk; he clasped it throughout a difficult heart and lung surgery in 2009. He credited the cardinal not only with pulling him through but also curing the spinal stenosis that had plagued him before the operation.
In face the Mayor’s relationship to Catholics and engagement with Catholicism ran so deep that some wondered about his beliefs—and whether they were as easily categorized as people assumed. The Mayor’s sincere belief in God and in an afterlife was strongly shaped by the influence of the Church, and it was in the Church’s language that he talked of them. When this came up in an interview in 1999, the late Tim Russert asked the Mayor if he ever considered converting. (“I’m a proud Jew,” he said, then dropped the subject.)
“You never really know what is in a man’s heart,” reminds Patrick Mulhearn, who served as the Mayor’s counsel for six years and his confidant for many more. “But if you are trying to suggest that Ed was a kind of secret Catholic, forget it. There were many levels to Ed’s relationship with the Church. It is certainly true that he forged some strong personal friendships there. But it was also the case that the city needed the Church to deliver health and education services. Currying favor with the Irish meant votes. So, much of it was just smart politics. I will say this, however: Ed had a deep appreciation for the consolation the Church provides in times of tragedy. He saw it at all the funerals he attended for fallen cops and firefighters. He saw how Det. Steven McDonald relied on faith to rebuild his life after being shot and paralyzed. He was in awe of that power. He admired it deeply. In a word, he had great respect for the Church.”
On June 2, the Church will demonstrate that the respect was mutual.
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