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The intensely-decorated interior of St Joseph’s Cathedral at Mariannhill Monastery. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

The intensely-decorated interior of St Joseph’s Cathedral at Mariannhill Monastery. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jun 22, 2022


Durban - Mariannhill Monastery is rich in stories.

The institution that comprises cathedrals, schools and a hospital was started in 1882 by “silent” Trappist monks who also established a string of out stations all the way up to the Drakensberg.

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Stories jump out from any corner. Things you never heard of on your last visit. Like the existence of whale bones at the entrance to the old library.

Walkers on a tour of Mariannhill Monastery make their way towards St Joseph’s Cathedral.

“When they built the whaling station in Durban, Brother Niverd Streicher (the architect without qualification who designed the Mariannhill missions) helped design one of the buildings,” explained tour guide Ruth Hagen.

“They offered him payment, which he said he could not take, so they gave Mariannhill these bones.”

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Senior clergy quietly discuss church affairs in the dining room for brothers at the Mariannhill Monastery. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

It’s the high note she ends her walking tour on, a stone’s throw from the tea garden that, from next month, should be supplied with fresh produce from the veggie garden across the road.

Mission stations are always about self-sufficiency.

The steeple of the Mariannhill Monastery Church and its tranquil garden. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Mariannhill takes it further, producing candles, metal work, clothes and publishing books for anyone wishing to place orders. And all done in century old buildings of home-made bricks characteristic of Mariannhill and its outstations.

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The mechanics of the bell that rings from the Mariannhill Monastery Church steeple. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Hagen’s link to Mariannhill started in Switzerland where, growing up, she heard of the place in Africa to which her great aunt, Maria Hagen, a devout Roman Catholic, made donations.

“She sponsored a priest in Switzerland. He later became the Bishop of Umtata and, from there, he moved up to Bulawayo and became the archbishop. Bulawayo (diocese) is actually linked to Mariannhill. Also, she donated a lot of money to Mariannhill.”

A heavy old key is still in service at Mariannhill Monastery, which was founded In 1882. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Hagen added that her great aunt had not been allowed to marry because she fell in love with a German and Switzerland was neutral during World War 2.

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“So, she dedicated her life and whatever money she had to the church.”

Her uncle, Meinrad Schlatter, also took an interest in Mariannhill. He was an electrician and instead of donating money, came to South Africa and offered the monastery his skills.

With solid support to its roof, the Mariannhill Monastery Church was built to last. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Brother Albert, the monastery’s carpenter, has been there 31 years and remembers him.

“Yes, in the tailor shop and workshop that’s closed now. He helped with that.”

In St Joseph’s Cathedral, Brother Albert paid special attention to a wooden tabernacle (sacrament house), one of countless features of amazing craft and artwork in the building.

The carefully crafted altar in the Mariannhill Monastery Church. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

“Thieves broke in and smashed it. So, I rebuilt a completely new one. Then the one sister did all the stained glass inside.“

He designed the decorations on the locally sourced timber.

“It took me about a month to do it because I had to turn all the legs out on the lathe.”

Brother Albert did carpentry at school and, as an adult worked as a carpenter for the Natal Provincial Administration.

Brother Albert of the Mariannhill Monastry with the tabernacle he built in St Joseph’s Cathedral, after thieves destroyed the last one. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

“The church kept asking me to do things for them. In the end they said, why not join?” he said.

The tailor’s workshop is a hive of activity, where workers make robes for those who have joined the clergy, some on machines with the legendary Singer branding. Mannequins stand around waiting to be fitted. One appears to factor in a “boep”.

A close-up view of the intensely-decorated interior of St Joseph’s Cathedral at Mariannhill Monastery. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Next door, Durban University of Technology fashion, design and textile graduate Malungi Mkhize teaches women cutting, sewing, pattern-making and grading courses. The 60-day classes are made up of 10 women at a time and is a free service Mariannhill Monastery offers to the community.

“They can branch out, get their own machinery, do something. If we had the money, we’d give them machines.”

The final resting place of Abbott Franz Pfanner, founder of Mariannhill Monastery, watched over by his statue. There are several other graves here. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Over in the cemetery, a statue of Austrian Abbot Franz Pfanner looms high among several other graves, including those of brothers and nuns. He died in 1909 having founded the Mariannhill Monastery in 1882.

“He came here at 56 when most of us are retiring,“ said Hagen.

She also pointed at a line of nine different types of graves, those of British soldiers who died at the nearby Sarnia Hospital during World War II. Their names include Pte S Smyth; Pte W. Watson of the Rand Rifles; Rory Owen; Pte G Gallagher of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers; Pte G Bennie of the Royal Draconians; Bdr G Murray of the RFA; Pte J Cassidy of the Northumberland Engineers; Pte J Jackson of the 13th Lancers; Pte M E Lloyd of the King’s Royal Rifles and S/Smith John Madden of the Royal Engineers.

Stained glass windows in St Joseph’s Cathedral. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Palm trees and cycads decorate the graveyard and the rest of the monastery, reminding one that Mariannhill, with its old-fashioned European architecture, is very much in Africa.

Mosaic and statues decorate a wall at the Mariannhill Monastery. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Poinsettias in flower add a streak of red. Digressing for a moment from the Mariannhill story, Hagen points out they’re actually indigenous to Mexico. However, they’re in sufficient abundance in the gardens of the monastery to make them part of the local African scene of Mariannhill, where stories come out of every corner.

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Mpilo Dominic Mtolo makes candles for Roman Catholic churches and for anyone else who may order them. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

The Independent on Saturday

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