Father Jake's Ritzy Patrons Love His Café, but the Archbishop Wants Him to Serve His Last Supper

updated 04/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Nothing about the small restaurant in Manhattan's bustling theater district suggests that it is a center of spiritual controversy. A striped canopy of pale yellow and gray identifies it as Palatine 313; inside, the atmosphere is all tasteful restraint—bare floors, brick walls, blue and white tablecloths and the obligatory bar. But the majordomo here is unlike any of the other impresarios along Restaurant Row. Instead of a dinner jacket, he wears a Roman collar. He is the Rev. Peter Jacobs, 57, a Roman Catholic priest.

For "Father Jake," who has promised to give every cent of future profits from his novel venture to the needy, the Palatine has been a joy since it opened last Christmas season. Lately, however, it has also been a source of growing anguish. His archbishop, far from applauding Jacobs' enterprise, has suspended him from his priestly duties. He cannot say Mass, preach, hear confessions or officiate at weddings until he makes his peace with church authorities. Father Jake vows to "stick with my project," but he clearly faces a personal crisis that has brought his faith into conflict with his unorthodox form of charity.

The Palatine, which takes its name from one of the hills of Rome and its number from the address on West 46th Street, is as chic as any midtown bistro, with a menu that includes rabbit in aspic for an appetizer ($4), entrecôte of beef with shallot butter ($14.95), and crème Grand Marnier for dessert ($3). The lunch and dinner clientele at the restaurant shines: Gloria Steinem, Walter Cronkite and Nela Rubinstein, widow of the great pianist, are all regulars. Last March 14 Monaco's Prince Albert observed his 25th birthday at Father Jacobs' place.

For all that, café society is hardly the Palatine's raison d'être. Father Jacobs' thoughts never stray far from 1,200 kids at two Catholic schools, Power Memorial Academy just above Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen area and Rice High in Harlem, where he is assigned as chaplain. Cash-strapped, both schools seem to operate mainly on the selfless dedication of the Congregation of Christian Brothers. Even so, tuition fees per student have climbed to approximately $1,000 yearly, a crushing burden for many, if not most, minority families—and that's where the Palatine comes in. As Father Jacobs figures it, the restaurant could someday generate more scholarship money for Rice and Power Memorial than bingo ever will. And that's not all. "When kids come to me at school, the main thing they want is not counsel or confession but jobs," he says. "A restaurant can put kids to work. I train one youngster as a kitchen helper, and he can then go on to work at any other restaurant, making room for another kid here. Not long ago I gave one boy a job and he cried, not profusely, but a couple of tears, and, wow, I was really moved."

Whether they are teenagers or jetsetters, people in trouble turn to Father Jake because they know he always responds immediately. "He's so generous with his time," says Brother Lawrence Killelea, principal at Rice. "He makes himself available day and night." To do that, Father Jake maintains five telephones and an answering service with a beeper. "I can prevent people from hurting themselves and others," he says, and Ms. magazine publisher Patricia Carbine knows he does not exaggerate. She tells of attending a dinner party when Father Jake's beeper went off. He quietly excused himself, and when he returned about an hour later, Carbine recalls, "he apologized for his rudeness, explaining that it couldn't have been avoided. He opened his hand to show six bullets. The call had come from someone who was going to shoot himself. I have a feeling there's more of that in his life than any of us can ever imagine."

In addition to youngsters, Father Jake confesses a special soft spot for firemen (he habitually wears a fire-house sweat shirt under his jacket) and authors (he has put in a three-line cameo appearance in a Pete Hamill mystery novel). In fact, he travels with startling ease among the high or the humble, all of whom pass him along from friend to friend as if in relay. He has been close for years to Monaco's royal family, and Princess Grace often phoned when she visited New York. According to Father Jacobs, "Sometimes we'd go to a little Italian restaurant off the Bowery. She loved that. It was nice and quiet." When Grace died last September, Father Jacobs was asked by the family to say a private Mass at the Monaco palace chapel.

He is aware that some have called him a "facile name-dropper," a collar-wearing bon vivant. "I'm not a pushy priest," he protests. "I don't search out ritzy friends." Instead, says Gloria Steinem, "He is able to make a compassionate connection to people of all kinds. He has entered so many worlds that, over the years, I've ceased to be amazed to find him anywhere."

Jacobs' beginnings, in the paper mill city of Berlin, N.H., were modest. His father, a mill worker turned bookseller, was Jewish, his mother French-Irish. Though baptized a Catholic, he says, "I never saw anyone in my family practice religion." It was aboard ship as a young seaman in World War II that he read a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi. "I started going to Mass and thinking about the priesthood," he explains. Through the Gl Bill, Jacobs entered the seminary in St. Bonaventure, N.Y.

He was ordained in 1955 in Washington, D.C., yet except for five years as a parish priest, he has not worked in his home archdiocese. He moved to New York City and by 1964 was Rice's chaplain; for a time he supplemented his $50-a-month pay by sorting packages at Bloomingdale's department store.

About that time he was befriended by restaurateur Philomene LeDouzen; she had lost a son in the Navy who would have been exactly Father Jake's age. By 1982 Madame LeDouzen no longer ran her own café. She still owned the building, however, and offered to lease the restaurant cheaply to Father Jake. He declined at first, but then the idea of helping his school and pupils proved irresistible. "I brought students and three teachers here and ripped the ceiling apart and painted," he says. "I borrowed money from my mother for restaurant equipment." Thus was born Palatine 313.

Canon law forbids priests from engaging in business for their own benefit, but Father Jake argues that he will not personally profit from the Palatine. Besides, he says, "I believe all 2,000 laws of the church can be relaxed, since they are church laws, not God's laws." He points out that cleric-operated restaurants, while uncommon, are not unknown. In Englewood, Colo., Father Fred McCallin, with his bishop's blessings, runs the Padre, purveyor of "Heavenly food—the loaves and the fishes—and the spirits." In Paris, Father René Pinsard's bar-restaurant Siloé intentionally seeks to blend with the seedy ambience of Pigalle.

But in Father Jake's case, Washington's Archbishop James Hickey has refused him dispensation. The New York Archdiocese has expressed "concern" at his disobedience, but Father Jake says he will continue to serve as chaplain at his schools—and to run the Palatine, with the help of a professional manager and chef and moonlighting firemen as waiters. He has weathered church chastisements before. Once he was accused of actively promoting interfaith marriages, which he denies. He has even been criticized by a monsignor in the archdiocesan office for "unseemly behavior" in walking his Dalmatian. This time, the issue is more difficult. "I love being a priest," he says. "If it comes down to that or the restaurant, I'll sell the lease in an instant and give the money to the students. But I would hate to give up. I think that would be wrong." Meantime Father Jacobs is still taking reservations.

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