Always larger than life, the ebullient Fr Kit Cunningham has long been renowned among Catholics. Now he has a further claim to wider fame — awarded the MBE for his charitable work. BESS TWISTON DAVIES reports
FR CHRISTOPHER Basil (`Kit') Cunningham, a Rosminian, Rector of St Etheldreda's Church and new Member of the British Empire is standing in an upstairs drawing room overseeing a handyman manoeuvring plastic buckets to catch the rain leaking through the ceiling. "We are having a crisis," Rosemary, Fr Kit's secretary tells me with a slight/y panicky smile. But Fr Kit appears serenely unflustered. He leaves the drawing room to its fate and ushers me into the sacristy next door. He points to the door in the wall of the sacristy: "Do you realise if we were on the other side, we'd be on the altar" he says, twitching his lips and giving me a characteristic sideways glance over his spectacles.
Fr Kit, a jovial figure with a distinctly Chestertonian aura, is taking his new honour in his stride: "I've known about it for two months, but I was bound to secrecy When I told Basil (Cardinal Hume), he said : 'I know all about it, Kit'. It just shows they test you out beforehand."
Fr Kit has been awarded his MBE for "services to the community in the city of London".
"It is for the Strawberry Fayre," explains Fr Kit. The annual Summer fayre in Ely place is Fr Kit's brainchild. Over its 15 year existence the Fayre has raised over £75,000 for charity.
"All the businesses round here contribute and encourage their staff to come and they do. We can't get together on theological grounds but this unites us," says Fr Kit.
The Fayre's flourishing success is largely due to Fr Kit's practical outlook: "One must not look on rain as the doom of all fairs: 'What can people do if its raining? They can eat and drink. The police tell me it's the best Street Fayre in London, we never have any trouble: the police stall is the first one at the entrance, which puts off anyone tempted to steal handbags. Next year the theme is Edwardian/Victorian and I am hoping to get ten Chelsea pensioners to march in to the tune of 'We are soldiers of the Queen'."
Fr Kit modestly decries his other charity work on the boards of sundry trusts: "Yes there have been various trusts, but one of my greatest works of charity is to look after the journalists of the Catholic Herald !"
Well known Catholic journalists like Mary Kenny and Piers Paul Reid congregate at St Etheldreda's once a month for the meetings of The Keys. the Catholic Writers' club.
FR KIT IS AN Old hand with the media: "One of the first articles I wrote was on why clergymen were fascinated by trains." He edits the NsoninstL7 Record, a monthly diocesan newspaper, and briefly worked as an "agony uncle" for the Universe newspaper : "My one rule was never to answer questions on animal theology. I used to get questions on the lines of Will I see Pusskins at the pearly gates?'."
Just after the news of his MBE came out, Fr Kit's press agent promptly dispatched a Press Release to various newspapers. "We writers, Ma'am,' as Disraeli said to Queen Victoria... bin hrn," he quips cryptically with a low interior laugh.
Fr Kit has strong views and little time for modern wimpishness : "In the past, if you cut yourself you stuck an elastoplast over it. Nowadays you have to paste it over with at least a £5 note."
The "Marshmallow whingeyness" of modern feminists incurs his scorn "They are not genuine Feminists: now Emily Pankhurst, she was a real feminist. She had a 'Come on, girls' attitude. rhe Fankhursts were doers..
St Etheldreda's Church is hard to find. It emerges discreetly in the final quarter of Ely Place, shielded from view by a monotonous row of Georgian office buildings. Ely Place is cordoned off from Charterhouse Street by imposing, black, iron gates manned by a watchman in small gatehouse. Fr Kit is one of the six Commissioners of Ely Place who are responsible for its upkeep: "You don't know what a Commissioner is? We are the smallest local authority in England. We are very conscious we are a small enclave here. Who knows? We may have been the inspiration for Passport to Pimlico. From the outside, St Etheldreda's 13th-century charms seem incongruous amid the hive of capitalist enterprise surrounding it. But the medieval walls of St Etheldreda's conceal a maelstrom of activity under the aegis of Fr Kit.
In a small cramped room overflowing with papers, books and furniture, on the first floor, Fr Kit oversees his empire with measured efficiency. Here he runs Ely Tours, a small but adventurous travel firm. Rather than visiting predictable sites of Catholic devotion, Ely Tours swoops down on more quixotic locations: 'We have just had a successful tour to Verona and Venice. In May, we go to Istanbul and Ephesus, and then to Syria in the autumn. I think the best description of Ely Tours is 'a houseparty on the move'. I make a list of all my guests and entitle it 'The Good Companions'." But Ely Tours are not for the idle : "We are serious walkers and viewers of buildings. By 9.30 sharp we are out on the sweet." One of Fr Kit's lesser-known ventures is the Pantry: a lunchtime restaurant opposite St Etheldreda's medieval crypt and staked by Colombians. It is patronised by local officeworkers.
But all this is, as it NATIre, extra curricular, coming on top of Fr Kit's loaded pastoral schedule. He is in constant demand for society weddings (45 last year) and baptisms (57 in 1997, "and I don't do job lots").
Fr Kit wears his duties lightly, and appears to thrive on action: "My approach to life is never to practise for Good Friday until Maundy Thursday is done. In other words, I tend to take things as they come. I don't let my mind go racing ahead."
This pragmatism is underpinned by solid organization: "Divide and rule is a sound principle of Church governance in parishes: that and maintaining a strict division of labour. If Vera has been emptying the rubbish bins for 30 years you can't let someone else take over."
Fr Kit tries to accommodate the liturgical leanings of his parishioners: "I am a great believer in giving people what they want, since the liturgy is the one thing people can express themselves on as it is visible."
He mourns the loss of sacramentals in the latter day Church: "I attach a lot of importance to signs and symbols as Christianity is a very materialistic religion: the use of Bread and wine is one example. We have cut out the sacramentals: the sign of the Cross, the Crucifix. People often dismiss them as a sign of uneducated piety, but they are so important. But this is a sacramental church, it has nothing to do with justice and peace."
FR KIT'S PREVIOUS posts have been varied and eventful: after a 13-year stint teaching in Tanzania, he worked at Cafod at its inception and spent some time as a
prison chaplain in Wandsworth Prison to the likes of Frankie "the axe" Fraser, a former associate of the Kray Brothers.
"Even if there was just one Catholic prisoner in the Special Punishment block, the Catholic chaplain had to see them every day. I thought this was an awful waste of manpower, so I said to the Protestant chaplain: `Quite frankly, if they are in Special Punishment, the spiritual temperature is pretty low: so I don't think we need worry about the niceties of whether they are Catholic or Protestant,."
As we leave, Fr Kit pops into the adjacent drawing room: the rain has virtually stopped, the handyman has vanished and the number of buckets is down to one. He gives a satisfied nod and moves off.