Celebrating 100 years of Cunningham Memorial Chapel – A Gift that Keeps Giving

MERCY LIGHT: Believing

The Sisters of Mercy knew a thing or two about ‘going viral’ before the term was used to describe pop culture sensation. In 1974, Adelaide’s own Sister Janet Mead soared to international success with her rock rendition of The Lord’s Prayer, selling 3 million copies worldwide and earning her a Grammy nomination, narrowly missing out on the music industry’s top award to none other than the King of Rock, Elivs Presley. The music video has been shared close to half a million times via YouTube and is especially fascinating to students and old scholars from St Aloysius College, who enjoy a virtual visit to yesteryear, following Sister Janet through their school grounds as they appeared in the ‘70s. Parts of the College depicted in the film have since been transformed beyond recognition, but the video’s opening frame on one iconic site dispels any doubt that the Singing Nun is within the grounds of St Aloysius College.

The pièce de resistance is the red spire of the Cunningham Memorial Chapel, located in the heart of SAC, adjoining the Angas St Convent building where around 60 Sisters of Mercy resided for decades. The Chapel opened on November 21, 1922. Sister Mary-Anne Duigan and SAC Archivist, Carol Grantham, proposed the idea of a celebration ritual to mark the culmination of the Chapel’s 2022-23 centenary year. The ritual was held on Friday October 20 and was attended by over 40 Sisters, current and former staff and old scholars. One staff member quipped, “I RSVP’d to the invitation as quick as a flash because I knew too many people would want to come!” The Cunningham Memorial Chapel holds great significance for many within the College community and beyond.

Cunningham Memorial Chapel Centenary Ritual & celebration

Sister Kathryn Travers, who documented the Chapel’s rich history, writes, “The Chapel is here because of the generosity of the parents of Mother Cecilia Cunningham. After her parents’ death, Mother Cecilia and Mother Mary Clare, two of the original founding Sisters of Mercy who came to Adelaide from the Argentine [Argentina] in 1880 and returned there in 1912 to claim Mother Cecelia’s considerable inheritance, gifted by her late parents.”

“Mothers Cecilia and Clare were unable to return to Adelaide until early 1920 when the estate was finally settled, and their delayed return was also because the conflict of World War 1 made sea travel too dangerous. Carmel Bourke, a former Principal of SAC, was a boarder at that time and remembers the arrival of the two sisters at SAC, writing that, ‘There was great excitement and a half-holiday granted, as the two Sisters made a tour of the school and we [students and staff] welcomed them with songs and cheers.’”

Sister Kathryn continues, “…The whole of Mother Cecelia’s generous inheritance was used by the Sisters of Mercy in their work through obtaining and developing property and buildings in the Archdiocese at Parkside, Henley Beach and Goodwood as well as at SAC.”

Today, thousands of students enjoy an excellent education in the Catholic and Mercy traditions within these sites. At SAC, the Cunningham Memorial Chapel offers a space of quiet contemplation amid bustling city surrounds. It frequently hosts students for class and year level liturgies, and the wider community for funerals and weddings. If you blink at the 1:25 minutes mark while viewing Sister Janet’s music video, you may miss a scene of students praying inside it, but even now, old scholars who are members of Sister Janet Mead’s Romero Community celebrate a liturgy in the Chapel each Sunday.

Carol Grantham describes the Chapel as a place that holds, “a sense of serenity and breathtaking awe,” explaining that, “there is something about the quietness, the coolness of the space. It is not an ostentatious building by standards of international comparison, but the craftsmanship and detail is certainly admirable. There is beauty in the way daylight seeps through the stained-glass windows, just enough to see clearly, so that one almost feels cocooned.”

Sister Mary-Anne Duigan, who joined the Convent of Mercy in 1967, believes that if walls could talk, we could all learn a great deal from the stories shared, prayers offered, hymns sung and the significant Professions celebrated within those of the Cunningham Memorial Chapel.

The Sisters enjoy reminiscing about the Chapel which, Mary-Anne says, “was at the centre of our lives.”

Thanks to Sister Mary-Anne Duigan and SAC Archivist, Carol Grantham, who proposed the idea of the celebration ritual to mark the culmination of the Chapel’s 2022-23 centenary year

“I remember stories shared about the times when our Argentinean sisters were in desperate straits and enduring terrible unrest over there, we were in contact with them and regularly prayed for them in the Cunningham Memorial Chapel. Our Mother Superior offered them a home with us in Adelaide, should they ever need it.”

Indeed, if its walls could talk, these ones would convey tales of joy, humour, song, and several of shared grief and fear, but the constant thread running through these recounts spanning more than 100 years is that the Cunningham Memorial Chapel is a birthplace of connection and hospitality, nurtured through communal devotions of love and rich faith.

Ms Maddie Kelly
Marketing Team & Social Justice Coordinator

Click here to watch the rock rendition of The Lord’s Prayer by Sister Janet Mead