Sister Janet Mead, an Australian nun whose crystalline voice carried her to the upper reaches of the charts in the 1970s with a pop-rock version of “The Lord’s Prayer,” died on Jan. 26 in Adelaide. She was in her early 80s.
Her death was confirmed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide, which provided no further information. Media reports said she had been treated for cancer.
Sister Janet’s recording of “The Lord’s Prayer,” which featured her pure solo vocal over a driving drumbeat — she had a three-octave range and perfect pitch — became an instant hit in Australia, Canada and the United States. It soared to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 during Easter time in 1974, and she became one of the few Australian recording artists to have a gold record in the United States.
The record sold more than three million copies worldwide, two million of them to Americans. Nominated for the 1975 Grammy Award for best inspirational performance, it lost to Elvis Presley and his version of “How Great Thou Art.”
Along with Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” famously covered by the Byrds in 1965, “The Lord’s Prayer” is one of the very few popular songs with lyrics taken from the Bible.
When stardom struck Sister Janet, she was a practicing Catholic nun teaching music at St. Aloysius College in Adelaide. The video for “The Lord’s Prayer” was shot on campus.
A humble novitiate who devoted herself to social justice, she donated her share of royalties for “The Lord’s Prayer” to charity. She had long helped raise money for the disadvantaged, the homeless and Aborigines and worked on their behalf.
She later described the period of her record’s success as a “horrible time,” largely because of demands by the media.
“It was a fairly big strain because all the time there are interviews and radio talk-backs and TV people coming and film people coming,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Shunning the spotlight, she declined most interview requests and all offers to tour the United States.
She had already achieved some local notoriety by staging rock masses at St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, long the hub of Catholic life in Adelaide. Her goal was to make the Gospel more accessible and meaningful to young people, which she succeeded in doing by presenting religious hymns in a rock ‘n’ roll format and encouraging participants to sing like Elvis or Bill Haley. Her masses drew as many as 2,500 people and enjoyed the full support of the local bishop.
Janet Mead was born in Adelaide in 1938 (the exact date is unknown). She was 17 when she joined the Sisters of Mercy and became a music teacher at local schools.
She studied piano at the Adelaide Conservatorium and formed a group, which she called simply “the Rock Band,” to provide music for the weekly Mass at her local church.
She was making records for her school when she was discovered by Martin Erdman, a producer at Festival Records in Sydney. The label had her record a cover of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” which the Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan had written and sung for a Franco Zeffirelli film of the same name about St. Francis of Assisi. It was released as the A-side of a 45; “The Lord’s Prayer” was the B-side.
But disc jockeys in Australia much preferred “The Lord’s Prayer.” Listeners called in demanding to hear it again, and stations gave it repeated airplay. It became one of the fastest-selling singles in history.
Its phenomenal success led to Sister Janet’s debut album, “With You I Am,” which hit No. 19 in Australia in July 1974. Her second album, “A Rock Mass,” was a complete recording of one of her Masses.
Sister Janet later withdrew from the public eye almost entirely, and her third album, recorded in 1983, was filed away in the Festival Records vaults. The tapes, including a 1983 version of “The Lord’s Prayer” and covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, were rediscovered by Mr. Erdman in 1999 and included on the album “A Time to Sing,” released that year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Sister Janet’s hit single.
Sister Janet explained her philosophy of using rock music to amplify religious themes in her liner notes for the album “With You I Am.”
“I believe that life is a unity and therefore not divided into compartments,” she wrote. “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.”