Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Story of Johannesburg's Cathedral of Christ the King

By Fr J E Brady OMI

"Later on we might do the beautiful and the grand and then we mean to do it right well"-these words were written sixty-five years ago by the priest, Father Aloysius Schoch O.M.I., who built the Kerk St. Pro-Cathedral to be a future Parish Hall but to serve as a Church until the building of the Cathedral proper. He hoped to realise this plan on the adjoining stands within the decade, but it is only today that the Cathedral of Christ the King has been realised on a completely new site. In a few months time Johannesburg will celebrate its seventy-fifth birthday. The Church has played an important part in the development of this metropolis and the opening and dedication of the New Cathedral of Christ the King, will be for all a vision realised, a dream come true, a promise fulfilled, a long series of sacrifices rewarded. The story of the events of the past three quarters of a century must be of interest to all, if for no other reason that they may appreciate the solid foundations laid by the pioneers and the manner in which the next generation has built upon those foundations.


While visits were made across the Vaal River in the early fifties by pioneer missionaries, Fr. Juaquin da Santa Rita Montanha (from Mozambique) and Fr. Hoenderwanger, O. Praem (from Fauresmith) our story really begins in 1870 when freedom of Catholic Worship was granted in the South African Republic, and Fr. Le Bihan O.M.I, established the first mission in Potchefstroom, the former Capital.

With the finding of gold in the Eastern Transvaal (1875) Fr. Walsh, O.M.I, came from Natal and built a small Church at Pilgrims Rest and later at Lydenburg. It was Bishop Jolivet O.M.I, of Natal who journeyed by post cart to Pretoria (1877) and dedicated the new mission in the Capital to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Almost a decade later when the diggers travelled from the Diamond Fields with the exciting news that gold had been found in Barberton and De Kaap they little realised that they were crossing over the richest gold mine in the world-the hidden goldfields of the Witwatersrand.

The following year an outcrop of gold bearing rock was found by chance at Langlaagte and in the September (1886) President Kruger declared the fields "a public digging", it was thus the mining camp was born. As the news spread prospectors came from all parts of South Africa and even from overseas to seek their fortune on the "Ridge of White Waters". As the numbers increased visits were made by the Oblate Fathers in Pretoria and in February 1887 arrangements were made to say Mass for the Catholics among the prospectors.

First Mass

A very significant entry is found in the diary of Fr. L. Trabaud, O.M.I, on February 19th. "I set out at 9.30 in the conveyance of Mr. Guerin for the Goldfields of the Witwatersrand. We were five travellers, Mr. Coleman a Jew, Mr. James-a Wesleyan Minister, a Salvation Army Officer, a young man and myself. I stayed with Mrs. Brennan who had prepared a comfortable place for me.

"February 20th. Sunday-I said the first Mass that has ever been celebrated on this plateau, open veldt up to the present. A reed hut, the Bakery of the Camp, is put at my disposal by Mr. Whelan of Bloemfontein. There were thirty-three Catholics present." The exact site of this first Mass is lost to us. But it was situated in Ferreira's Camp to the west of the present City Hall. By April there were over sixty people present when Fr. Trabaud again visited the Camp to say Mass in the house of Mr. Kennedy-to-day this site is marked by the New Magistrate's Court. The following month, Fr. Mongi-noux, the first Prefect Apostolic of the Transvaal, travelled over from Pretoria to take up residence on the Goldfields and he tells us that "the town they are building is to be called Johannesburg."

We get a good picture of prevailing conditions in the account which follows. "The beginnings of the new mission were rough and ready, the work overwhelming. One had to search among this motley crowd of diggers for those who were Catholics and then plead with them lest in the mad rush for gold they should forget their religious duties. Saturdays were particularly tiring. Where will we have Mass tomorrow? That was the question that had to be answered. We had no actual Church and we moved about, choosing some sort of spot that would be central for the miners to attend. Today, one would fix on an unfinished storeroom, next Sunday a stable and so on. Having decided on the place we had to notify the people by going the rounds of the camp."

In the light of the many Churches and our magnificent Cathedral in the city today, it is well we realise that it was only seventy-five years ago that primitive conditions prevailed.

First Church

Thanks to the generosity of the miners, Protestants as well as Catholics, Fr. Monginoux was able to buy a piece of ground and to build a small Church, with a three-roomed dwelling for the priest on one side, and a temporary Convent and School room adjoining, for the Holy Family Sisters whom he hoped to get from Natal.
Once again we are indebted to the diary written by Fr. Trabaud for the following interesting details of the first Church on the Witwatersrand, August 20-21st 1887. It reads as follows: "Fr. de Lacy, myself and Arthur Knight (the latter was a boarder at Loreto Convent School, his father was proprietor of one of the early mines on the Goldfields) set out for Johannesburg in a private vehicle about 10 a.m. We arrived at 5 p.m. We found Fr. Monginoux making the final details for the decoration of the School-Chapel which had been built on the corner of Fox and Smal Streets. The small convent which is attached to it is nearly finished. The neighbourhood is still just bare veldt, but the town is growing rapidly.

August 21st was the feast of St. Joachim, the patron of Pope Leo XIII (then reigning Pontiff). As the mission began on February 20th the anniversary of the election of His Holiness, Fr. Monginoux gave the name of St Leo, as the second patron. The ceremony of Blessing the new Church began at 11 a.m. and ended at 2 o'clock. We dined at the home of Messrs. J. and W. Quinn." Within the next week Fr. S. Hammer O.M.I, arrived from Kimberley to be Parish Priest.

Second Church

Within five years these buildings were quite inadequate and a large Church and presbytery were built on the diagonally opposite corner-Main and Von Weilligh Streets. These buildings were standing until three years ago. Meanwhile the former first Church provided accommodation for the ever increasing number of school children.
In 1895 the Holy Family Sisters acquired a former Club and adjoining ground in End Street and the decision was made to sell the whole block, Fox, Smal, Main and Von Weilligh and build a large and more permanent edifice near the Convent.

There is a story of those early days which will be of particular interest to the Kerk Street parishioners today.

Picture Johannesburg at that time. Its eastern boundary and hence the name was End Street: to the west was Fordsburg, where a small Church had been erected in Crown Road-1891. Doornfontein was then the residential area of the town. Towards the close of 1890 Father Monginoux, was returning to the Presbytery in Fox Street, after visiting some of his parishioncrs in in Doornfontein. He crossed over the open space now bounded by Kerk, Gold, Pritchard and Nugget Streets. Its size, locality etc. immediately struck him as ideal for a Church site. With a prayer in his heart, he took a medal of Our Lady from his pocket and pushed it into the ground, driving it in with his walking stick.

Two years passed by and in 1892, Fr. Monginoux was succeeded by Fr. A. Schoch. One of the new Prefect's first duties was the choice of a new and larger site for a Church. He built the second Church already referred to on the corner of Main and Von Weilligh Streets, but three years later the whole block was acquired by Castle Brewery, and Providence guided him in the choice of the new site to the one for which Fr. Monginoux had offered that fervent prayer.


Kerk Street Church, the Church and Presbytery erected in Kerk Street was quite an ambitious building for the early days of the mining town.

The foundation stone was blessed and laid by Bishop Jolivet O.M.I. is this small stone that has been now transferred to the Cathedral and set into the wall at the main entrance in Saratoga Avenue.

The details of that ceremony will be of interest to us of the next generation. The date was Sunday June 7th. Solemn High Mass was sung that morning in the Convent School Hall in End Street by Fr. Van Laar with Fathers de Lacy and Tresch as Deacon and Sub-deacon. His Lordship presided and after the Mass administered Confirmation to some forty candidates. At 3.30 p.m. a large crowd gathered within the walls of the new Church, and two stones, one for the Church and another for the Presbytery, were blessed and placed in position by the Bishop. In his speech Fr. Van Laar spoke of how fitting it was that the pioneer missionary in the Transvaal, His Lordship, should have performed this ceremony and expressed the regret of all present at the unavoidable absence of Fr. Schoch

to whose zeal and organising ability the erection of the buildings were due. Fr. Schoch was away in German West Africa preparing for the arrival of the first Oblate Missionaries.

We are told that over £300 was placed by the people on the foundation stone towards the Building Fund.

On Sunday, November 15th the new Church dedicated under the title of the Immaculate Conception was solemnly opened. Bishop Anthony Gaughren O.M.I, of Kimberley, performed the ceremony and preached.

A third ceremony took place on June 27th of the following year, the solemn blessing and inauguration of the new organ. This time Fr. Schoch was present and paid tribute to the excellent work of the choir under Mr. J. P. O'Rielly in their rendering of the Church's music and through whose efforts the funds for the new organ had been collected.

Such were the beginnings of the Kerk St. Pro-Cathedral which for over sixty years has been the Mother Church of the city and whose memories will be forever imprinted upon the minds of tens of thousands of Catholics throughout South Africa.

Plans for Cathedral

With the establishment of the Union of South Africa, conditions generally became more permanent. Johannesburg, due to the development of the many mines, grew rapidly into a town, then a city extending itself into new suburbs on every side. It became increasingly difficult for the priests to keep up with the expansion; however, small Churches were established to meet the needs of the growing population both European and non-European.
Meanwhile the idea of a Cathedral to replace the temporary edifice in Kerk Street was not lost sight of but like every Mother, the Pro-Cathedral sacrificed itself for her young. It is true to say that had the Bishop acted otherwise many opportunities of excellent sites and subsequent facilities for our people would have been lost.

A motor car drive from Clarendon Circle in either a north easterly or north westerly direction, and the pin pointing of our Churches, Convents, Colleges and Institutions today is proof positive of the wisdom of the pioneer priests. While the collection of funds for a Cathedral had commenced before the turn of the century it was only in 1937, on the occasion of the celebrations for the Golden Jubilee of Johannesburg's first Mass, that Bishop D. O'Leary made known his ambitious plans for a Cathedral, on the Kerk Street site.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 meant the postponement of his ideas and before it was over Bishop O'Leary sold half of the Kerk Street block with a view to purchasing a more central site for the Cathedral.

It is to his successor, Bishop W. P. Whelan, now Archbishop of Bloemfontein, that we owe the debt of gratitude for purchasing the site on Saratoga Avenue, just off End Street, well served by the City Transport, with facilities for parking and with a commanding position below the Berea.

Meanwhile the task of building up a sum of money for the Cathedral Fund was redoubled and here tribute must be given to Very Rev. Fr. J. G. Braniff, Administrator, for his untir|ng and most successful efforts in this direction. Bishop Whelan entrusted the plans for a Cathedral on the new site to Mr. Gregory of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In 1954 came the news of the appointment of His Lordship to be Archbishop of Bloemfontein and the transfer of Bishop Boyle from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg. Almost from the date of his arrival Bishop Boyle was most enthusiastic about the building of the Cathedral as soon as possible.

Various changes were made in the former plan, undertaken by Mr. Gregory's son, Mr. Brian Gregory B.A., A.R.I.B.A., M.R.I.A., and all the preliminaries having been gone through, the foundation stone of the Cathedral was laid by Bishop O'Leary, and blessed by Bishop Boyle on June 29th, 1958, the Centenary Year of the Apparitions of Our Blessed Lady at Lourdes. On that occasion Bishop Boyle remarked how fitting it was that the ceremony should take place on the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul. "As this building is for us a confession of faith in the Divinity of Christ, of trust in His promises, an indication of our love and sign of our loyalty, as a practical proof we are erecting our Cathedral to His honour and glory.

"We are particularly happy to have with us today and to take an active part in this ceremony, Bishop O'Leary whose desire it always had been to have a Cathedral in this city and we are indeed happy that he will have this desire realised," concluded His Lordship. Alas it was not to be. Within a few weeks following this ceremony Bishop O'Leary passed to his reward. His remains are to be reinterred in the crypt of the Cathedral.

During the last two years the work of building has gone on continually. Every Catholic and many other citizens too, have taken an interest in the progress made and as the shell of the edifice reached completion it was with pride that all looked forward to the opening ceremony.

This then is the story of the Cathedral of Christ the King in our City. Elsewhere in this brochure there are detailed descriptions and explanations of its many features. Here is a story of visions and dreams, of untold sacrifices, that with God's help has been brought to reality.

As we of our time feel grateful to the pioneers so future generations will, we trust, offer a fervent prayer for the part we have played and in turn through the years they will enhance, embellish and ultimately complete this House of God in the City of Gold.

Let us hope we have fulfilled the promise made by Father Schoch over sixty years ago "Later on we might do the beautiful and the grand and then we mean to do it right well."

No comments: