The Path to St Peter’s – musings on his early life and beyond from an interview with Father Aidan Cunningham : November 2013
|Not many people can claim to have lived in a house that got doodlebugged, but this is one of Fr Cunningham’s earliest memories. Happily he wasn’t in the house at the time, but a childhood in wartime England meant familiarity with Anderson Bomb Shelters and several moves around the country from his birth place in Cheltenham.
Fr Cunningham’s own education began at a convent school in south London, St Anne’s College, Sanderstead, run by the Ladies of Mary, but when the war ended his family left England for Egypt to join his father – posted there with the RAF and he was sent to a convent school in Cairo and later to the RAF camp school at Fanara, 107 MU, beside the Suez Canal.
In 1947 there were still German prisoner of war camps in Egypt and it was in one of these near the Great Bitter Lake that he celebrated his First Holy Communion on December 13th. When the time came to go to boarding school, he returned to England to Gracedieu Manor Preparatory School near Leicester and so began his lifetime connection with the Rosminian order, officially “The Institute of Charity”.
He went on to secondary study at Ratcliffe College, run by the Rosminians and joined the order himself in 1958. This was something of a family tradition, as one of his cousins was a Rosminian and an uncle was a monk of Ampleforth College in Yorkshire.
Going straight into his novitiate, Fr Cunningham deferred going to university and his scholarship lapsed, so after his two years training, he had to do a re-sit and went on to Cambridge in 1961, leaving with an MA (Hons).
Traditionally the Rosminian brethren, after their university degrees, were teachers and he returned to Ratcliffe College to teach history. Life was then to take a very unexpected turn, when after two year’s teaching he was told that he was to fly to New Zealand immediately, as the replacement for a staff member who was sick, to Rosmini College Auckland. This struck him as a marvellous idea, despite the fact that it was to be “for life”.
Father Aidan Cunningham
Back in 1966, just getting to New Zealand was an adventure that took several days. Leaving Heathrow, Fr Cunningham knew that future communication with his family was going to be by airmail letter only for quite some time. Boarding a Comet aircraft he set off on the first leg of the journey to Rome, where he was able to meet up with other brethren, before continuing on to Teheran and then Karachi in Pakistan. Here there were more friends, from university, to catch up with. Difficult relations between India and Pakistan meant that a detour was necessary so as not to overfly Indian airspace, so the next flight was to Colombo in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From here he journeyed on up to Calcutta and then to Singapore, where more Old Ratcliffians were to be found. Then it was on to Darwin and Sydney in Australia, before finally landing at Auckland’s brand new Mangere airport and his new life on the other side of the world.
For the next four years as a head of department he taught history and social studies and also became involved in New Zealand’s national sport, coaching rugby.
It was at this time that Fr Cunningham’s long association with St Peter’s College began, firstly when he flew south in August 1966 to act as a collector of funds for the building of the school and then in 1970 when he moved to Gore to teach. During his time at the school he took four years off to study for the priesthood in Rome, before returning as Head of English and the Arts.
In the early years of the school, the staff were buoyed up by the enthusiastic support of the community, which helped them to overcome a constant shortage of money. This meant that staff and pupils had to lend a hand with practical jobs like cleaning, just to keep the school going, as funds were so short. Fr Cunningham’s particular interest was developing the grounds and gardens and he recalls digging a pond for breeding goldfish and biological studies, which eventually had to be filled in as people – generally the boarders – were pushed or kept falling in to it!
The next 20 years of his life were spent at St Peter’s College and during that time travel and communications improved and family members, other Rosminians and Old Ratcliffians were able to visit him in New Zealand.
At the end of 1994 when he retired from teaching, a whole new world of work opened up for him in adult education as a formator at Holy Cross Seminary and as an assistant priest and acting parish priest in Mosgiel. A few years later and yet another seminal moment occurred, when an early morning call from Rome directed him to go to India to work with the Rosminian novices there for a couple of years.
Today, Fr Cunningham is parish priest at Sacred Heart Church in Dunedin’s North East Valley, but he does admit that despite being half a world away from England, Gore still feels like home.