Priests of the

Sacred Heart

South African Province

 

"...our whole vocation, our purpose, our duty, our promises, are found in these words:

Ecce venio...

Ecce ancilla.."

The History of the SCJs in South Africa

Teresa Mission

In June, 1923 the pope Pius XI requested Fr. Dehon to send missionaries to South Africa and the Catholic Congregation for the propagation of the Faith encouraged the German Province to assign members of their community to this area in Africa. The Mission Procurator Fr. Wolfgang F. Demont SCJ was nominated the first Apostolic Prefect of the new mission field, the Gariep Prefecture, which comprised of the Southern area of the Kimberly vicariate and the Northern area of the Port Elizabeth vicariate. The first SCJ missionaries led by Fr. Demont arrived in Aliwal North on 28 November 1923. They were fathers Johann Berle SCJ, Gerhard Schultz SCJ and brother Bonaventura Weber SCJ.

In January 1927 notwithstanding almost insurmountable difficulties the Priests of the Sacred Heart established their first mission in the Herschel district. The Africans of that area has never heard of the Catholic Church. Only the Durch Reformed and Anglican Churches had sent their missionaries to the area over the past years to spread the Christian faith.

The existing civil law prohibited the entry of the Europeans into the African territory except for the purpose of business transactions. Fr. Demont remained undaunted and persistent in his endeavour to purchase a mission site in the area. For this reason he visited several traders in Herschel, one of whom, a Coloured man by the name of Gallen, owned few businesses in the region. One of them was situated near a deep ravine that frequently flooded and became silted up during the rainy season. It consisted of four acres of land on which the shop was located, besides the three dilapidated mud-huts and a fenced enclosure for goats.

Following one particularly wet season Mr. Gallen decided to sell the property to the "white man" in Aliwal North. Fr. Demont gracefully accepted the offer and did not question the high purchase price demanded by Mr. Gallen. On receiving the cheque Mr. Gallen studied it for a while and than tore it up declaring that the plot was his gift to the "Church of God". This marked the beginning of the long and close friendship between the two men.

During October 1927 monsignor Demont and Fr. August Mannersdorfer SCJ who had arrived in South Africa in 1924 with nine other priests and brothers, turned the first sod for the foundation of the first SCJ mission in the Herschel district. They pitched a tent between the shed and the dilapidated huts in which to sleep and eat. This was the start of the "Mission among the ruins", as it became known, and where, weather permitting, the two priests celebrated Holy Mass in the open air.

Between 1924 and 1945 the mission recorded a steady growth. In 1945 Fr Franz Wamhof arrived in South Africa nad has been appointed as the priest in charge of Teresa Mission. An untiring, enthusiastic young missionary was assigned to continue the work of the SCJs in the area. He was known to have walked long distances in all kinds of weather in order to make contact with as wide range of people as possible. Within a short time he had mastered two local languages Sesotho and Xhosa and became a welcome guest in the huts of both races. He was named "Ntate Thabo"- Father Joy. He had seen the necessity of establishing the outstations so that people living at a distance would not have to walk to the Mission and the priest would be able to go to them instead. He founded new missions depended on the Teresa Mission, namely Walaza, Ndofela, Thaba Lesoba. Mmusong, Qhemegha and Mnqumeni. He died prematurely of exhaustion in 1950.

The first Catholic Seminary in South Africa

Working towards the establishing of the local Church the newly appointed bishop Demont of Aliwal North erected the seminary for the African vocations to the priesthood in 1929. It was the first seminary in South Africa and Fr. Joseph Hillekamp SCJ was appointed as its director. The first priests from the Sacred Heart Seminary were ordained in November 1934. In October 1939 the first priests for the Aliwal North diocese were ordained and in 1940 the first group of the SCJ priests was ordained. As the result of the shortage of students the seminary was closed at the end of 1945 and the building became a hostel for the girls.

Bethulie

In December 1937 a property was acquired in Bethulie to be used as a Retreat House for the priests and brothers and the residence of the Regional Superior of the SCJs. In 1938, Fr. Clemens Holzenkamp was appointed as the first Superior. Since 1939 a small congregation had been attending Holy Mass in the Monastery chapel. In the township the Eucharist was celebrated in private huts until 1940 when the house with a fairly large room was bought to be used exclusively for the church services. In 1947 the church of St. Peter and St. Paul was built.

New diocese of Aliwal North

In January 1951 when the whole of South Africa was ecclesiastically reconstructed the Gariep Vicariate became the diocese of Aliwal North. Fr. Johann Lück who came from Germany in 1938 was consecrated as bishop of the Vicariate in 1947 remained in office until his retirement in 1973 following the 50th anniversary of the SCJs in South Africa.

SCJs in the De Aar region

During the II World War the freedom and therefore the work of the SCJs of the German Province was very limited and in some instances entirely curtailed as a result of the internment of the German SCJs. The prospect of the assistance from Germany was bleak. The American Province met the plea for assistance. In June 1948 the first SCJs arrived from America and the prospect for more priests and brothers coming to South Africa was excellent as many volunteers were available in the American Province for the services in the foreign missions. In 1953 the diocese of Aliwal North was divided so that approximately 60% of it's territory formed the new Prefecture of De Aar. The mission work was entrusted to the American SCJs and Fr. Aloysius Dettmer was appointed the first Apostolic Prefect of the region which consisted of an area of about 48 thousand square kilometers and a Catholic population of about three thousand. At the time of its establishment the SCJ priests were resident at St. Mary's and St. John's churches in De Aar as well as Middelburg. The American priests and brothers on assuming duties in a strange land, apart from having to adapt to the harsh climatic conditions of the Karoo and the necessity of having to learn several African languages made a valuable contribution to the region.

In 1967 the Prefecture was raised to a diocese and Fr. General Joseph De Palma was consecrated as the first bishop of De Aar. Slow but steady progress continued to be made in the new churches and parish halls, and the number of Catholics in the diocese was reckoned to be in the region of six thousand.

Present reality of the SCJs in South Africa

As the years went by mission work continued to progress in both regions, the Catholic population increased firmly and the new churches were consecrated. The shortage of priests, however, remained as a problem. The first group of the SCJs from Poland came to South Africa at the invitation of the Regional Superior of De Aar. On 01 May, 1992 Fr. Joseph Potocnak SCJ was ordained the new bishop of De Aar. This memorable occasion was another proof of the appreciation of the SCJ missionary work in the region.

On 27 February 1988 Fr. Fritz Lobinger a diocesan priest was ordained as the bishop of Aliwal North. He was also concerned about the lack of the local vocations and his already elderly personnel. He visited Poland in order to seek assistance from the Polish province of the SCJs as well. At bishop Lobinger's request more Polish SCJs arrived in Aliwal North during 1990s.

Formation of the South African Province

Although the idea of the formation of a South African Province had been considered and discussed for a long time, the arrival of the young priests from Poland was an added incentive to the concept. Following many discussions and meetings at the General Chapter in Rome the idea of unity was realized. The priests and brothers who were members of the German, American and Polish provinces as well as the South African members of the SCJs were united on 02 February 1995 at the inauguration of the South African Province.