The dangerous lies about COVID-19 and the vaccine that Father Michael Panicali spewed from the white marble pulpit at St Mark’s Roman Catholic Church have left the outraged family of one pandemic victim shamefully deprived of what they call their spiritual home.
Helen Sylvester was married at St. Mark’s in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. St. Mark’s was also where her parents’ funerals were held and where her daughter, Elizabeth, and son, Anthony, made their first communion. Elizabeth and Anthony also attended the parish school.
When the pandemic hit, Helen was in a nursing home in Long Beach, New York. Elizabeth was unable to see her mother after March 11 of last year. Helen began showing signs of forgetfulness just before she turned 95 on April 4. Elizabeth is a retired registered nurse, and she knows that can be the first indication of infection in the elderly.
Helen’s fight with the virus was mercifully quick.
“She was dead by the 9th,” Elizabeth said. “It was fast.”
But there was a wrenching COVID cruelty at the end.
“She died alone,” Elizabeth said. “My mother died from this in such terrible circumstances. It’s just a shame that somebody who lived that long had to die like that. In the final hours, we couldn’t be there for her. I truly know the meaning of powerlessness.”
Due to COVID, the family was unable to hold a funeral in any church. That also kept them from fulfilling Helen’s long-standing wish concerning her brother, Pvt. Joseph Gagliardi of the Army Air Corps, who was just 19 when the troopship USS Dorchester was sunk by a Germany U-Boat on Feb. 3, 1943, killing 674 Americans.
Four clerics who would become posthumously known as “the Immortal Chaplains”—a Catholic priest, a rabbi, a Methodist minister, and a Reformed Church reverend—had died with Gagliardi after giving their life jackets to others and linking arms to sing a nondenominational hymn as the ship went under. Gagliardi’s body was never recovered.
“My mother asked to have several of his belongings in the casket with her so that her funeral would essentially be his, as well, as he was never found,” Elizabeth told The Daily Beast. “It’s very ironic that we were unable to do that for her due to COVID. It seems there was no closure for either of them.”
One consolation for the family was the hope that after the virus subsided there would be a memorial Mass at St. Mark’s, which had been for Helen the epicenter of church, family, school, and community.
After the whole family was vaccinated and the virus seemed to be on the wane, Elizabeth and Anthony figured that it would be safe to hold the memorial Mass at the church in April 2021, but then they decided it might be prudent to wait until June. But as that neared they reasoned it would be better to hold off until Sept. 18, their father’s birthday.
Then the virus had begun to surge again in some parts of the country. And there was no guarantee that COVID-19 would not also become an increased threat in Brooklyn.
Elizabeth was just about to call St. Mark’s on Aug. 19 when the parish office called her to confirm the date and begin the arrangements. Elizabeth told the office she was canceling, but Father Michael Panicali had apparently not gotten the word when he called Elizabeth later that day. He left a message offering to help the family pick out the music. She reasoned he would learn of the cancelation.
The following week, Elizabeth read an Aug. 25 report in The Daily Beast detailing a demented anti-vax homily that Panicali gave at Sunday morning Mass just three days after she canceled.
“Be very careful about this vaccine,” Panicali had said. “If I were you, I would not touch it with a 10-foot pole. And I never will because it leads to complications.”
Elizabeth knows that serious side effects from the vaccines are in fact extremely rare. She read that Panicali had compounded that falsehood by saying the vaccine contained the cells of aborted fetuses.
“My brothers and sisters, you are under absolutely no obligation to take a vaccine that is made, produced, manufactured, tested even in the most remote ways with aborted fetal cells,” he said. “Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Pope Francis and Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio had already said that was nonsense, and Elizabeth understood that Panicali was seeking to use a bogus right-to-life argument that would place others at risk of losing their lives just as her mother had.
“It is so wrong,” she told The Daily Beast.
She read that Panicali had further urged the parishioners to join him in resisting the vaccine mandates scheduled for Sept. 13 in public places such as restaurants and groceries.
“If they’re not going to allow me to go and buy groceries at the store because I’m unvaccinated, then so be it. I can grow my own vegetables and fruit,” he said. “But I cannot grow my own human soul, and I cannot justify to God why I am possibly contributing or allowing an evil to take place?”
She further read that Panicali had participated in the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., that preceded the Capitol riot—and she was horrified. “Is he insane?” she asked.
She added, “I think he should be perhaps an evangelical minister. I think that would suit him better. There’s something not quite right there.”
Elizabeth realized that the priest with these poisonous and deadly views was the very one who had called to offer his help in picking out the music for her mother after she died of COVID-19. And she figured that had she not canceled the Sept. 18 memorial Mass, he might have actually presided, giving communion to her still heartbroken family.
“I’m supposed to go there and have him serve the Mass when my mother dies from the virus?” she said.
Elizabeth expressed her outrage in letters to Bishop DiMarzio and to Rev. Robert Mucci, the pastor of St. Mark’s-St. Margaret Mary Church, Panicali’s immediate boss.
“It is with a heavy heart I write you this letter on behalf of myself and my brother, Anthony Sylvester,” her letter to the pastor began.
She detailed what St. Mark’s had meant to her mother and the family. She noted that they had scheduled a memorial Mass at what she described as “the most beautiful church in Brooklyn,” but then decided to hold off.
“After learning what I now know about Father Michael Panicali, I am happy that we did, but very saddened and disappointed that he has given us reason not to reschedule the Mass at St. Marks,” she wrote.
“We were collectively distressed to hear that Father Panicali took it upon himself to disseminate false and potentially life-threatening information to his parishioners regarding the COVID vaccination. As a registered nurse, I am acutely aware of the perils of this virus, and more importantly, having had a beloved family member perish as a result of it makes me all the more outraged that anyone would discourage people from taking the vaccine.”
She went on, “Worse, Father Panicali took advantage of and misused the privilege of the pulpit to push his very flawed and personal opinion upon people who might see him as a spiritual mentor, authoritative voice and legitimate source of information. He took advantage of the anti-abortion angle and framed his objection to the vaccination by stating that it contained cells of aborted fetuses, which is a LIE.”
The Daily Beast article she read had quoted a diocese spokesperson replying to a request for comment by with an emailed statement that Panicali’s homily was “in conflict with the position of the Vatican and the Diocese of Brooklyn” and that “the issue will be addressed by diocesan officials.” The Aug. 25 email had added, “The Diocese of Brooklyn has been seriously committed to addressing the spiritual and material needs of the faithful in the midst of this deadly pandemic.”
Elizabeth attached a copy of her letter to one she addressed to DiMarzio, challenging that commitment.
“Our mother died of COVID, and we find his [Panicali’s] knowingly and demonstrably false and malicious statements regarding the only weapon we have to fight the virus that killed our mother reprehensible and unbefitting a member of the clergy,” she wrote. “It is our sincere hope that in this perilous time, during a worldwide pandemic that has killed over 600,000 Americans, including our beautiful mother, that the Diocese will deal accordingly with the likes of a priest like Father Panicali, who will use the power of the pulpit to push his own political agenda upon vulnerable and trusting parishioners, who as a result might shun a life saving measure and refuse the vaccination. His words and actions can prove deadly as a consequence, and that is unacceptable for a Catholic priest.”
She posed a question the bishop should be asking himself.
“Is abortion the only life ending measure that concerns the Church? People may die as a result of Father Panicali’s words. Are their lives no more valuable than those in the womb?”
She closed by saying, “It is our hope that Father Panicali be removed from his pastoral duties. I hope to hear how the Diocese officials plan to ‘deal with’ his transgressions.”
Four months before The Daily Beast article and Elizabeth’s letter, Panicali is said by a knowledgeable source to have expressed his anti-vax views to DiMarzio during a March 24 Zoom meeting between the bishop and priests ordained in recent years. DiMarzio is said to have challenged Panicali, who is 46 but has only been a priest since 2017.
“Bishop, I’m sorry, but that’s just bad theology,” Panicali is said to have replied. “You don’t know your theology.”
On Tuesday, a DiMarzio spokesperson said by email that the Zoom exchange was in “a private meeting with his recently ordained priests and we are not going to comment on it.” Panicali and Mucci did not respond to a request for comment on the homily and the almost memorial Mass for Helen Sylvester.
Elizabeth only sent the letters on Tuesday, return receipt requested to ensure the bishop and the pastor got them. The family of a young airman who perished along with the four Immortal Chaplains waits to see what the church will do about the shameful priest who added to their heartbreak over losing their mother in the pandemic.