Those of us who knew and loved Father Peter Colapietro were devastaed when we heard the news of his passing.
For me, I immediately thought back to the first time I met Father Pete.
I had just started teaching at St. Vito’s and, on the Friday of the first week of school, Father Peter hosted a faculty party to celebrate the new school year. Father Peter and I were standing outside the rectory next to my 1973 Vega as I was putting my books into my car. He approached me and extended his hand as he smiled so brightly. I immediately felt happy to meet him.
He had that effect on everybody.
We started talking and he asked, “So where are your from Jimmy?”
This started a long, sadly not long enough, friendship.
For some reason, he called me Jimmy while I was Jim to everyone else at St. Vito’s
I answered Pete’s question saying I lived in Flushing but that I was from The Bronx.
I didn’t think it was possible but his smile grew even brighter.
Then, of course, he asked what parish. I told him Blessed Sacrament.
By this time he was busting as he revealed he, too, was a Blessed Sacrament graduate.
Then he asked me where did I live. I replied, “Leland Avenue.”
“I lived on White Plains Road”, he blurted out.
I then told him my wife grew up on White Plains Road.
He then asked me her name. “Eileen Rooney”, I said.
That was all it took to seal the deal.
He grew up across the street from my wife and knew the Rooney family very well.
We both shook our heads at our good fortune to share such a common history.
Then, Peter looked down at the back bumper of my car and the bumper sticker stuck on to it.
It read, “HAPPY DAYS IN HAMPTON BAYS”
Peter now knew I was a fellow traveler.
Then my new friends and I joined him on his patio for a terrific way to end the week.
Over the years at St. Vito’s I had many occasions to be in Peter’s company and I cannot recall any time that he did not light up the room when he entered. He was always happy to see you and never had an unkind word about anybody.
My friends at St Vito’s can understand when I write that St. Vito’s was a very special place. It was a special time for me but I always knew my stay would be a short one. I always thought of St. Vito’s as Heaven On Earth or at least Eden.
Once you entered its doors your problems were left behind. Sorrow was replaced with Joy. You never wanted to leave. I used to hate the summers because I had to stay away for over two months. By August it was sheer torture for me.
So, the prospect of leaving St Vito’s was not a pleasant thing to ponder.
On one occasion I was talking to Pete about this very thing, the idea that we might have to leave St Vito’s one day. I was upset about it and listed all the beautiful things that St Vito’s had given me; my friends and colleagues; my children who I got to teach and their parents who sacrificed so much to allow me to teach their children; and, almost as important, the personal gratification that I was doing something real, something that mattered, something that would have a lasting effect.
Then, after confessing all of this, Peter just put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Jimmy you just have to take St. Vito’s with you.”
And you know what? I did just that.
Every where I worked after St Vito’s I brought something special. I brought joy. I brought cheerfulness. I brought laughter. I always prefered comedy over drama and I think that for the most part I succeeded in bringing comedy every where I went.
I would think of Peter often, especially when I changed jobs and I know he might be embarrassed to read this but I always saw Christ in Peter. I always saw that.
When he was on the altar, I saw Jesus. When he was on the pulpit, I saw and heard Jesus.
But what surprised me most as I thought of Peter this week is that HE saw Christ in ME.
Think about this. He saw Christ in YOU!
I always thought that when I left St Vito’s it was like leaving the Garden of Eden. I had snatched that Apple out of the serpent’s hand and cashed it in for a house in the Hamptons. I had caved. I gave up the spirtual world for the material world.
I was wrong to think that and this week I realized something else had happened.
Thinking about the conversation I had with Peter when he advised me to take St. Vito’s with me, I realized he was commisioning me to make the outside world a better place. It was like Jesus sending the Apostles out to spread the good news. He had faith in me that I could do it.
The Father Peter who saw so much in each and every one of us is the Father Peter I will always remember.
The Saloon Priest is an interesting story and reveals the humanity and the need to share his life with everyone but Peter was much more than a celebrity priest. To be sure, many of the celebrities benefited from his friendship and I hope they, too, saw Christ in him. I am confident Peter saw Christ in them as he did in all people.
I decided not say goodbye to Peter. He will still be with me as I am sure he will be with you.
Keep him in your heart for a while and remember what Peter taught you.