Al Capone’s Catholicism: The Worker in the Vineyard

Jesus, Good Shepherd, salvation

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”
—John 10:10

When Al Capone died in January of 1947 United Press International, in true gangster lingo, reported “Scarface…failed to beat the last big rap.”

Capone had been released from prison for health reasons in 1939, three years short of his eleven-year tax-evasion sentence. He was suffering from syphilis—a disease he had contracted some twenty years earlier. The disease had laid dormant until he was incarcerated in Alcatraz Federal Prison when it started to affect his brain. He was forty-eight when he succumbed to the “dirt nap,” the result of a massive stroke at his Miami villa. The Associated Press related that by dying in bed he had attained his wish: “I don’t want to die, shot in the street.” Two hours before his death he received the last rites from his parish priest, Monsignor Barry Williams.

CAPONE, THE CRIMINAL

History has portrayed Capone as “a ruthless killer, a scofflaw, a keeper of brothels and bordellos, a tax cheat…perpetrator of frauds, a convicted felon” who ended up a “mindless, blubbering invalid,” writes Deirdre Bair in her biography Capone, His Life, Legacy and Legend.

In all he was arrested or indicted twenty-one times between 1921 and 1932. He was released for lack of evidence on fifteen of the charges, convicted and fined twice and convicted and imprisoned three times—once in Philadelphia for a year for illegal gun possession; once in Chicago for six months for contempt of court; and, again in Chicago for tax evasion for which he was sentenced to eleven years at Alcatraz.

When he died newspapers reported that during his lifetime “he was blamed directly or indirectly for 500 deaths.” Another newspaper account in the Washington Evening Star reported the number at “701…[killed during] his vicious mob rule in Chicago’s “turbulent 1920s.’” This included the infamous Saint Valentine Day’s Massacre when seven gangsters were gunned down execution-style. He was never charged with murder. During his criminal career historical accounts relate that he made between $60 and $100 million a year in illicit profits.

A DEVOUT CATHOLIC FAMILY

Few realize that Al Capone was born into a devout Italian Catholic family, a religion which he carried on by marrying Mary “Mae” Coughlin, an Irish Catholic, in 1918. Capone’s father (a barber) and mother emigrated to the United States in 1895, bringing with them two children. In 1899, Alphonse “Al a/k/a Scarface” Capone was born in Brooklyn and his birth was followed by five more—in all there were eight Capone children—six boys and two girls. Another child, a son, died at childbirth.

Al Capone’s mother, Theresa, was a devout Catholic who attended daily Mass. According to Bair “she was deeply religious.” Theresa had three older sisters in Italy who had become nuns and a brother who had become a priest. According to her granddaughter, Deirdre Capone, in her autobiography, Uncle Al Capone, as a young girl Theresa Raiola “went into the convent [herself] when she became of age [but] was released before she took her vows.”

She married twenty-five-year-old Gabriel “Frank” Capone in 1891 the result of an arranged marriage. She was twenty. When her husband died in 1920 she returned to her native village Angri in Italy, moved into the convent with her sisters, and “prayed for forgiveness for more than half a year,” relates her granddaughter. As Al Capone’s body was lowered into his grave, Monsignor William J. Gorman said that as far as he knew “[Theresa] never missed Mass a day of her life or missed Communion on a Sunday” reported George Murray in his book The Legacy of Al Capone: Portraits and Annals of Chicago’s Public Enemies.

The history of Capone’s education is sketchy—one source asserts he attended public school while another claims he attended parochial school. Regardless, there can be little doubt that his devout mother insisted he and his brothers and sisters be educated in the Catholic faith. Capone was expelled from school at the age of 14 when he hit a teacher.

MARRIAGE IN THE CHURCH

Al Capone married Mary “Mae” Coughlin in 1918 at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Brooklyn, New York. They had one son Albert “Sonny” Capone who was baptized at the church. The circumstances of their marriage and the details of their son’s birth are also sketchy. Bair claims they met in a box factory where both worked and that Al got Mary pregnant at their workplace.

Mae’s mother, Bridget Coughlin, resisted the couple’s inter-ethnic marriage. Mae gave birth to Sonny “out of wedlock.” Deidre Capone, on the other hand, claims the child originated from one of Al’s indiscretions who died at childbirth and Theresa “found a devout Irish Catholic woman…Mae…in her parish…[who] was sterile.” Deidre added: “my grandmother [Theresa] pleaded with her to marry Al and raise his son as her own, she agreed.”

Regardless of the circumstances of their marriage, historians agree that “theirs was truly a love story…despite his peccadilloes and predilections and the shame, embarrassment, and despair they repeatedly visited upon her.” relates Bair. Al Capone was a notorious philanderer. The couple’s son Sonny was born deaf in his left ear which some suggest was the result of Al’s syphilis.

Mae” Coughlin was one of seven children (five girls and two boys) who all agree was beautiful and elegant with a “radiant smile and a mellifluous laugh…with white teeth.” She left school at sixteen and took a job as a timekeeper for a Brooklyn box factory. Like her mother-in-law Theresa, Mae “was an ardent churchgoer…[attending] Sunday Mass and weekly services…[going to church] at least three times a week,” according to the My Al Capone Museum website.

Sonny was homeschooled and also educated at Catholic and private schools. He matriculated at the University of Notre Dame but transferred at the end of his sophomore year to the University of Miami to be close to his home and ill dad. There he obtained a BA in Business.

RETURN TO FAITH AT ALCATRAZ

While in Alcatraz, Capone returned to the Catholic faith. He and his fellow inmates built the first chapel at Alcatraz in a small room off the infirmary. In letters to Mae, he related that he frequently attended Mass, routinely went to Confessions and received Communion.

He became close to the prison chaplain, Father Joseph Clark, S. J. who, according to Bair “provided comfort and serenity…[as his] syphilis became rampant.” By the time he was released from prison Capone was reported to have deteriorated to the mental age of a seven-year-old. After he spent six months in hospital, his mental age regressed to 14.

Capone’s niece, Diedre Capone, asserts that Father Clark “told the family [that prison officials] are destroying him…giving him drugs in the infirmary, and he has lost his memory. He can’t even remember my name.” She added that the priest told “Mae and other family members…they tried to destroy his mind in prison, and they succeeded.”

CAPONE FAMILY FUNERALS

Capone’s body was taken to Chicago and buried at Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery. The Archdiocese of Chicago refused a requiem Mass, a strange rebuke from an archdiocese that had willingly accepted millions of dollars in donations and contributions from Capones ill-gotten gains.

The Archdiocese did allow a graveside ceremony celebrated by Monsignor William J. Gorman because, according to Bair, “Al had repented of his sins in his last years by going to confession and receiving Holy Communion and often went to daily mass with Mae or his mother.” A photograph of Capone lying in his coffin shows his hands folded over a crucifix holding a rosary.

Did Al Capone die in faith and get to the Big Casino? Matthew relates Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard. In it, the vineyard owner pays a penny to his daily workers—some of whom worked all day and others but an hour or so. Those who worked longest were upset when Jesus paid all the workers the same regardless of the hours worked. Jesus’ parable rebukes them: “So the last shall be first and the first last for many are called, but few chosen.” It doesn’t matter how late in life one gains faith—the reward is the same.

Capone’s mother, Theresa Capone, died in 1952 (age 85) and is buried (next to her husband) at Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery in Chicago. His wife Mae died in 1986 (age 89) and was cremated—her ashes are privately held. In her later years, Mae suffered from Alzheimer’s. She never remarried. Al and Mae’s son “Sonny” died in 2004 (age 86). His body was cremated. His remains are also privately held. Sonny divorced twice and married three times in his lifetime and bore four daughters. His daughters had a Memorial Mass celebrated in his honor.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on google
Google+
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest

9 thoughts on “Al Capone’s Catholicism: The Worker in the Vineyard”

  1. Thank God!
    A great story and testament to the mercy of God. I believe in the power of prayer and the grace it can bring about for the return of any sinner. God be praised. “Though your sins be as scarlet I will make them whiter than snow”. Jesus I trust in you.

  2. This article reflects the Gospel about the Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep. I believe it is a challenge to anyone who believes in the unfathomable mercy of God. While I can “hear” the scoffers, it is the mercy and grace of God that is beyond full human comprehension. Imagine the 2 guys on the crosses next to Jesus. One continued to rail at and mock Jesus, while the other eventually sought his mercy with his, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Of which Jesus responded, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” It is never a question of deserving heaven as it is about the freely received grace of God which comes with sincere heartfelt repentance.

  3. I gather from my study of theology that those who die in circumstances indicating either complete unrepentance and/or suicide to escape just punishment in life (e.g., Adolf Hitler, who committed suicide after a final rant against the Jews and others he believed were responsible for what were his own depredations) have, as CS Lewis aptly put, “locked the door of Hell from the inside…”

  4. Are you saying that even a Hitler could be in Heaven as long as he repented, but someone who commits an unrepentant mortal sin goes to hell? Afterlife questions are brutally complicated and the answers are quite vague

  5. If St. Paul was converted then I certainly believe Al Capone could have been converted. St. Paul had a lot of blood on his hands before his conversion.

  6. I attended St. Columbanus School and Church in Chicago. The story that we heard was that Al Capone’s mother was a member of that church and contributed the money for the purchase of the church doors.

  7. I believe his conversion came about through his mother’s and wife’s fervent prayer life and fidelity to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The old “St. Monica” effect never fails.

  8. I loved your essay about Al Capone. It was wonderful to hear of his repentance. I know a few wise guys who turned around. Their faith and love of the Lord is a powerful testament to the love of Jesus and the gift of repentance offered to everyone. This essay, in my opinion, is a great work of mercy for Al. I never read anything like this about him. God bless you. I prayed for his soul and I bet he is praying for you. I can visualize his smiling face looking down on you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.