The first bishop of Ecatepec – a former lawyer, stockbroker and banker who founded the Inbursa financial group with Mexico’s richest person, Carlos Slim – died of complications related to COVID-19 on Monday night.
Onésimo Cepeda Silva, 84, was anointed bishop of Ecatepec in 1995 and remained in the position until his retirement in 2012.
He was born in Mexico City in 1937 and became a priest in 1970. His death came weeks after he was admitted to hospital in serious condition.
The former Catholic Church leader was a larger-than-life figure, widely known for his controversial views, eccentric behavior, wealth and links to the once omnipotent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), National Action Party and some of Mexico’s most powerful and influential businesspeople.
For Cepeda, the separation of church and state was “nonsense,” abortion was murder and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party – whose logo features a shining sun – was a party with “a sun that is darker than the moon.”
His 16-year tenure as bishop of Ecatepec was punctuated by controversy: he was accused of interfering in the 2006 presidential election; the Vatican called him out for preaching in favor of the PRI; he defended a cardinal accused of covering up pedophilia in the church; he clashed with former Mexico City mayor Rosario Robles over the decriminalization of abortion; he criticized former Zapatistas leader Subcomandate Marcos; the media alleged that he used his position for financial gain; and he flirted with the idea of running for political office.
Cepeda was also identified with a money laundering scandal involving a supposed US $130 million loan to a businesswoman and an art collection containing works by renowned artists such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Francisco de Goya. A formal complaint was filed against him with the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office but he was never arrested or convicted of any crime.
The former bishop, appointed to the newly formed diocese of Ecatepec by Pope John Paul II, also attracted attention for his ostentatious dress (including his oversized cross necklace), his love of bullfighting, golf and fine wines, his security arrangements – he had bodyguards, and traveled in an armored vehicle with a machine gun under his seat, according to one report – and the parties he hosted.
His wealth earned him the nickname millonésimo, which roughly translates as the million-dollar man. Asked in his twilight years how he would like to be remembered, Cepeda responded as “a friend of the poor” – which describes many of the parishioners he served in Ecatepec, a heavily-populated municipality adjoining Mexico City that is plagued by crime and poverty.
But in a blunt assessment of his character, the newspaper Milenio declared that’s not who Cepeda was. Instead he may be more aptly described as an “eccentric” and “extravagant” religious man, with a talent and passion for hobnobbing with the nation’s rich and powerful, and a love and appreciation of the good life.
The former bishop will be buried in the Panteón Francés, or French Cemetery, in Mexico City.