NYC's Most Miserable Priest
Father Mike Lopez loves cigars, rum and helping the poor
Welcome to Issue #15 of CAFÉ ANNE!
I first met Father Mike Lopez in 2020 when I wrote a story about New Yorkers nominated for the David Prize, an award given annually to everyday folks doing extraordinary things to help their fellows. I could only devote a few paragraphs in the short column, but couldn’t forget him. You wouldn’t either.
Within a few years of getting ordained, this cigar-chomping, foul-mouthed father founded a new parish and monastery, launched an emergency food delivery truck, opened four homeless shelters and, during Covid, opened a neighborhood food pantry feeding 3,000 families a week—all while holding down a full-time job as a gun-toting criminal investigator for the courts.
I had to find out what was driving this guy, and was delighted to snag a half day with him last week at his parish in Ridgewood, Queens. I hope you enjoy this week’s feature, “New York City’s Most Miserable Priest,” below.
In other news, readers responded to the $100,000 bench dedication story in Issue #14 with clever ideas of their own. Per in Brooklyn Heights emailed to suggest, “What would be really useful is a park bench that you could trade as an NFT and the name of the owner would update when the NFT is traded.” So smart! Others suggested dedicating individual public toilets, or transit bench dedications to provide more seats at bus stops.
Keep your ideas coming, everyone. I love to hear from you!
IN THIS WEEK’S ISSUE
• Dept. of Curious Scenes: Vaxx Sticker Wall
• NYC Logo Update
• Feature: NYC’s Most Miserable Priest
DEPARTMENT OF CURIOUS SCENES
Vaxx Sticker Wall
Reader John Eggleston snapped a photo of the scene below after getting his booster shot at a shuttered West Orange, New Jersey K-Mart turned into a vaccination and testing center:
The center’s walls and doors are covered with thousands of the stickers folks got to let them know when their post-vaxx wait period was up.
“My guess is it started innocently, and now everyone sticks it there on the way out,” said Mr. Eggleston, who happily added his own to the wall.
Thanks Mr. Eggleston!
NYC Logo Update
I’m waiting for readers to submit ideas for a new NYC official logo to replace the clumsy design currently gracing our taxis, tourist kiosks and websites:
Meanwhile, I took matters into my own hands. There are several website that auto-generate a new logo for free if you provide a few '“branding guidelines” and fork over your email.
At Tailor Brands, I requested an initial-based logo for “the greatest city in the world,” specifying a look that was “classy”and “bolder.” Here’s what the bot spit out:
At Wix Logo Maker, I specified a “city” design that looked “timeless” and “dynamic." The result:
Ready for one more? Here’s the top result generated by FreeLogoDesign:
What? It’s hard to imagine a logo worse than we already have, but the design bots have succeeded. Graphics professionals, I think your jobs are safe!
NYC’s Most Miserable Priest
When I met Father Michael Lopez at his food pantry last week, he was in a great mood. The parish hall operation was in full swing as 20-odd volunteers—including his deaf aunt and a crew of homeless men who stay at his shelter—packed 1,800 bags of groceries for local families.
Having recently celebrated his 39th birthday at the Queens cigar bar Havana Dreams, the heavy-set priest, who has been drinking roughly a bottle of rum a day since the start of Covid, was also excited about his new goal—reaching his 40th birthday in the best shape of his life. So far, so good. He’d already gone three days without a drink and 36 hours on his new all-potato diet.
“I didn't drink and had a really good sleep last night,” he said. “I feel energized!”
We settled into his new office off the noisy parish hall, crowded with framed prints of favorite saints, candles, storage cartons, and a box of Monte Cristo cigars.
“The space was much nicer when we opened,” he said, surveying the clutter. “This s— shows up every f—ing place. Booze everywhere, Lysol and Listerine. I have a drawer full of condoms here…” (They’re a donation from a clinic!)
I’ve wanted a second chat with Father Mike since I first met him a year ago. And it wasn’t just the fact that within a few years of getting ordained a Catholic Priest, he’d founded a new Queens parish and monastery, four homeless shelters, a mobile food truck and a pandemic pantry serving 3,000 families a week—while working a full-time gig as a gun-toting criminal investigator for the federal courts.
It was his overall philosophy that struck me. “I’ve learned in my own particular spiritual walk that no expectations is the way to accomplish everything in the world,” he’d told me.
Who was this guy who had accomplished so much by expecting nothing? Knowing he was a New York native raised in Bushwick, I suggested we start at the beginning. I wasn’t disappointed. His life story started off so very, very normal. And then it got so very, very weird.
Bushwick was a rough neighborhood in the 1980s, Father Mike conceded, but he felt secure growing up. His dad, who is from Puerto Rico, owned two truck routes delivering Haagan-Daz and Ben & Jerry’s to local groceries. “He’d come home on a summer Friday and bring big piles of cash,” Father Mike recalled.
He went to parochial school and became an altar boy. By age eight, he knew he’d be a priest. “It felt like an honor, like an otherworldly, a mystical experience,” he said of his alter boy service.
He was a good kid who followed the rules. “In high school, I would date girls, but I'd be like, “We can't f— because I'm gonna be a priest,’” he recalls.
He studied philosophy and criminal justice at St. John’s University in Queens before enrolling in seminary. Then he was sent to live in a Catholic parish in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. That experience changed everything.
Growing up in a working-class parish of Italians and Hispanics, Father Mike thought of priests as dignified, holy men who spent most of their time saying Mass. “It’s a good job, and people adore you,” he said.
The Bed-Stuy church was a totally different scene: a Black and Latino parish led by priests who devoted themselves to service 24/7. “They would dance at the parties with the people,” said Father Mike. “They had a food pantry. They had a soup kitchen. They had a clothing thrift store, you name it. They had ESL classes, GED classes, HIV education programs. You know, it was just full of life.”
He developed a new take on what Jesus is about.
“You know, the poor are forgotten, But in the Gospel, Jesus talks about the poor more than any f—ing thing,” he said. “He didn't say to help people if they’re black or if they’re white. He talks constantly about the poor. The poor and people that are different from you. I don’t know how the Church got so lost.”
At Father Mike’s All Saints church (“WE LOVE YOU and WE MEAN IT!”), all comers get food and shelter, no questions asked. He hopes to serve as an example. “If everyone tended a small patch in New York, the city of churches, if every little church had a pantry, we could just take care of everybody,” he said. “We wouldn’t have all these meltdowns.”
I asked him to sum himself up in one line—as New York City’s most something priest. Father Mike shook his head. “Maybe I’d call myself the priest of the poor?” he said. “I don’t know. I can’t even touch that.”
While it provided his life’s mission, Father Mike’s time at the Bed-Stuy church also exposed him to the dark side of the priesthood. Living with a community of fathers, he saw them holed up in their rooms smoking three packs a day, cursing parishioners behind their backs and throwing tantrums when a seminarian, say, failed to properly dispose of a napkin. Then came the disclosure of several child sex abuse cases.
Already questioning his vocation, he fell in love with a woman he met in the parish. He left the seminary and, with the church’s blessing, got married.
“We did it the right way,” he said. “I was leaving the priesthood, but marriage is also a sacrament.”
He envisioned a bright future. “We’re not going to be like our parents, we’re not going to fight, we’re not going to do drugs,” he vowed. “We’re educated. We’re going to be good, be successful. I’m still going to be a deacon or minister on the side—be a youth minister every Sunday.”
But he wasn’t prepared for marriage. “We spoke to each other like our parents spoke to each other,” he says. “Very rough. We loved each other very much, but it was very rough. A lot of anger, and we didn’t have the resources to figure it out.”
His wife left within a year. “That’s when I started learning. When I started growing up,” said Father Mike.
He had mini breakdown and went to a priest for help. The priest told him that God was punishing him for getting a divorce. “I was like, ‘F— the church,’” said Father Mike.
He opened a cigar bar and worked as a criminal investigator for the courts, interrogating suspects and witnesses. His first case involved a pimp accused of sex trafficking and infanticide. The job, from which he recently retired after 18 years, taught him that any person is capable of anything, he said, including himself.
In his late 20s, he met another woman, got married and had two kids. He is, in fact, still living with his wife and children.
Father Mike, who does not wear a wedding ring, must have noticed my eyes bugging out of my head at this point. “You didn’t know I was married?” he said.
Following his break with the church, Father Mike set religion aside for years. Then a friend who wanted to get married in the Catholic Church but was refused asked Father Mike to officiate. “Just show up, dressed like a priest,” the friend begged. “Make my family happy.”
Father Mike got ordained online with the Universal Life Church, showed up in a collar and performed the ceremony. He was gratified by the response. “Everybody's like ‘Father, oh my God, your homily was so great. Where's your church?’” he recalled.
At first he felt guilty for impersonating a priest and worried about going to hell. But then he saw another angle.
“These people got what they wanted, and everybody’s happy,” he said. “Is God not manifest and present in a fake priest as much as a real priest? I would say so, because I think the authority comes from the people, not from the organization. All those people authorized me to be their priest that day. I’m their priest.”
“After that wedding, my vocation rushed back into my body,” he said.
Father Mike started exploring denominations with a Catholic flavor that would ordain a married man. The Episcopalian Church was an obvious choice, but didn’t feel right. “At the time it was way too focused on women’s ordination and gay stuff,” he said. “I said, ‘Why can’t we just be a church that has those things but doesn’t have to talk about it all the time? Let’s talk about the Gospel. No one cares that you’re a woman saying mass. No one cares that you’re gay. The only issue we can be all about as Christians is the poor. That’s what we need to push down people’s throats.’”
Finally, he learned of the Old Catholics, a splinter faction founded in 1879 in a dispute over the Roman Catholic Church’s First Vatican Council embrace of Papal Infallibility.
The denomination, which has roughly a million U.S. adherents, ordained Father Mike in 2017. The rest is history. Aside from his social service organization, Monkworx—a mainly volunteer-run network providing 61 shelter beds and groceries for thousands of families—Father Mike serves as the prior for a newly-formed community of monks and nuns who focus on serving the poor, and delivers homilies every Sunday to a small parish.
He always talks about the poor in his sermons, he said, but Sunday mass isn’t as important as the sit-down buffet breakfast that comes after.
“That really builds community more than just going to Mass,” he says. “We celebrate people's birthdays. We have sacraments. We tell families, ‘Don't rent the restaurant, have the party here.’ So everybody in the parish knows each other.”
And healing, he believes, comes from community. Heaven is not some after-life reward, it’s hugging someone you love. And if his church can provide food and community to all comers, that’s not nothing. Everyone on this planet needs a temporary respite from their suffering.
“It’s always miserable,” he said. “The rich are miserable. The poor are miserable. When you have a girlfriend, you want to be single. When you’re single, you want a girlfriend. In the winter, you want to be hot. In the summer, you want to be cool. That’s misery. We’re a miserable f—ing creation, if you’re honest. A baby is born and starts f—ing crying the minute it comes out.”
“Am I miserable most of the time?” he continued. “Yes, I am! I’m mostly miserable. You can put that. ‘New York City’s Most Miserable Priest.’”
Father Mike seems pretty happy to me. I asked him to expound on an idea he’d mentioned at our first meeting. “The short cut to living your best life,” he’d said, “is to give it away to others.”
“Do you really think that’s true for everybody?” I asked.
“I would argue that it is factual,” he said. “I've seen healing here by these people working here. I've seen a trans kid who hates everybody in the world come to life here, and I'm sure it had to do with the fact he was giving of himself in a place where he was allowed to be who he was.”
“Start working for something outside of yourself. Not for business, not for reward,” he said. “Start volunteering somewhere that has to do with the poor, or the infirm, or the imprisoned, or the hungry. On a very basic level, it takes you out of yourself. And inside of yourself is where all the shit is. It’s not outside of you, it’s inside you. It’s only outside of you when you’re projecting it. Right?”
Serving the poor isn’t easy, he accedes, especially when it comes to the street homeless. There’s one regular at his parish, a bi-polar, schizophrenic 67-year-old who shows up cursing, poops her pants and picks at the ulcers on her feet. But Father Mike has learned how to soothe her, and she’s welcome too.
“As humble as I try to be about saying this is not rewarding, at the end of the day, this is rewarding work,” he said. “It feels good to help someone else feel good or be less in pain. No matter how much you try to play that that’s not why I do it, it just exists. It feels good. So if you’re honest about it, it’s okay.”
CAFÉ ANNE is a free newsletter created by Brooklyn journalist Anne Kadet. Subscribe to get the latest issue every Monday!
GREAT post! Father Mike sounds like the geunine article. This one makes me want to volunteer.
It is great what writing can remind you of. The picture of Father Mike framed by St Benedict & St Vincent (de Paul) reminded me of being a kid in Buffalo. My Dad volunteered after Church on Sundays and took a big box case of stuff to the Hospital near our house and passed out stuff and visited with people who didn't have visitors. My brothers and I took turns accompanying hiim when he had his turn at the volunteer turnstile. What we all remember was the case was full of literature, lifesavers, gum and other stuff to hand out. Our favorite memory was that it also included packs of cigarettes if that is what the patients really needed. "Would you like some Juicy Fruit?" No thanks just a pack of Marlboros.
I am the complete opposite of religious, but I deeply respect the work that Father Mike is doing.
He is walking the walk, not just talking the talk. I think there are many Christians who avoid the sort of things that he does, despite "Jesus talking about the poor more than any f-ing thing"! :D
I feel like Father Mike's departure from the priesthood and living a somewhat regular life (day job, wife, kids) before returning gives him a ton of perspective that other priests simply don't have.
Thank you for a most fascinating story, Anne.