“I was behind the counter one day and the dean called me up,” DiGangi recalled. “She said, ‘I’m going to hold your withdrawal papers for a month.’ She was giving me some time to think about it.”
That week an elderly woman came into the shop. She heard DiGangi was in law school and was wondering if he could help her with her landlord, who was raising her rent from $300 a month to $600. A few hours later, an old man walked through the butcher shop doors with the same problem.
The year was 1983, and Ridgewood had just been declared a historic district; speculative landlords were looking to oust longtime tenants in search of bigger profits. That week, DiGangi knew he would leave behind the life of a meatcutter for a new life in the courtroom.
“At that moment, I knew I was going to be a different kind of lawyer,” he said, before quoting from a speech former Governor Mario Cuomo gave at the inaugural opening of CUNY Law School. “’The problem is not that we have too many lawyers, the problem is we have too many lawyers serving too few interests.’ I knew then that I was going to lose my apron.”
On March 30, DiGangi will be honored as “Humanitarian of the Year” at the 6th Annual Bishop Ignatius Catanello Memorial Dinner at Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston.
In 2017, DiGangi was named Man of the Year in Polizzio Generosa, the Sicilian town where his father was born.
“I decided that would be the last award I would ever accept,” he said. “What better award could I get than a recognition from my father’s home country?”
But after praying and meditating on the matter, DiGangi changed his mind.
“Iggy and I had a very personal relationship, it’s very humbling,” he said of the honor. “Rather than focus on what it means to me, I think it is much more pertinent to focus on what it means to Iggy and his spirit that lives forever. I truly believe that everyone he touched is a part of him.”
DiGangi said Bishop Catanello gave him the greatest gift of his life by performing the marriage to his former wife. Today, they have two children and three grandchildren.
“Some would have called it a bootleg wedding, but without him recognizing that you have to respect the love of the young, I wouldn’t have a family,” he said.
DiGangi was born at Wyckoff Heights Hospital, and grew up in Ridgewood and Glendale. He attended St. Aloysius, St. Pancras, John Bowne High School and graduated from York College (where he played right field on the college baseball team), and was a member of the inaugural class of CUNY Law School.
The same year the two elderly tenants walked into his father’s butcher shop, DiGangi began drawing up the framework for what would become the Community Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services for the elderly.
It got its start inside Ridgewood Presbyterian Church on Forest Avenue, which was also home to a senior center.
“This Catholic boy found a Presbyterian church I didn’t even know existed and a pastor with a passion to help people,” DiGangi said. “Our goal was to level the playing field for poor people, because they were just getting evicted like crazy.”
DiGangi was eventually commissioned at a missionary by New York City Presbytery and the Berkley Public Interest Law Foundation. In 1986, the Community Advocacy Center was granted permission by Judge Jonathan Lippman to establish a preventive law program in New York.
The goal was to help people before they were in serious legal trouble and in front of a judge and his gavel, just as preventive medicine helps people before they find themselves in the emergency room under a doctor’s scalpel.
“We created a safety net,” DiGangi explained. “You had social workers on one end and legal services on the other end, but you didn’t have anything in the middle that was doing something preventive. So we developed this whole preventive concept at CUNY and then brought it out into the world.”
Before he sat down for this interview in his Richmond Hill office, DiGangi sent a young woman – and a potential client - who was having trouble with her landlord to the same preventive law programs he helped found. “You don’t need me,” he told her.
Later that morning, he added her name to the dozens of others on a staff-like stick he found during a solitary jaunt through the woods that he keeps in his office.
“It reminds me that I’m still doing my missionary work,” he said. “Your light must shine where you are. You don’t have to establish a blaze, you just have to establish a flicker.
“God gave them to me,” he added of his scholarly degrees. “I really believe that. In the same breath that he made me, he’ll take them away if I stop serving people.”
DiGangi said that as he gets older, he finds that his faith finds its way more and more into his profession. In a recent case, he quoted the great Catholic philosopher St. Augustine, who once said “an unjust law is no law at all.”
“While you should have a secular life and a church life, at some point it’s just one life,” DiGangi said. “I have found now at this stage of my life that I can incorporate natural law into my argument in a way that it can be recognized in the secular world.
“Ignatius Catanello was not afraid to confront the socioeconomic and legal problems confronting society, and he did it via God’s law,” DiGangi added. “But he did it in a way that was not offensive.”
ANNUAL DINNER HONORS THE LATE BISHOP IGNATIUS CATANELLO
Bishop Ignatius A. Catanello served as the rector of Cathedral Preparatory High School and Seminary in Elmhurst from the mid-80s until his ordination as Auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn in the summer of 1994. He was known affectionately as Bishop Iggy to the countless students he mentored at the Prep.
“Bishop Iggy came back to the school to address my graduating class, and in his speech he implored us that no matter where our paths may lead us to always remember to see the good in everyone,” said Prep alumni Angel Rodriguez, who today is a Lieutenant Commander on a nuclear submarine in the U.S. Navy. “It was these words that inspired my leadership style.”
Bishop Catanello died in March of 2013. On March 30, he will be remembered at the Sixth Annual Bishop Ignatius Catanello Memorial Dinner at Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston. The event raises money to provide scholarships for students in need to attend Cathedral Prep.
“Bishop Iggy has more work to do,” said Thomas Flood, vice president for Development at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, where there is also a scholarship in honor of the bishop. “He will change more lives in his name so that all that we hold in our heart for Iggy can be shared with others.”
In addition to his love of God and the church, Bishop Iggy was also a fan of the Mets, conducting Sunday masses at Shea Stadium. In 2005, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza flew the bishop to Miami to officiate his wedding to Alicia Rickter.
“I was able to talk to Bishop Iggy about everything - Alicia, faith, sex, slumps, first base, life changes, theology, history, whatever,” Piazza wrote in his book, Long Shot. “He became a strong influence and helped me see things in a more spiritual light. It meant a lot to us that he agreed to come to Miami to officiate our ceremony, which was just about perfect.”
Frank Steele, a lead organizer for the annual dinner, first met Bishop Catanello when the priest was assigned to St. Rita’s Church in Long Island City.
“I was outside of the rectory watching the rides of the feast,” Steele recalls. “He pulled up curbside and asked me where the rectory was. I introduced myself and asked to help him carry in his bags. That was the beginning of a beautiful loving friendship.
“My grandparents and parents were buried by Iggy, he married me and baptized and conﬁrmed my kids,” he added. “I know of no better tribute to his life of service to the church, his priests and friends than to work as diligently as possible to fund the scholarship program in his name at Cathedral Prep.”
The 6th Annual Bishop Ignatius Catanello Memorial Dinner will take place on March 30 at the Immaculate Conception Center at 72-00 Douglaston Parkway in Douglaston. A 6 p.m. mass will by followed by a dinner dance. Tickets are $75 per person and can be reserved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Checks should be made payable to “Bishop Catanello K of C” and sent to Holy Family Parish, 175-20 74th Avenue, Fresh Meadows, NY, 11366.