St. Jude's  is the oldest sandstone building in Oudtshoorn. Picture Myrtle Ryan
St. Jude's is the oldest sandstone building in Oudtshoorn. Picture Myrtle Ryan

Durban - At a time when female architects were unknown, Sophy Gray was designing churches. Of course, it was helpful that she was the wife of Bishop Robert Gray, the first Bishop of Cape Town.

In adition to being an architect, British-born Sophy was an artist and keen horsewoman. It is said her love of riding brought her into contact with young Robert Gray who was then Rector of Whitworth in Durham. In fact, they spent much of their honeymoon on horseback.

When the couple came to South Africa, Sophy brought along with her plans of churches that could be adapted. Clearly she must have used these as a basis for the many designs that flowed from her architectural stylus.

It is said both she and her husband favoured the neo-Gothic style which was fashionable in Britain at that time.

Sophy’s earliest design was St Paul’s Church in Eerste River, in 1848, and her last, in 1880, St Matthew’s in Willowmore.

Most of the churches attributed to her are in the Eastern and Western Cape, but she was also the architect of St Peter’s Church in Maritzburg and of St Patrick’s Church in Umzinto on KwaZulu-Natal’s south coast, which dates back to 1868.

St Peter’s Church, completed in 1857, was commissioned by Bishop Colenso. Due to the controversy surrounding Colenso, he was replaced by Bishop Macrorie, who chose to use St Saviour’s as his cathedral.

With the healing of the schism in the church in 1891 a new Maritzburg cathedral, Holy Nativity, was built. St Saviour’s was demolished, but St Peter’s still stands in the grounds of the present day cathedral.

Sophy was certainly prolific. She could claim some 40 churches. Obviously with houses of God scattered as far afield as Beaufort West, Swellendam, Knysna, Somerset East, Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Mossel Bay, Clanwilliam, Victoria West, Uniondale, Robertson, Caledon, Montagu, Riversdale, Bredasdorp, Fraserburg, Ceres and Plettenberg Bay, not to mention Cape Town, it was impossible to visit them all.

So I chose a few. St James’ Church in Graaff Reinet, designed in 1848, is said to be one of her earliest ventures, though some maintain the design she submitted was never chosen when it came to the actual construction. Be that as it may, it is the oldest original church building still in use in the town – with several additions having been made over the years.

Shortly after coming to this country in 1847, Bishop Gray set off on horseback to visit his farflung diocese. Arriving in Graaff Reinet in 1848, he encouraged his little congregation there – who had been using school premises for their worship – to raise funds for their own church.

Apparently three plans were submitted, among them one drafted by Sophy. It is not certain whether some of her suggestions were incorporated into the new church. It is certainly a grandiose building. A ring of bells was funded by local businessmen. These were eventually recast into the present heavy bell. A comment in a church pamphlet on the history of the church, reads: “Sidesmen nearly rupture themselves trying to ring this before services.”

The tiny Christ Church in Colesberg, built in 1849, is almost completely clad in ivy.

St Peter’s Church in Cradock, dating back to 1857, is set in a peaceful garden.

The one I, personally, know best (having worshipped there) is St Jude’s Church in Oudtshoorn, which dates back to 1860. The trees and gardens which often form the greater picture of a church, are all located at the back of St Jude’s.

Again it was Bishop Gray who played a role in its history. He passed through in 1849 on his way from Beaufort West (where Sophy was to have a hand in School Chapel and later in that town’s Christ Church). Then in 1855, he was escorted through the Cango Caves by a local farmer. Shortly afterwards an Anglican community was founded in Oudtshoorn.

By 1860, Sophy had drawn up plans for a place of worship. Meanwhile a local architect had been commissioned to build a new Dutch church, as well as a jail, using Scottish stone masons. While waiting for approval, the masons were enlisted by the then Anglican Minister of Oudtshoorn, to start building his church, St Jude’s – which was not just the first church, but the first sandstone building in the town.

It seems St Jude’s is also the only church in the Church of the Province of South Africa dedicated solely to this saint.

Bishop Gray gave St Jude’s financial help to build the adjoining parsonage, and guess who designed it – Sophy, of course.

She died in Bishopscourt, Cape Town in 1871 and was buried in the graveyard of St Saviour’s in Claremont, also of her design.

Sunday Tribune