Regina Mundi: Cathedral of the Nation turns 50
The parish of Regina Mundi is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. CLAIRE MATHIESON looks at the history of South Africa’s most famous parish and its church, the country’s biggest.
Few would have guessed that a Sunday gathering under a tree on land donated by a local farmer before there were houses in the area would grow to become the country’s biggest and most famous Catholic Church.
In its 50 year history, the parish of Regina Mundi in Moroka, Soweto, has served as the home of the country’s struggle for human rights and against apartheid. It has been described by struggle leaders as being both a battlefield and a sanctuary.
The church, which was inaugurated two years after the parish was founded, was the scene of the extended violence of the 1976 uprisings as students fled to Regina Mundi. The violence followed the students into the sacred space. The police stormed the church, firing ammunition and releasing tear gas, leaving many injured and furniture, decorations and religious symbols damaged. Both the interior and the external walls of the church still bear the signs of the shootings.
Regina Mundi is a church but it also became something else, said Susan Manyoni, a member of the church’s history committee. It is not just a holy place and it is not just a place to serve. This was a place where the people could be served, Ms Manyoni told The Southern Cross.
Archbishop Buti Tlhgale of Johannesburg was once based at the church, a place he calls a shrine of pilgrimage today.
Regina Mundi increasingly became a citadel, a spiritual stronghold of the people of Soweto at a time when resistance to the apartheid regime was at its height, he said in an article posted on the website of the archdiocese of Johannesburg (www.catholic-johannesburg.org.za).
The archbishop said the 1976 uprisings marked the point of no return in the fight for freedom.
Student organisations were banned, one after another. Many fled into exile. The townships became ungovernable. Communities joined the resistance by refusing to pay for electricity and rent. Suspected informers were harassed or necklaced. Houses of police and local council members were set alight. Delivery vans, buses and trains were torched, he recalled.
It was against this background that Regina Mundi became the site of pilgrimage.
The church was one of the first to open its doors to victims of the struggle. As political gatherings could only take place indoors, the sheer size of the church meant it was a suitable venue. Regina Mundi can accommodate 7000 people.
Even funerals often turned into political meetings.
These funerals, like night vigils, were radically transformed from pious, religious gatherings into intense, political platforms of resistance, said Archbishop Tlhgale.
Undoubtedly it was a great strain on the parish community. Pews were broken, doors battered, the fence broken, canisters thrown into the church by the police and the resident clergy harassed. Virtually at the end of each commemorative service, the police broke up the gatherings and chased people with sjamboks.
This country had reached a state of no return. Regina Mundi offered the people a sanctuary and a political platform. These gatherings, like other gatherings throughout the country, kept the struggle alive, said Archbishop Tlhagale.
The late Dr Nthato Motlana, one of Soweto’s great community leaders, once described Regina Mundi as not just a church it is the people’s church, the church of the nation.
The church, as it is today, was built in 1964, moving from tree to local classroom during the late 1940s and early1950s. Its foundation stone was laid by Cardinal Giovanni Montini during his visit to South Africa in August 1962. Less than a year later, Cardinal Montini became Pope Paul VI.
Today, it plays host to a large parish, world leaders and thousands of tourists who flock to the national landmark.
Most notably, Bill and Hilary Clinton visited in 1998 controversially receiving Holy Communion and Michelle Obama visited last year to address the Young African Women Leaders Forum.
The church’s stained glass windows, with scenes from the Blessed Virgin’s life, were donated by Poland in 1998, and a park was built in front of the church by the City of Johannesburg, with a fountain, lawns and benches. Memorial stones, including a peace pole donated by Japanese Christians, can also be found on the grounds.
Regina Mundi is worldwide place. It is of interest to many because of its rich history and the importance of its role during the struggle, said Ms Manyoni.
Inside the church a painting by Larry Scully titled Madonna and Child of Soweto, often called The Black Madonna, depicts a black Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus. The painting was created in 1973, as a part of a campaign to raise funds for the education of black South Africans.
But it is not just a historical service that the church provided. True to its purpose, the parish continues to serve the community today, but in a slightly different manner.
We have very active sodalities at Regina Mundi. Our groups serve the poor and help the priest, said Ms Manyoni. Everybody in the congregation is encouraged to serve, support and help others, she said, adding that the church’s soup kitchen serves to many their only decent meal of the week.
Everybody does their bit to help the community, Ms Manyoni said.
She said this has always been the attitude at Regina Mundi, from the earliest days where the struggle was prominent to the issues facing the community today.
Whenever there has been a problem, you bring it to the church. You come to the church and you pray. It is here that we learn to understand not only our own problems but also each others. By coming together in the church, we are able to make a difference.
On November 30, 1997, Nelson Mandela paid tribute to the church during a ceremony marking its restoration.
Graduates of Regina Mundi are making important contributions to the reconstruction and development of our country. Such was the role of this church in the lives of many of us; such was the esteem with which it was held, that it popularly became known as the people’s cathedral, he said.
Today the people’s cathedral operates in the same way: it doesn’t shy away from the problems of our time.
With a colourful and active first 50 years, Regina Mundi shows no sign of slowing with age, but rather continuing to make an impact on different frontiers.