Sister Janet Mead, the great humanitarian and unlikely rock star, has died of cancer, aged 83.
Mead is best known for recording a pop-rock version of 'The Lord’s Prayer' in 1973, which was the first Australian recording to sell more than a million copies in the United States.
At the time, she was a practising Catholic nun who taught music at St Aloysius College in Adelaide. The music video for her version of 'The Lord’s Prayer' was shot at the college.
Mead was born in Adelaide in 1938 and at 17 formed a band – The Rock Band – to provide music for the weekly Mass at her local church. After studying piano at the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide, Mead joined the Sisters of Mercy order and upon becoming a nun, began to explore the concept of a “Rock Mass”. This was basically a set of religious songs presented in a rock-and-roll format.
She wanted to make the Gospel more accessible and meaningful for young people and was successful in this aim, holding a series of immensely popular “Rock Masses” at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Adelaide.
Mead started making professional recordings of her music in 1973 and was discovered by Martin Erdman, a producer at Festival Records in Sydney. Festival wanted Mead to record a cover of 'Brother Sun, Sister Moon' by Scottish folk singer Donovan and Erdman came up with the idea of doing a rock arrangement of 'The Lord’s Prayer' as the B-side.
The unlikely one-hit-wonder reached number three on the Australian charts and number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. It was also nominated for a Grammy Award but lost out to Elvis Presley.
Mead, who was uncomfortable with her newfound fame, described the success of the single as a “horrible time” in her life that made her question her faith. She donated all of her royalties to charity and became a tireless advocate for social justice, especially around Aboriginal issues and homelessness.
She opposed war and welfare cuts and raised money to support the sacked Patrick stevedoring workers during the 1998 waterfront dispute. In 2004, Mead was named South Australian of the Year due to her decades of caring for the homeless.
The latter’s spokesperson, Pas Forgione, remembers Mead as a “tireless, unshakable fighter for dignity, freedom and justice”.
Forgione told Independent Australia:
“She was love in action. I have fond memories of lunches and rambling conversations with her and Sister Joyce at the Adelaide Day Centre for Homeless Persons many years ago. I always left feeling revived. Feeling like the arc of history, while heartbreakingly long, will always bend towards justice.”
One of the Anti-Poverty Network’s earliest supporters, Mead enabled the organisation to obtain funding.
“It was because of her that I was lucky enough to be paid to coordinate the group for several years, which was truly life-changing. I will never forget it and I will never forget her.”
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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