National News

Peter Colapietro, ‘Saloon Priest’ Who Ministered to Lowly and Mighty, Dies at 69

Posted February 6, 2018 3:26 p.m. EST

The Rev. Peter M. Colapietro, a Roman Catholic priest and outsize New York personality whose late-night presence as a regular at celebrity hangouts contrasted with his low-key work in parishes in Manhattan, died Monday night. He was 69.

The cause was emphysema, said Dr. Joseph Platania, his cardiologist. Colapietro had been in a rehabilitation facility for about a year.

He was assigned to St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, known as the Actors’ Chapel, in 2015 after two years at the Church of St. Monica on East 79th Street. But he spent most of his career at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church on West 42nd Street, where he was the pastor for 18 years and the parish administrator for three.

Colapietro — “Father Pete” to those who encountered him, in or out of a church — became known as the “saloon priest.” This was partly because he had worked in bars before he joined the priesthood and partly because he was a regular at Elaine’s, the celebrity hangout on the Upper East Side that closed in 2011.

From his late nights there and at other haunts, he knew his share of celebrities, and he ministered to them, formally and informally. In 2003 he delivered the homily at the funeral Mass for Dave DeBusschere, the Hall of Fame forward for the New York Knicks. He said Mass in 2015 on the death of the irrepressible restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker, whose Chez Josephine was down the block from Holy Cross.

Colapietro, who stood 6 feet tall and admitted to weighing 325 pounds, was sometimes mistaken for another of his well-known friends, Jerry Nachman, who ran The New York Post and MSNBC before his death in 2004. Colapietro joked that one advantage of his assignment at St. Malachy’s was that it had an elevator he could use.

Colapietro described himself as “just a regular, run-of-the-mill priest,” but he was as distinctive as the performers in the pews at the Actors’ Chapel, or the commuters from the Port Authority Bus Terminal down the block from Holy Cross. “A Damon Runyon character in robes,” writer Brian McDonald called him.

His final Mass at Holy Cross ended with a standing ovation and an accompaniment of bagpipes and drums from the city’s Sanitation Department. For years he was the department’s chaplain, and a chaplain for the Manhattan Restaurant and Liquor Dealers’ Association, the Metro-North Railroad and the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

Some Sundays he officiated at Mass after a breakfast of coffee and cigarettes, and sometimes there were tense moments. At Holy Cross, a man once threw a beer bottle toward the front of the church during Sunday Mass. It chipped a step leading to the altar.

Another time, actor Mickey Rourke walked in. Colapietro said he realized that Rourke had a gun and wanted “to kill somebody and commit suicide.” Rourke’s two-year-old marriage to model Carré Otis was fraying. The Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor reported that he had been on his way to kill a man who he believed had raped Otis while she was high on drugs. Colapietro said Rourke had been carrying a suicide note.

Rourke said that Colapietro “took away my gun” and persuaded him to put it behind a statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes. Colapietro said later that he did not remember disarming Rourke.

“We sat here and smoked cigarettes and drank wine and left as friends,” he recalled in 2013.

Colapietro grew up in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, where he said he was raised more by priests in the neighborhood than by his father, who owned a bar. His survivors include a brother, Michael.

He spent five years at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers but left “before they could throw me out,” Colapietro said in 1996. “I was always breaking the curfew.”

In his 20s, he earned a living as a construction worker, a longshoreman loading live ammunition and a fisherman. He said the biggest fish he ever caught was a 198-pound mako shark. “The fish didn’t have a chance,” he said. “I outweighed it by 100 pounds.”

He heard his calling while working as a bouncer at a bar in Westhampton, New York, he said.

As a young priest, he was assigned to the Church of St. Vito in Mamaroneck, New York. He quipped that “Vito, a name that seemed more appropriate for a bookmaker than for a martyr, was the patron saint of broken legs,” McDonald wrote in his book “Last Call at Elaine’s” (2008).

Colapietro was forgiving of the gritty world that surrounded him, as when a 200-pound statue of Christ was stolen from Holy Cross. It was returned a week later, and police dusted the statue for fingerprints.

Colapietro said the church would not seek to press charges, even if the police tracked down a suspect. He said the statue had merely been “borrowed,” not stolen.