Father Charles Cunningham

by Margaret Giumelli
Updated: 21 March 2022

Father (later Monsignor) Charles William Cunningham

Father Charles Cunningham during World War II

Recipient of Member of the Order of the British Empire, 1939-1945 Star, Pacific Star, War Medal 1939-45, Defence Medal, Australia Service Medal 1939-1945.

Monsignor Charles William Joseph Cunningham MBE was born on 23 October 1904 at Eastern Railway, Western Australia, Australia. He was the seventh of eleven children (third son) of Patrick and Sarah Cunningham. On his paternal side, Charles was the grandson of Irish emigrants, Patrick and Ellen Cunningham. On his maternal side, he was descended from several northern Sydney pioneer (free and convict) families. Charles passed away on 10 October 1982 at Busselton, Western Australia.

Priesthood – As a young man, Charles studied for and became a Roman Catholic priest. Burdened for those serving on fields of battle, Charles Cunningham served as a non-combatant military chaplain for the next three years and three months.

Charles served as a Catholic priest for 45 years, maintaining his vocation until his death, a fortnight short of his 78th birthday anniversary.

After the war, Charles returned to his priestly duties, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia. In 1948 he was appointed Parish Priest of Dardanup where he remained until 1958. In 1954 with the establishment of the Diocese of Bunbury, he was appointed Vicar General. In 1958 he was given the title, Monsignor and appointed Parish Priest of Albany, and later Parish Priest of St Michael’s, Brunswick.

Exceptionally Meritorious Service – Charles Cunningham MBE was a Military Veteran. He served in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force, Chaplain 1942-46 Kokoda Track, Buna-Gona.

Charles served in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force during the Second World War as a Chaplain. Commissioned on 9 February 1942, he resigned his commission on 12 May 1946 following the end of hostilities. Chaplains served beside fighting soldiers, diggers, every step of the way, being shot at, sharing the same meals, catching the same diseases, but without joining the fight. Charles was chaplain, or padre, to the 2/1st Australian Infantry Battalion throughout the Kokoda and Buna-Gona campaigns and later, Headquarters 7th Division.

It was for his ‘exceptionally meritorious service’ as Chaplain with the 2/1st Battalion at Eora Creek on the Kokoda Track that he was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

The presentation of his award was made by the Lieutenant Governor of Western Australia, Sir James Mitchell GCMG, on 3rd January 1947 in St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia. 

Monsignor Charles Cunningham in 1975 after winning the lottery which he donated to St Michael’s Primary School

The Kokoda Track – It was noted that Padre Cunningham had organised and participated in the evacuation of wounded soldiers in very hazardous circumstances. Edwin Givney, an eye witness and officer of the 2/1st related: “The heavy rain of the previous night and the morning of the 26th, estimated by some of our bushmen at five to eight inches, caused [Eora Creek] to rise several feet. It washed away portions of the bridge … Getting casualties across what remained of the bridge was an absolute nightmare, and was only managed by a line of men bracing themselves in the water against the sunken bridge and passing the stretchers across. To do this in the darkness in the very cold water was extremely difficult. The enemy fired mortar onto the area during the period.

“The Miracle at Gona”, Buna-Gona Beach, Papua – “Before the assault [on Gona Beach, Papua], he told troops he was going to offer Mass for them. He selected a nearby site for the Mass and 120-150 soldiers followed him. He preceded Mass with general absolution and set aside the approximate number of hosts for those who had followed him.  In those days, Mass was said by the priest with his back to the people. When Padre Cunningham turned around to face the assembled troops for Holy Communion, he realised their numbers had grown but said to himself, “Well, they probably won’t want to receive Communion”. 

He proceeded to distribute the consecrated hosts but the line of men coming seemed endless. So he started breaking the hosts, but he did this just a few times before realising he still would have enough hosts and, strangely, the supply of hosts had not seemed to lessen, so he continued to give every man who approached the full host. He averred later on that he would have distributed Communion to more than 450 men.” 

Image Source:

  • Photos of Charles Cunningham courtesy of the Cunningham family.