Sister Irene O'Connor "Fire Of God's Love" (1973)

In the Trouser Press Record Guide, Brad Reno wrote:

"Thumb through the record stacks at any thrift store or flea market and you'll find evidence of a strange, unheralded, otherworldly indie music scene which long predates the current one, reaching back to the dawn of recorded music. Multitudes of self-released or micro-label albums exist of fervent, sometimes downright bizarre, evangelical Christian music, released by a cast of characters ranging from snakehandling hillbillies, housewives, pre-teen evangelists, preaching hand-puppets and tiny church choirs who scraped up the money to record and release their sacred praise. Almost all of it is unpolished and primitive, but some of it is frightening, some of it amazing."

That's a good observation of the indie Christian music scene before it became more polished and less primitive in the 1990’s, but evangelicals were not the only types of Christians who recorded quirky independent religious albums during earlier decades. One 1973 recording which has acquired a cult following was made by a Catholic nun in Australia by the name of Sister Irene O’Connor. Sister O’Connor had previously served as a Franciscan missionary in Singapore, where she made earlier recordings under the pseudonym of Myriam Frances in 1966. On the 1973 album Fire Of God’s Love, Sister O’Connor composed and performed all of the songs herself, playing all of the instruments (electric organ, guitar, and piano). Another nun from the same missionary order, Sister Marimil Lobregat, engineered the album’s recording at the National Catholic Television Centre in Homebush, New South Wales.

Fire Of God’s Love has gained the admiration of indie music enthusiasts both religious and secular. The album has been viewed as a precursor to ‘80’s synth-pop, complete with a drum machine, the use of which was still relatively uncommon in popular music at the time. The album has also been seen as a progenitor to the work of such contemporary female art-pop creators as Grimes, Princess Chelsea, and Susanne Sundfør. The now-defunct Swedish heavy metal band In Solitude were known to play a recording of the title song at the beginning of their live shows. A label called Wyrd War issued a “very limited edition” LP pressing in February of 2018, but this reissue is unauthorized, and the word on the web is that the LP has poor sound quality.

If the cover art makes you think that this nun sang fire-and-brimstone songs warning of eternal damnation, rest assured that her music took the exact opposite approach. Instead, Sister O’Connor’s songs were joyful celebrations of the Catholic faith, finding uplifting lyrical inspiration in Bible verses, in the beauty of nature, and from Church tradition (the words of “Emmanuel” come from the Catholic Mass and from the Lord’s Prayer). What makes this recording so unique is the seemingly experimental nature of its sound, especially considering that it was recorded in the early ‘70’s. Sister O’Connor’s innocent vocals are given a haunting level of reverb that transcends the usual echoes of church acoustics. The opening title track immediately sets the record’s otherworldly aura, pairing those vocals with electronic sounds that sometimes resemble those of a Moog synthesizer. The songs played on guitar (“Mary Was ‘There’”, “Nature Is A Song”) and piano (“Christ Our King”, “Springtime”) more closely resemble traditional church hymns, as does “O Great Mystery”, in which a priest contributes a tenor vocal, but they maintain the same transcendental tone. “Teenager’s Chorus” and the closing track “Keshukoran” (sung in the Malay language) have an unexpected catchiness designed to appeal to youth audiences. One odd effect: in retrospect, the electric organ sounds of “Emmanuel” and “O Brother!” are now reminiscent of ‘80’s video game sound effects – perhaps another way in which this album can be viewed as “ahead of its time”.

Fire Of God’s Love is worth discovering for those interested in unique religious recordings, and for aficionados of indie pop. Time will tell if an official quality reissue is possible.

Note: Fire Of God's Love was issued in the U.S. in 1976 by the Alba House Communications label, catalogue no. RAH 1015.

Sister Irene O'Connor - Fire of God's Love

Sister Irene O'Connor "Fire Of God's Love" (Philips 6357 012) 1973

Track Listing:

1. Fire (Luke 12:49)
2. Nature Is A Song
3. Springtime (In Australia)
4. Mass - 'Emmanuel'
    (I) Lord Have Mercy
    (II) Glory To God
    (III) Holy Holy
    (IV) Our Father
    (V) Lamb Of God (Text: I.C.E.L)
5. Mass - Messe Du Saint Esprit
    (I) Seigneur prends pitie
    (II) Saint, Saint, Saint le Seigneur
    (III) Agneau de Dieu
6. Light (John 8:12)
7. O Brother! (Matt 7:1-5)
8. Mary Was 'There'
9. Teenager's Chorus
10. O Great Mystery (John 6) (Tenor: Father Des O'Neil)
11. Christ Our King (Col 1:13)
12. Keshukoran