Better to help 10 imposters than turn away one deserving person
State Library staff were saddened by the death of Sister Janet Mead after a short tussle with cancer at the age of 84. While known internationally for her 1973 hit single The Lord’s Prayer, Library staff have known her best through her lifetime of work supporting the poor and marginalised of Adelaide. For almost 30 years they have supported Sr Janet’s charitable work through the Adelaide Day Centre for Homeless Persons, raising thousands of dollars and donating innumerable gifts of household goods, furniture, clothing and food.
The State Library collections reflect Sr Janet’s varied life and work with copies of her many recordings and some of the:
The collection also holds a candid oral history interview with Sr Janet, conducted by Dr Susan Marsden in 2010.
Growing up in the Adelaide suburb of Goodwood to parents who ‘lived their faith’ by visiting prisoners in jail and housing refugees in their own home, Janet was inspired from an early age to care for the disadvantaged. Hers was a family who loved to sing and from the age of eight she was taught piano by an elderly sister at her school, St Aloysius College. It was while still at school that her decision to join the teaching order of the Sisters of Mercy was made, joining the convent at the age of 17. Recognising her musical abilities, the sisters put her forward as a candidate for the Adelaide Conservatorium where she studied piano and violin. For almost 30 years Sr Janet taught at her old school with six years teaching at Mount Gambier during this time.
Following the enormous changes to the Catholic Church brought by Vatican II, Sr Janet sought to make the Mass more relevant to her students through modern liturgy and music. Encouraged by Fr Rob Aitken she started a Rock Mass service at St Francis Xavier Cathedral in 1972, which at its height, was attended by 2,000 people. Sr Janet began publishing music to help other parishes to run similar services, including recording a single with Festival Records in 1973. The flip side of the record was a recording of Sr Janet singing a version of The Lord’s Prayer composed by Arnold Strals as sung at the Rock Mass.
To the amazement of all, the single became a hit and was the first ever to make gold record sales in both Australia and the USA at the same time – later also reaching gold in the UK. Sr Janet Mead became a household name all over the world.
A stressful and difficult time followed with widespread media attention and disillusionment at the American proceeds not going to charity as intended. A lighter memory from this time, which Sr Janet enjoyed re-telling, occurred when she was invited to be interviewed on a Sydney radio station. Arriving at the station she found there had been a mix-up and Australian TV drama star Abigail was expected, with station staff shocked when a young nun walked in the door instead!
Sr Janet’s most lasting and profound legacy is her work with the Adelaide Day Centre for Homeless Persons, which she established in 1985 with Sr Anne Gregory as a drop-in place for homeless and unemployed men, in Moore Street. Soon larger premises were needed and the work moved nearby to Queen Street but retained the Moore Street ‘connection’. To support the work, the Romero Community – a group of nine lay people – was formed to work with Sr Janet.
For decades the Queen Street Centre, with its beautiful gardens, has been the hub of an incredible support base for people experiencing homelessness, refugees, newly released offenders, the unemployed and people just struggling to make ends meet. Around 50 phone calls per day, with a similar number of door visitors keeps the Centre staff busy giving out food parcels, furniture, referrals, or assistance to negotiate the tangle of government departments and bill paying.
Behind the scenes a workshop restores and makes furniture and gathers household goods for some 400 households per year, while the men of the Centre also create gifts for sale at a volunteer-run shop, Moore Crafts. Every year over 5,000 food parcels are sent out from the Centre and 250 families and individuals helped into accommodation. The offshoot Brian Burdekin Medical Clinic in Selby Street provides medical aid to the poor and a nightly soup van delivers home-made soup, warm clothing and blankets around the city. For almost forty years Sr Janet also directed an annual musical to raise money for overseas aid projects run by former Adelaide women Rosemary Taylor, Antonia Symonds and Sally Duigan in Thailand, Africa and Southeast Asia.
In 2005 Sr Janet was named South Australian Citizen of the Year in recognition of her deep commitment to social justice. The award was presented by Her Excellency The Honourable Dame Roma Mitchell. Sr Janet’s acceptance speech can be viewed on the State Library’s SA Memory website @ Sister Janet Mead (as published in Adelaide Voices, February/March, 2005, p 12).
Other decorations included:
From Sr Janet’s acceptance speech, on being inducted into the South Australian Music Hall of Fame, 2016:
I think everyone has a song to sing, haven't they? ... We sing, not only to change the evils of the world, but so they won't change us.
Sister Janet’s legacy to the poor and the suffering of Adelaide is unparalleled. She worked by two mantras, ‘You cannot just put homeless people into accommodation, they need ongoing support to be able to stay there,’ and after Mother Catherine McAuley, the founder of Sr Janet’s order, ‘Better to help 10 imposters than turn away one deserving person.’
Words by Anthony Laube, Coordinator Collection Development (Published), editing, images and further research by Denise Chapman, Curator, Engagement.