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Obituary Fr Kit Cunningham

Cunningham, who has died at the age of 79, drew many to his Sunday lunches, and over his dining table (which had once belonged to Elgar) brought not a few back to the Catholic faith. His methods were often oblique, but no less effective for that, for under a bonhomous exterior lay a profound and unshakeable faith. Unimpressed by the vagaries of ecclesiastical fashion, he held to the eternal verities. For many years he was the parish priest of St Etheldreda’s, in Ely Place, Holborn, central London, and it was largely thanks to his energy and vision that this ancient and beau- tiful church, the oldest in the country in Catholic hands, was able to enter its eighth century with its future assured. St Etheldreda’s, built in the thirteenth cen-


tury and the sole building remaining in what had once been the splendid London palace of the Bishops of Ely, had been badly damaged by enemy action in the Second World War, and its restoration, which included the com- missioning of modern stained glass by Edward Nuttgens and Charles Blakeman, had been undertaken by Fr Cunningham’s immediate predecessor, Fr Frank O’Malley; Fr Cunningham, on becoming parish priest, saw to the refur- bishment of the Georgian presbytery (then hardly fit for human habitation) as well as the cleaning of the church’s interior, the making good of the small gar- den in the cloister garth, and the re-ordering of the crypt. He was instrumental, too, in setting up a trust fund to finance future maintenance.

convivial character, in appearance perhaps recalling a slightly raffish and rubicund cherub, Fr


contributor to newspapers and radio, and a natural choice to edit the archdiocesan news- paper, the Westminster Record, as well as a firm favourite of the “Peterborough” column of The Daily Telegraph, which once put him forward for a bishop’s mitre. Alas, the powers that be never took up this inspired sugges- tion. Christopher Basil Cunningham was born in 1931 in Liverpool, the son of a customs official. He was educated at Ratcliffe College and on leaving school entered the novitiate of the Institute of Charity (the Rosminians) at Wadhurst, East Sussex. He completed his priestly studies at the Lateran University in Rome, where his notes for his final licence exams were finally reduced, after many revi- sions, to the back of one postcard. After ordination, he spent some years in Africa teaching at the order’s school in Soni, Tanzania, before coming back to England, where he was for a time chaplain to Wandsworth Prison.

During his time at Ely Place he delighted in leading tour groups to Eastern bloc coun- tries under the aegis of the then Communist Progressive Tours; in Russia, he was some- times mistaken for the leader of a fraternal delegation of British trades unionists. Shortly before Lithuanian independence, he led a bus party to Vilnius; a little local difficulty with the Soviet border guards resolved, the bus rolled over the frontier as Fr Cunningham’s fine bass voice belted out “Rule Britannia”, accompanied by the clink of empty bottles.

‘Under a

Because the parish was largely depopulated, he also turned his attention to the liturgy and thanks to his fund-raising efforts was able to endow an excellent choir. The new rite Latin Mass at 11 a.m. on Sundays soon drew people from all over London, who were privileged to hear the music of Mozart and others performed as the composers intended. He had a particular rapport with journalists – St Etheldreda’s being the parish church of Fleet Street – who appreciated his sometimes robust approach and his generosity with wine. Many became part of his band of devoted followers. The beauty of the church and the excellence of its choir, coupled with Fr Cunningham’s avuncular manner, made him a popular choice for weddings. His ease with the media made him a regular

38 | THE TABLET | 1 January 2011 But though Kit sometimes bonhomous

exterior lay a profound and unshakeable faith’

attracted the epithet “colourful” or even “larger than life”, this should not obscure his profound loyalty and love for the Church and the Gospel. Many were those whom he helped in distress. He did not suffer fools gladly, and sometimes seemed fiery and impatient; but these storms were only ever temporary, and his sense of good humour and his kindness of heart will be remembered by many with profound gratitude.

Alexander Lucie-Smith

Christopher Basil Cunningham, Catholic priest: born 18 November 1931, Liverpool; died 12 December 2010, Dublin.

■ Alexander Lucie-Smith is a priest and novelist. There is to be a memorial Mass for Fr Kit Cunningham at St Etheldreda’s on 12 January at 7p.m.


Remember the Levite? Remember the Pharisee? Do not emulate them. Rather don the mantle of the Samaritan and help Catholic ex-prisoners and their families to take their place once more in the Christian society to which you also belong. Send a gift of money, however small, to the Catholic Prisoners’ Aid Society, 82-84 Newington Causeway, London, SE1. The Tablet, 31 December 1960


The Guardian has the following upon the Bishop of Salford’s appeal to ladies to cease wearing enormous hats in church, and to replace them by the “neat black veil”, or mantilla, familiar in Spain and Italy. “We shall observe with curious interest the results of this fatherly request. Dr Casartelli points out that there are serious incon- veniences and even dangers to the priest who is administering Holy Communion to women thus arrayed – inconveniences and dangers which are not unfamiliar to priests of the English Church in similar circumstances, especially when long hat- pins are worn. The sufferings of those who sit behind these hats in church have become a familiar complaint; but we are not sanguine of much improvement until fashion requires that smaller headgear should be worn in and out of church. The fact remains that there is a certain lack of the fitness of things in the wearing of extreme fashions in church, and we are not without hope that some day that fact will receive recognition. Some day, too, perhaps we may begin to build churches with cloak-rooms, in which not only may ladies be invited to leave large hats, but men may deposit their hats, overcoats, and umbrellas. By that time perhaps we shall have adopted the view, of which something has already been heard, that the convention that women must not be uncovered in church is “out of date”.

… From America we have the announce- ment of [President William Howard] Taft’s appointment of a Catholic and a Democrat, Edward Douglass White, to be Chief Justice of the United States’ Supreme Court. And the … nomination has been unanimously confirmed by the Senate. The new American Chief Justice is an old student of Mount St Mary’s, Emmitsburg, and the Jesuit Fathers of New Orleans also claim a share in his training. As a young law graduate he fought in the Confederate Army, and after war practised in his native state of Louisana … In 1891 he took his seat in the United States Senate; and since 1894 he had been Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Tablet, 31 December 1910

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