BY ED WEST
FR KIT CUNNINGHAM, parish priest at St Ethelreda's in central London, is to retire in the spring.
After 32 years in charge Fr Cunningham, 76, made the announcement during Mass at the church in Holborn, having suffered ill-health in recent months A high-profile and muchloved figure to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Fr Cunningham took over at the Rosminian church 32 years ago, having been a missionary in East Africa.
As well as working as a prison chaplain and helping the many homeless people in that part of London, Fr Cunningham also edited the Westminster Record, the diocesan newspaper, and has written regularly for The Catholic Herald.
During his many years at St Ethelreda's, which was popular with journalists due to its proximity to Fleet Street, Fr Cunningham was also a tireless host who regularly invited friends and parishioners upstairs for Sunday lunches.
St Ethelreda's, built in the 13th century, is the oldest church in England still used by Catholics.
Formerly part of the Bishop of Ely's residence, the chapel was given to the Spanish ambassador in 1620 and Catholic worship, illegal in England, was allowed briefly. Parliament turned it into a prison in 1642 and Cromwell 's forces destroyed most of the palace during the Commonwealth, and the church became a place of Anglican worship before being closed in the mid-19th century.
The Rosminians bought the building in 1873, with the first Mass in 200 years celebrated after refurbishments were finished in 1878.
Having survived the Great Fire of 1666, the church was bombed in the Second World War and Fr Cunningham continued the work of his predecessor, Fr Frank 0' Maloney, in refurbishing the Georgian rectory and cleaning the interior.
Catholic Herald columnist and former Ely Place parishioner Mary Kenny said of Fr Kit: "He brought the City of London to life. He was always so compassionate to all the poor, divorced, down and out men who turned up at his door.
Former Herald editor Dr William Oddie said: "He was a sort of unofficial chaplain to the Herald. He is one of these terrific characters: he has always been his own man, and has a natural, old-style Catholic wit."
Fr Cunningham will spend some time in Italy before returning to live upstairs in St Ethelreda's, where he'll continue to perform occasional duties. His successor is yet to be announced.