PAWTUCKET / MATUNUCK — Eight men were ordained to the diocesan priesthood in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 19, 1951.
It was a Saturday morning. The ordination Mass began at 8 a.m., with relatively little fanfare or ceremony, as Monsignor Nicholas Iocavacci recalled.
“It was a great family celebration afterward,” he said.
Monsignor Iocavacci, 95, was one of the young men ordained that day 70 years ago. Ordained alongside him was Father Robert Randall, who is now 94 and also retired from active ministry. Over the years, both men developed a bond and friendship that remains strong seven decades since they became priests.
“No, I can’t,” Monsignor Iocavacci said when asked if he could believe he was celebrating his 70th anniversary of priesthood.
“I don’t know where all the years went,” he said.
Father Robert Randall
Father Robert Randall’s first assignment as a newly-minted priest for the Diocese of Providence in 1951 was driving “a dirty old bus around” the small town of Carolina, picking up children for his parish’s religious education program.
As he recalled that memory, Father Randall, 94, leaned back in a kitchen chair at his home in Matunuck. He snapped his fingers.
“Seventy years, just like that,” he said.
The decades flew by for Father Randall, who took on a variety of academic and pastoral roles in his priestly career. Before retiring from active ministry in 1996, he had been a parish priest, a seminary rector, and college professor.
“I always had both a parish job and an education job,” he said.
Along the way, Father Randall also studied Renaissance poetry as a Fulbright scholar at Oxford University. He wrote a musical that almost made it to Broadway, and learned to play the piano so well that he could perform Chopin in the dark.
“I was always trying to get involved in teaching, completing projects, having committees to serve on,” Father Randall said. “I have always been turning over new leaves, finishing one thing and starting another.”
Born January 1927 in Newport, Father Randall was the eldest of five children born to parents who never completed the ninth grade. He was educated in Catholic grammar and high schools, and went to the seminary in 1944 along with his brother, the late Father John Randall. He was a young seminarian at Our Lady of Providence Seminary with Nicholas Iacovacci of Cranston. In 1947, Father Randall went to complete his studies at the Catholic University of America.
At the time, most of his fellow seminarians were World War II veterans. Father Randall’s roommate had served in the war as a Navy lieutenant. Together, they edited a magazine that Father Randall described as “very liberal and contentious, but good for talk.”
His entry into the world of academia was a bit inauspicious. At the time, Father Randall was a curate at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence, where he assisted with hospital ministry, music, school work and other pastoral duties.
One day, Bishop Russell McVinney called the young priest into his office. The bishop asked him if he enjoyed his assignment, and wanted to stay at the cathedral.
“No sooner had I said yes, that the bishop said, ‘Well, pack your bags, Father Randall. You’re going to go teach at the seminary,’” Father Randall said.
Father Randall taught Latin and English at the seminary before sailing to the United Kingdom to study at Oxford. He later completed his doctorate at Brown University and taught Renaissance Literature at Providence College for more than 25 years.
In that time, Father Randall also served as pastor of St. Andrew Church on Block Island. He served the island’s small Catholic community for 13 years, leaning on his family’s roots — his great-grandmother was born on Block Island — to forge relationships in the community and build up the parish. He spearheaded the construction of a new parish center and invigorated parish life with concerns, book clubs and poetry readings, among other activities.
In 1988, Father Randall asked to return to Providence to become pastor of St. Sebastian Church, which was then a struggling parish. When he retired eight years later, St. Sebastian’s was one of the more vibrant parishes in the diocese with a ministry to the homeless. In 2002, he helped establish Providence College’s first endowed chair, The Rev. Robert Randall Distinguished Professorship in Christian Culture.
Now in his mid-90s, Father Randall splits his time between Florida and Rhode Island, where he reads his favorite periodicals and Dostoevsky to unwind.
“That’s my life story,” he said, “and I’m still alive.”
Monsignor Nicholas J. Iacovacci
Monsignor Nicholas J. Iacovacci was a young priest in the 1960s when he attended one of Padre Pio’s Masses at San Giovani Rotundo.
The future St. Pio of Pietrelcina blessed the young priest from the Diocese of Providence, and gave him a simple word of advice.
“Say your prayers,” Monsignor Iacovacci recalled with a smile during a recent interview at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence in Pawtucket.
Monsignor Iacovacci has been residing at the Jeanne Jugan Residence since January. At 95, he uses a walker to get around but still celebrates Mass daily at 11 a.m. for the sisters and their elderly patients in the residence chapel.
“I’m very grateful to the Little Sisters of the Poor for their kindness and their care,” said Monsignor Iacovacci, who retired from active ministry in 1997. Until this year, he had spent his retirement as a priest in residence at St. Peter’s Church in Warwick.
He was born in January 1926 in Cranston. His parents were tailors who worked in a men’s clothing store. Together, they took young Nicholas and his older brother, Joseph, every Sunday to Mass at St. Mary’s Church. The family participated in parish devotions. As a boy Nicholas was an altar server.
“My father and mother were very close to and active in the Church. The Church was a part of our lives,” said Monsignor Iacovacci, who remembers being around 15 when he first felt that God was calling him to the priesthood.
“As a little kid I wanted to be a doctor, but I later understood how attracted I was to the priesthood,” he said.
In September 1941, Monsignor Iacovacci was in the initial cohort of 31 seminarians who attended the then-brand new Our Lady of Providence Seminary. It was there that he would befriend fellow seminarian John Randall, whom he remembers as “a very devoted, dedicated student.”
Monsignor Iacovacci remembers his ordination day as a great family and neighborhood celebration. After that morning’s Mass, relatives and neighbors came and went from the Iacovacci home, offering their congratulations and asking for the new priest’s blessing.
“I was a parochial priest,” Monsignor Iacovacci said in reference to his 56 years as a parish priest, as an assistant pastor at St. Ann Church in Providence and Our Lady of Grace Church in Johnston and as a pastor St. William Church in Warwick and St. Ann Church in Providence.
In addition to his parish assignments, Monsignor Iacovacci served in a variety of diocesan roles. He was a member of the Priests’ Council, the Diocesan Liturgical Commission, the Diocesan Vocation Committee, and the Catholic Charity Fund Advisory Board. He was also a founding member of the board of directors of the North Providence-Johnston Mental Health Association.
He was an assistant pastor at St. Ann Church when the Second Vatican Council convened in 1962. The reforms that the Council spurred, including Mass in the vernacular and the laity’s active participation in the liturgy and life of the Church, were among the landmark changes Monsignor Iacovacci saw in his life as a priest.
“I think my greatest experiences were the years I went through when the Church went through a tremendous amount of change and growth,” he said. “The impact of the Second Vatican Council was the epitome of what I lived.”
As a pastor in the Church’s post-conciliar era, Monsignor Iacovacci said he took joy in engaging parishioners into the life and ministries of a parish. He said he enjoyed preparing young people for their first Holy Communion and Confirmation, as well as baptisms.
“My record for baptisms is 19 babies in one day,” he said.
In his last year as pastor of St. Anne’s Church, Monsignor Iacovacci led the effort to renovate the church for its 100th anniversary. In the little downtime he had, Monsignor Iacovacci enjoyed listening to his classical music records. In his later years, he took brief vacations to Maine and Florida.
Since his days in seminary, he has been particularly devoted to St. Therese of the Child Jesus and St. Anthony of Padua.
“And more recently,” he said, “St. Padre Pio.”