The priest with an eye on the jackpot

Father Russo has won more than pounds 30,000 in church raffles. Now he has started doing the lottery. His parishioners believe there's more than luck at work here. Robert Verkaik reports
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The phone rings in the office of St Peter's Italian Church, Clerkenwell. Father Roberto Russo picks it up : "3, 14, 16, 23, 25, and 26. Bye-bye."

The 64-year-old Italian priest is in demand. Ever since the people of Clerkenwell discovered their catholic clergyman had a knack for picking lucky numbers, Father Russo's Pastoral work has taken on a new dimension.

"The phone hasn't stopped ringing," he says, "people come up to me in the street asking me what my National Lottery numbers are. I just tell them the first numbers that come in to my head."

Over the past 20 years, Father Russo has quietly won more than pounds 30,000 in church raffles, tombolas and guess-the-weight competitions. This year, he won the star prize in the St Peter's raffle - a Fiat. Nobody was particularly surprised because he won the same prize the year before. And the year before that he won a choice between a colour television or a holiday in the Bahamas. He says he can't remember losing at a game of chance since arriving in London. He hasn't kept a penny for himself.

The extent of the winning streak has prompted talk of miracles. Father Russo himself admits: "I enjoy the excitement of winning and I always hope and pray I will win something big, of course.'

And after winning just about all there is to win on the London church raffle scene, he couldn't resist a go at the lottery.

Each week he spends pounds 5 on the same numbers. He believes in a system. "I choose one set of numbers from the bottom, one from the top, one in the middle and then two spread over the ticket."

He has already won pounds 110. Not that much, but people who know him say he's only warming up for something really big.

The prospect of getting God, through one of his representatives, to pick the lucky numbers in the lottery has interested some of Father Russo's gambling parishioners.

Oresto Saitori, 66, a retired builder, comes all the way from Turnpike Lane so he can take Father Russo's lottery ticket to the newsagent.

Mr Saitori says: "I really want Father Russo to be part of a syndicate with me and some of the other church staff, Then we'll all have a chance of winning the big one." The others in the office all agree this would be a good idea.

On Sundays, Clerkenwell Road is a babble with Italian chatter as the 1,000-strong congregation dressed in satin-black gathers outside the church. Many are from the large Italian Clerkenwell community - nearby Leather Lane market stallholders, pizza restaurateurs and families who own some of the finest delicatessens in London.

Ottavio Paoli, 36, owns the wine bar opposite the church. He plays the lottery and goes to church every Sunday. "Every time he wins, he comes in and tells me. I haven't won yet because he hasn't blessed me. He's just a lovely bloke. I haven't heard anyone say a bad word against him.

At the side of the church, there's a small door, less formal than the steep-stepped entrance at the front with its splendid mosaic of coloured stones, where another group gathers.

They are drug addicts and Aids victims: it is these people who the televisions, holidays in the sun and lottery money go to.

"We have a big problem with drug addicts and people with Aids who come to this country to live in squats and off social welfare," says Father Russo. "They receive much better support in this country and we also do all that we can to help them."

After a lot of badgering, Father Russo accepts God "could be" working through him. If he started to keep his winnings, he might find his luck running out.

And Father Russo has direct knowledge of how addictive gambling can be. Some of his parishioners are addicted to betting on horse-racing and are some of the most frequent penitents seeking absolution in confessional.

"They have problems with the horses. Sometimes they cry because they can't walk past a betting shop without going in. But they realise their position and I give them advice. I try to convince them to play the lottery instead. The lottery is very different from the horses."

So the godly gambler Father Russo sometimes prays that he might win the lottery. "If I win, I could really buy nice things. It would be better for the people and charity."

There is a growing feeling among some of the faithful that there might be some real substance to the idea that St Peter's may produce miracles. The church belongs to the Pallottine Order which was founded by St Vincent Pallotti. St Vincent began his order so that the clergy would provide practical help for the lay people of Italy. Giovanna Giacon, who works with Father Russo as church secretary, knows the story well: "He knew how to spend money, just like Father Russo. It was easy come, easy go with him. He even gave away his bed."

And because 1995 is St Vincent's bicentenary anniversary, it's little wonder the Catholics of Clerkenwell believe Father Russo has more than an outside chance of winning the lottery jackpot.

Father Russo says: "We carry on his tradition. But he was a saint. We are just sinners."