Early Days…. Catholic Church in Rondebosch
Quick Reads by Jack Rivers
The cold winter winds howl through the trees and driving rain pelts the faithful as they trudge forward along the muddy road to Cape Town. The road bordered by vineyards that run along the sides Devil’s Peak. The vines stand waving their spindly branches like scarecrows in the winter landscape. Come summertime the vines will yield sweet hanepoort grapes. But now, they offer no comfort to the cold pedestrians as they trudge onward to St. Mary’s Cathedral.
The more fortunate parishioners would travel with Cutter’s horse drawn omnibus. The well off would have their private carriages or carts with some sort of waterproofing. The majority would have had to walk. Leaving midday on Saturday and returning on Sunday morning after Mass. This would have been the scene in the early 1850’s after St. Mary’s was completed.
The early Cape Catholic community had a difficult time and only had a chapel in Harrington Street, which was built in 1822. By 1838 this chapel was in bad way, as was the community.
Bishop Patrick Raymond Griffiths OP arrived in Cape Town and wasted no time in getting a plan together to get a cathedral built. The stone was laid in 1841 and the cathedral was dedicated ten years later on the 28th April 1851.
St. Mary’s Cathedral had cost twice the original estimated amount.
Bishop Patrick Griffith’s work was not completed yet. He needed to establish a church midway between Wynberg and Cape Town to make the lives of the parishioners in the south a little easier.
Funds were hard to come by as many people had assisted with the building of the cathedral. Money did slowly become available and a piece of ground was purchased from the Rouwkoop estate in Rondebosch on the banks of Liesbeeck River during 1854.
The Bishop sent his brother Fr. John Joseph Griffith to be the first priest. Mass was celebrated in a rented cottage near the site of the present day Dutch Reformed Church. The cottage was also the residence for Fr. John.
The first attempt at building a church did not go well as a flood caused it to collapse before it was even completed. The presbytery was however completed and Mass was celebrated in the two front rooms.
Father John Griffith’s health suffered in the damp condition and he had to return to Europe early in 1858.
Father Thomas Meagher took up the post and the church was finally completed. Bishop Patrick Griffith opened the new church on the 8th May 1858. The St. Mary’s Cathedral choir sang at the opening ceremony.
Fr. Meagher started a small school in one of the rooms at the presbytery. Miss C. Barry assisted Fr. Meagher with the teaching.
This soon became too small and roofing in the area between the presbytery and the church created additional space. Miss C. Barry assisted Fr. Meagher with the teaching.
The congregation grew quickly as emigrant ships arrived with German families.
These facilities served the community until 1886. Fr. Meagher’s health had also been adversely affected by the damp. He served the community for thirty years. Fr. James Kelly took over from Fr. Meagher.
Bishop Dr. Leonard took over from Bishop Patrick Griffith. The new Bishop found the over crowding at the Rondebosch church unacceptable and decided to build a new church and presbytery. The old church was turned into an addition classroom for the school.
The new St Michael’s stone church was designed in an old English style by Dr. Rooney and was officially opened by Bishop Leonard during 1886. The church was sadly demolished in 1969. There was much debating before this took place.
Some of the windows from the stone church have been incorporated in the new buildings.
Father James Kelly was the parish priest until 1922. Thirty-six years of service in the Rondebosch parish. Fr. James Kelly was a man of great faith and was known for his simple kindness.
The area between Rondebosch and Woodstock grew from the influx of refugees from the Anglo Boer War. The Rondebosch Common was a massive tent camp for British soldiers during this war. This would have placed a great load on the Rondebosch parish.
The Dominican sisters have had a close relationship with St. Michaels over the many years.
A major metrological event took place in the Cape during this period.
The Great Winter Northwest Gale of 17th May 1865. There were twenty-four ocean-going vessels in the bay on this day. By the next morning there were only six left afloat.
The RMS Dane was lucky enough to be just beyond the breakers off Woodstock beach. Her sister ship, the RMS Athens however ended up on the rocks off Mouille Point. A total of forty-eight boats were lost over twenty-four hours. The RMS Dane was the first Union Line ship to Cape Town. 1847
Another interesting addition to this history is that the electric tramway line was opened on the main road between Sea Point and Wynberg during 1896. Cape Town also had its first power station opened just before the tramway line was commissioned.
This was followed by the railway line that runs very close to St Michael’s.
The parish decided that a larger more modern church was needed in 1970.
Cardinal Owen McCann laid the stone on the 3rd May 1970 and Cardinal Owen McCann dedicated the modern St. Michael’s Church 29th September 1971.
The pioneering and evangelical spirit of the early priests and community lives on in the current community.