The Parish Center turns 40
“It’s a good story,” said Father Robert Randall, and indeed it is.
This is the story of how the St. Andrew Parish Center, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 22, came to life.
“The first thing you should know is that no one thought it could be done and no reasonable man thought it could be built,” Randall said this week during an interview over the phone.
The reasons for that, he said, “were substantial.” The church had an annual budget of $11,000 in 1975 and it was generally looked upon as a mission of mercy by the Providence Diocese, said Randall. Prior to Randall’s arrival, the pastors were temporary placements. When, in 1975, the Diocese asked its 350 priests if anyone would like to serve on Block Island, only two responded. One was Randall, and Bishop Gelineau said “if Randall is crazy enough to go, then let him go. That’s a direct quote.”
Randall arrived in November 1975 and he was living in the small quarters in the main church on Chapel Street. “We had no room for education or religious instruction or anything,” he said. The parish had about 80 parishioners.
“I began to talk to members of my parish. I said, I want to live here and do something, but we can’t operate out of this little house. I wanted to have lectures and poetry readings. Is there a way we can build a larger place?”
In one of a long string of coincidences, or perhaps examples of fate, Randall met island resident Herman Hassinger, who was an architect. Hassinger volunteered his services to design the center for free.
“I presented the design to the Diocese and asked if they would support us in this venture. They said, ‘We know you don’t have the money, but we don’t want to discourage you.’ They said if you could raise $50,000, we’ll support you. That was late ‘76.”
Randall said one of the most important things he did at this time was to let the island know that he had island ties, through his great-grandfather James Randall. This was a warmly greeted by islanders notoriously suspicious of outsiders, said Randall.
“Then comes the challenge to raise $50,000. One of our parishioners had some resources of his own. He said here’s $5,000 on the condition your winter parishioners match it. That was a lot of money when you think about it,” Randall said.
Having met that goal, another $40,000 was still needed.
“We raffled off a car. We had dances. All kinds of civic events, socials. We did everything to bring people together,” said Randall, but by Labor Day of 1976 their efforts had fallen a bit short. They needed $5,000 to reach the $50,000 goal.
“On my final Mass on Labor Day Weekend, I said we almost made it. Maybe God has other plans for us,” said Randall. In another bit of fate, Randall said, “One parishioner on his way out said, ‘I’ll give you the five.’ I had never seen him. I let the Bishop know we had done our share.”
By October of 1979, the Parish Center was built.
“That’s the crazy story. This is the building that God built. There were so many gifts,” said Randall, including the fact that he did not take a salary because he was a professor at Providence College at that time. He mentioned that the Wronowski and Linda families did not charge for the materials and equipment that came over on the ferry during the construction phase.
“This became our winter chapel, a gymnasium, a retreat on the weekends, a sort of center and a decent place to live for me,” Randall said. “I had a wonderful 13 years there. It’s a miracle of God. Once that center went up the island was a different place.”
“This is amazing when you think of it,” he added. “A collaborative affair by almost everybody on the island and a place for everybody to share.”
St. Andrew Catholic Church will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Parish Center on Sunday, Sept. 22 with a reception at the Parish Center from 3 to 6 p.m.
Father Robert Randall will provide entertainment on the piano. dedication of the Center. Hors d’oeuvres and pastries will be provided by St. Andrew’s Ladies Guild.