After his capture in 2011, the South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger apparently spent a significant amount of time thinking about his death, saying he wished to be buried next to the love of his life, Catherine Greig, the dental hygienist who spent 16 years on the lam with him.
According to letters a former neighbor in California said Bulger sent to her, the mobster expected a more peaceful death than the brutal one he experienced last week at the hands of fellow inmates at a West Virginia prison.
“I must wait for a natural death — my family has suffered enough because of my wild life, and suicide is taboo in old-time Catholics — also it wouldn’t be fair to Cathy,” Bulger wrote in September 2011 while he was awaiting trial for a litany of crimes, including 19 murders. “I want to see her free and one day be side by side forever. I don’t talk this way to my family — they hope for better days.”
The young woman who said she received the Bulger letters had met him and Greig in 2006 when she moved into their Santa Monica housing complex. They were fugitives, but she said she knew them as an ordinary, retired couple who went by the names Charlie and Carol Gasko.
The woman, who did not want to be identified because of the notoriety of the case, shared some of the letters with the Globe Monday.
In the letters, Bulger said his 16 years on the run with Greig were the happiest of his life and lamented that prosecutors rejected his efforts to cut a deal that would allow her to go free. Greig, 67, is serving a nine-year sentence at a federal prison in Minnesota for helping him evade capture and then contempt of court for refusing to testify against him. She’s scheduled to be released Sept. 29, 2020.
“I want to live until she is free,” Bulger wrote in a letter postmarked Nov. 3, 2011. “After that I will refuse all medical care. I have a family member, a lawyer, who I wrote for final instructions — No autopsy. I want to be buried next to Catherine and that’s it — Simple.”
Because Bulger, 89, was murdered while in the custody of the US Bureau of Prisons, his desire for no autopsy is moot. Meanwhile, his final resting place, and how he will get there, remains unclear.
In life, Bulger built a notorious legacy as someone who tortured those who displeased him, polluted his South Boston neighborhood with drugs, and secretly buried some of his victims, denying their families a formal Christian burial. One question now is whether he is entitled to a Christian burial himself.
Bulger’s brother, John, declined to comment when reached Monday.
Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said no one from the Bulger family has requested a funeral Mass or a Mass for the dead. During a funeral Mass, the body or cremated ashes are present in the church, while they are not during a Mass for the dead.
“The archdiocese would prefer it was not a public event,” Donilon said.
But he and the Rev. James Flavin, the parochial vicar in charge of the parishes that include all of the churches in South Boston, said the archdiocese would not refuse to allow a Mass to be said for the repose of Bulger’s soul, despite Bulger being a convicted murderer.
“Out of pastoral care for the family, we’d certainly support them,” said Flavin.
Both Donilon and Flavin said they had not discussed the matter with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop, who has the ultimate authority on what type of Mass the archdiocese would allow in one of its churches.
Thomas Groome, a theologian at Boston College, said O’Malley would certainly have the authority if not obligation to refuse to allow a funeral at one of the archdiocese’s churches under Canon 1184 of the Code of Canon Law, which notes that funeral Masses can be denied to various people including “manifest sinners for whom ecclesiastic funeral rites cannot be granted without public scandal to the faithful.”
Groome said an exception can be made for someone who repents. But there is no evidence that Bulger repented or that he apologized to the families of any of the 11 people whose murders he was ultimately convicted of committing.
Still, the church faces a delicate question, one for which there is not well-established precedent.
When Gennaro “Jerry” Angiulo, the one-time leader of the Mafia in Boston, died in 2009, his funeral at a Catholic church in the North End was something of a spectacle. His wife arrived at St. Leonard’s Church on Hanover Street in a black Rolls Royce. A flatbed tow truck was used to carry nearly 200 flower arrangements. Outside the church, a Navy honor guard stood at attention as Angiulo’s flag-draped casket entered and departed. Angiulo served in the Navy during World War II.
Like Angiulo, who was overheard on an FBI bug praising Bulger as a prolific killer, Bulger was proud of his military service, even though it was a spotty record at best. During his three years in the Air Force, Bulger went AWOL and was accused but ultimately not convicted of rape. However, like Angiulo, who was convicted of ordering murders to protect his racketeering operation, Bulger is not entitled to burial in a veterans cemetery because he was convicted of a capital crime.
Bulger was raised a Roman Catholic, and while his brothers and sisters immersed themselves in the various religious and social activities at their childhood parish of St. Monica’s in South Boston, he studiously avoided it, much to his mother’s chagrin.
After he was arrested for a string of bank robberies in the 1950s, Bulger turned to his roots in the church. He subscribed to America, a Jesuit magazine recommended to him by the Rev. Robert Drinan, the dean of Boston College Law School, who became Bulger’s spiritual adviser at the urging of Bulger’s brother Bill, who received his undergraduate and law degree at BC.
During Whitey Bulger’s years in prison, when he was allowed to communicate by letter with only a handful of vetted correspondents, Drinan and a few other priests became his pen pals. Drinan, who later became a congressman, eventually was his parole adviser, playing a big role in Bulger’s early release after serving nine years of a 20-year sentence.
But Drinan later soured on Bulger, after realizing he had quickly resumed a life of crime. And from that point on, Bulger’s relationship with the Catholic Church was extremely limited. When his mother died in 1980, he did not attend the funeral Mass, fearing he would draw attention.
In letters that Bulger sent from prison following his 2011 arrest and his 2013 conviction, Bulger suggested he expected to die of natural causes in prison. He jokingly referred to welcoming the heat of hell, often while complaining about his drafty cell.
The whereabouts of Bulger’s remains, meanwhile, are unknown. Officials in West Virginia have refused to answer questions about Bulger’s autopsy or the release of his body.
In one of his letters from prison to the California woman, Whitey Bulger spoke of getting letters from strangers, including “some Religious elderly woman who wants to save my soul.”
He added, “Good of them to try. But for me it’s the ‘End of the Trail.’ ”Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. Kevin Cullen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.