Last Call for New York’s “Saloon Priest”

A great profile of a remarkable New York figure, from the New York Times: 

The Rev. Peter Colapietro was playing down the fuss — the goodbyes from the neighborhood people, the Mass scheduled for Sunday to celebrate his years at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church, in the shadow of Times Square. “I’m just moving to the East Side,” he said.

For 18 years as pastor of Holy Cross — and three more as parish administrator — he has presided over one of the most varied congregations in the city. In the pews at Mass, he sees actors and stagehands from the nearby Broadway theaters. He sees workers from the post office across 42nd Street. He sees bus drivers and commuters from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He sees young Wall Street types from the new apartment buildings that tower over the old Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. And then there are the worshipers of Times Square in the 21st century: the tourists.

Father Colapietro is as distinctive as the congregation. “A Damon Runyon character in robes,” the writer Brian McDonald called him. Lili Fable, 73, a lifelong member of Holy Cross who runs the Poseidon Bakery a few blocks from the church, said he was “a character and an old-fashioned priest, all at the same time.” Newspaper writers called him “the saloon priest” — he was a bartender before he became a priest, and for years he was a regular at Elaine’s, the celebrity hangout on the Upper East Side that closed in 2011.

In a crowded restaurant or a crowded sanctuary, he would be hard to miss. He stands 6 feet tall and says he weighs 325 pounds. “I probably gained about 70 pounds here,” he says, sipping bottled water in the kitchen of the rectory. “I have nobody else to blame but myself because it’s my own cooking.”

Clueless bartenders used to mistake him for one of his many famous friends, Jerry Nachman, who ran The New York Post and MSNBC before his death in 2004.

And now Father Colapietro is leaving Holy Cross. The rules of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York say that pastors are to serve for six years, with an option for another six. He was allowed to remain for still another six; in 2007, when his second term ended, Holy Cross was undergoing a $6 million renovation, a project he had championed. But now he is being transferred to the Church of St. Monica, on 79th Street near First Avenue.

Thirty-seven blocks uptown, about three and a half miles: That is how far he is going, but he might as well be off to another planet. “If you’re in Loyola,” said Mrs. Fable, referring to the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola at Park Avenue and 84th Street, “you’re dealing with Kennedys. When you’re on 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue, it’s a different sensibility.”

The stories from Holy Cross are grittier.

“The Mickey Rourke story,” Father Colapietro says. “You can Google it.”

He tells it anyway. “I see this guy walking toward me,” he says. “Cowboy hat. Dog. I realize it’s Mickey Rourke. He’s going to kill somebody and commit suicide.” This was in 1994, when Mr. Rourke’s marriage to the actress and model Carré Otis was disintegrating. Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publication, later said he was on his way to kill a man he believed had raped Ms. Otis while she was high on drugs. Father Colapietro said Mr. Rourke had written a suicide note.

“I didn’t know this man, Father Peter,” Mr. Rourke told the magazine. “I just walked in his church” that day — “walked in the right door and met the right priest.” Father Colapietro, Mr. Rourke said, “took away my gun and had me leave the note with St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes.” (Father Colapietro says he does not remember taking the gun. “We sat here and smoked cigarettes and drank wine and left as friends,” he says.)

Another time a man lobbed a beer bottle during Sunday morning Mass. It struck one of the steps leading to the altar. When the church was planning the renovation, Father Colapietro insisted on leaving the gash in the step untouched.

Read it all. 

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