Rev. John Randall, 82, dies; known for renewal efforts on Providence’s Smith Hill

Fr. John Randall 1928-2011

Rev. John Randall, 82, dies; known for renewal efforts on Providence’s Smith Hill
01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, June 19, 2011
by Richard C. Dujardin
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — The Rev. John F. Randall, a pioneer in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement who in the 1980s stirred controversy with his criticism of the then-president of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island over her role in abortion, died Wednesday, June 15, at the age of 82.

Even before his appointment as pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Providence in 1978, he and the Rev. Raymond Kelly, pastor of St. Patrick parish, drew national attention for their work at the Smith Hill parish. Taking the unusual step of inviting more affluent Catholics who had been inspired by the renewal movement to move into the relatively poor Smith Hill neighborhood, the two priests guided St. Patrick into doing something that until then had been rarely done — reopening a parish school that had been forced to close the year before.

Father Randall, who was ordained in 1953 and taught at St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket and then Our Lady of Providence Seminary in Warwick, would later trace his involvement in the renewal movement to a time he went to Brooklyn to hear and meet David Wilkerson, a Pentecostal preacher and writer who was working with drug addicts and gang leaders. Returning from New York to celebrate Sunday morning Mass the next day at St. Catherine’s in Warwick, the priest said, he suddenly felt struck by the Holy Spirit “and it was like the first Mass I had ever been at. Everything was ringing and singing; it was all brand new.”

In the ensuing years, Father Randall, with the encouragement of then-bishop of Providence Louis E. Gelineau, expanded the “work of the Holy Spirit” in the diocese by encouraging prayer groups and Life in the Spirit seminars. In 1978, three years after speaking about the renewal movement to church leaders in Rome, he helped to organize the first of several New England Catholic Charismatic conferences that drew 14,000 people to the Providence Civic Center.

Working out of his rectory, Father Randall also launched Spirit and Word, a radio and cable TV ministry that would cause a furor and attract national attention when he declared on one show in 1986 that Planned Parenthood head Mary Ann Sorrentino could no longer be deemed a Catholic because by holding the hands of patients during an abortion, she had broken canon law and incurred a penalty of excommunication.

In his book, “No Spirit … No Church,” published in 2009, Father Randall wrote: “All kinds of anger arose in Rhode Island against us, against the bishop and against the Catholic Church. It was an incredible moment, and while I can’t say that we had great victories, we were preaching the Gospel, speaking the truth and exposing what was right and what was wrong.”

At his parish of St. Charles, Father Randall had another dream as well — to reopen St. Charles School the same way that St. Patrick School had been reopened years earlier. His plan, inspired by a story he read on the religion page of The Providence Journal, was to ask parishioners to tithe 7 to 10 percent of their income and, in return, children would have the opportunity to attend Catholic school for free. “Unfortunately, the diocesan school office did not allow us to do so because they were afraid that we would hurt other schools.”

Father Randall continued his work until he retired as pastor in 2001. A Newport native, he had studied at the Grand Seminaire in St. Brieuc, France, and held degrees from the University of Louvain in Belgium for post-graduate studies in Sacred Scripture. After Saturday’s funeral Mass at St. Charles Borromeo, he was buried at St. Columba cemetery in Middletown.

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