Janet Mead, singing nun who had hit with pop-rock version of 'The Lord's Prayer,' dies

Sister Janet Mead, a Catholic nun who devoted her life to the homeless, the Aborigines and other disadvantaged people in her native Australia and became a global sensation as a chart-topping pop star in 1974 with a rocked-up version of the Lord's Prayer died Wednesday in Adelaide. She was reported to be 83 or 84.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide confirmed the death without giving a cause but friends said she had been suffering from cancer.

The Lord's Prayer single sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. The single shot up the charts in more than 30 countries and reached No. 4 in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 at Easter 1974. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for best inspirational performance (nonclassical) but lost out to Elvis Presley in 1975 for his rendition of "How Great Thou Art."

Long before her record brought her wider recognition, Sister Mead was well-known in Australia for her regular "Rock Mass" in the St. Francis Xavier cathedral in Adelaide. She encouraged young Catholics to play guitar or drums and sing like Presley or Bill Haley. Record producer Martin Erdman saw her musical potential and came up with a modern arrangement for the Lord's Prayer.

It was actually meant to be the B-side to her version of Scottish musician Donovan's track "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," but radio stations began playing the Lord's Prayer. More stunned than anyone by the reception, Sister Mead declined to cash in with tours. She turned down a lucrative offer to play coast-to-coast in the United States, including Las Vegas. She mostly avoided media interviews and donated all the royalties from her hit record to charities and continued to teach Catholic students at St. Aloysius College, a Catholic school in Adelaide that she had attended in childhood.

"It was unexpected, and I was unprepared," she told the Daily Telegraph, a Sydney publication, in 1999. "It was a complete shock when publicity ... came my way. Because I'd resolved to use all my powers to continue with the work I was doing rather than be sidetracked by the superficial kind of success that I was experiencing, it was very, very difficult.

"My school commitments were very heavy, I loved teaching, I was fully committed," she added. "So TV interviews and phone calls from all around the world . . . people would be ringing in the middle of the night from Canada or the U.S. ... And it was very hard for the sisters [Sisters of Mercy], too, although they were fantastic and very, very supportive."

Mead was the second nun to have a hit record in the U.S. and globally after Belgian Sister Jeanine Deckers, billed as "the Singing Nun," had a smash with the French-language song "Dominique" in 1963.

Mead was born in Adelaide, capital of the state of South Australia, in 1938. At 17, she entered a Sisters of Mercy convent.

She was allowed to study piano at the Adelaide Conservatorium, which led her later to form the Rock Band. The ensemble featured religious songs with a rock beat at what became known as her Rock Masses, in her words, "to make Mass more interesting and accessible."

The success of the Lord's Prayer single led to the album titled "With You I Am," followed by another titled "A Rock Mass." The master tapes of a third album she recorded in 1983 got lost until 1999, when producer Erdman found them and released them as the album "A Time to Sing."

This time, she included songs by other people she admired, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Cat Stevens. "Yes. I think they're good songs, you know," she told the Daily Telegraph. "Things like The Byrds' 'Turn Turn Turn,' well that's straight from the Old Testament. Things like 'Sounds of Silence,' there were all sorts of songs like that, protest songs, that showed life and growth going on."

"I'm a firm believer in protest songs," she added. "I'm a firm believer also in protest. When things aren't right, we've the right to sing about them, to speak about them."

She herself spoke out against welfare cuts for the working classes, she supported stevedores during a waterfront dispute and she was vociferous in her antiwar sentiment, notably during the Vietnam conflict when up to 60,000 Australian troops fought shoulder to shoulder with Americans. The Australians saw 521 dead and 30,000 wounded in that war.

"I believe that life is a unity and therefore not divided into compartments," she wrote in the liner notes for her first album "With You I Am." "That means that worship, music, recreation, work and all other 'little boxes' of our lives are really inseparable and this is why I believe that people should be given the opportunity to worship God with the language and music that is part of their ordinary life."