In Search of South Africa’s First Chapels
The earliest Catholic structure of any kind on South African territory was built by the Portuguese before 1506, but it wasn’t until 1823 that the first purpose-built Catholic chapel for public worship was constructed. MARTIN KEENAN explains.
The first Catholic chapel of any sort on South African territory was built at Mossel Bay in 1501 — and those explorers who built it named the bay after a Catholic saint, St Blaise.
In a lecture titled “Our Beginnings” in 1957, Archbishop Owen McCann of Cape Town noted: “There John da Nova built a small chapel. It was the first place of Christian worship.” He added: “There is no trace of this chapel. It was destroyed.”
There are two eyewitness accounts of the chapel, published by George Theal in his Records of South-Eastern Africa Vol. 1.
The first is a letter of August 31, 1506, written from Moçambique by the Portuguese official Pero Coresma to the king of Portugal, mentioning that he recognised the Bay of São Bras (or St Blaise) from the “ermyda…que fez Johão da Nova” (the hermitage John da Nova made).
The second occurs in a description of the bay from 1576 which mentions two coves. On the high ground between them, part of the walls of a ruined hermida dedicated to St Blaise was built at the time of the discovery of the sea route to India. A watering place on the seashore was nearby.
It was evidently a major landmark for locating fresh water. It might have been an exaggeration to call it a “chapel”, however. A hermitage might be no more than a chamber for prayer.
Lost Dutch chapel of 1805
Another lost chapel of the early Catholic presence on South African territory is that of three Dutch priests who briefly ministered in Cape Town in 1805, before the British took over the Cape and sent them back to the Netherlands.
Nothing is known of the premises the Dutch priests were given for a chapel, but they were requisitioned by the British army for a military hospital. An inventory or ship’s manifest of the equipment the Dutch priests took out with them was published in a Dutch article by MgrHensen in 1908.
Among the items is a large painting of the Flight into Egypt which had been removed from its frame to facilitate shipment.
We also learn from the article that Governor Janssens had confessionals constructed. The intention was that the chapel be fitted with every convenience to permit solemn liturgies to be performed with celebrant, deacon and sub-deacon.
Once the British took over, four lay Catholics petitioned the British military governor in February 1806 that they might “either to hire or to purchase or to build here an edifice not at the government’s but at their own expence [sic] in order to continue in the same the exercise of their worship”.
Apparently this was to no avail. They would have to wait until 1823.
The Irish chapel of 1823
By then, Pope Pius VII had established the vicariate apostolic of The Cape of Good Hope with surrounding regions and the Island of Madagascar, though the vicar apostolic, Bishop Edward Bede, resided in Mauritius, not Cape Town.
The priest who ministered to Cape Town’s Catholics was a young Irishman, Fr Patrick Scully. It was on his watch that South Africa’s first parish church was built.
It also was at the centre of a controversy that would tear the local Catholic community apart, going as far as litigation.
And it is from that legal dispute that we learn a lot about this first church, located in Harrington Street in the area that is today a parking lot.
John Crowly, one of two building contractors, both of whom were parishioners, made a deposition in the course of the litigation conducted in 1832, and printed a year later in a collection of papers.
Crowly stated that the building commenced on October 28, 1822, and that the work was carried out under the “direction and superintendence” of Fr Scully.
Crowly had “continued in the performance of [his] work, as mason, until March 1824 under the exclusive orders of [Fr Scully] at which period the whole of the masonry was entirely completed”.
In the same publication another document notes that soon after May 1823 an urgent need for more funds for “the then rising chapel” arose which was met with the advance of loans and “the exertions of several individuals, but more particularly…the pecuniary assistance of the late JW Böhmer”.
It was still unfinished in 1828 when the clergy organised works there, but it was certainly in use from July 1824.
In July 1833, Fr Scully’s successor, Fr Rishton, listed the chapel’s movable property which the churchwardens (elected the previous year under new statutes) recorded in their minute-book, which is now in the archdiocesan archives in Cape Town. Many items on the inventory match those in the manifest.
Although the subject-matter is not recorded, an “altarpiece” referred to must surely be the painting of the Flight into Egypt brought from Holland in 1805. This sufficiently explains the dedication of the cathedral in Cape Town (and the dedication of the vicariate) to St Mary of the Flight into Egypt.
There are eyewitness accounts of the chapel, and three artists left six views of it from every angle. All the views date from the 1830s; two eyewitness accounts date from the 1820s.
The longest is a report Fr Rishton gave in a letter in 1833.
In an earlier letter to a friend in 1828, Fr Rishton calls the chapel “a pretty little Gothic building capable of accommodating about 500 persons”. The artists’ views bear that out. He added: “Great improvements have been made and are making in the chapel.”
The later letter, addressed to Bishop Morris on Mauritius, is a lugubrious retrospect of the disputes, so there is a likelihood of hyperbole in the two passages describing the poor condition of the building as he found it on arrival at Cape Town in 1827.
The first passage reads: “…the building itself remained in an unfinished and deplorable state: an experimental zinc roof laid on unscientifically admitted the rain in all directions; there was no pulpit; and the whole interior arrangement was faulty in every respect.”
The second notes that “the very defective state of the building admitting the rain in all parts, and thereby damaging and warping all the interior woodwork, made absolutely necessary that attention should be immediately given to these affairs”.
Fr Rishton wrote that it was he and Fr Wagener who ordered the work to be done, at no little expense. As a result, “part of the interior was repaired, and galleries completed, by which, accommodation was afforded for the military”.
The defects of the chapel’s construction were common to all brick buildings at the Cape at that time. A survey in 1819 of the Lutheran church on Strand Street, which still exists, found the roof timbers rotten, necessitating their immediate replacement.
In 1834 the end walls of a half-built Anglican church fell in. By then, zinc roofs were no longer experimental and the surveyor recommended one for Wynberg. The roof of the Groote Kerk was condemned in 1835.
The Catholic chapel’s collapse in 1837 was attributable to persistent and torrential rains while the roof had been dismantled pending emergency replacement of the timbers.
The artists’ views delight in the Neo-Gothic style which, for churches, was still a novelty even in England. An architectural historian says Fr Scully’s chapel was the first church at the Cape wholly in the Gothic idiom. By the 1840s the style was widespread.
The significance is that the medieval style coupled with a cross on the end gable was, for the Cape, a revolutionary announcement that the building was a place of Christian worship. There was a bell-cote with bell; an organ fund.
Contrary to widespread opinion, it was not small. As mentioned above, Fr Rishton says its capacity was 500.
Marten Teenstra, a Dutchman invaliding at the Cape in 1825, wrote that he and a friend rode their horses through the great west door as far as “the unprepossessing altar”.
So it seems that the common misperception — one stated by Mgr Frederick Kolbe in The South African Catholic Magazine in 1891 and since often repeated—of it as “a wretched and decaying little chapel” is not true.
In the issue of December 27, Martin Keenan will look at the extent of persecution of Catholics in the Cape.
The first part in this series “Why South Africa’s Catholic History Matters“
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