Our Holy Cross Congregation began in Switzerland in 1844, the founder being Fr Theodosius Florentini (OFM Capuchin from the Romansch-speaking part of Switzerland) and our foundress, Mother Bernarda Heimgartner (from central Switzerland).
Through the instrumentality of Abbot Franz Pfanner of Mariannhill — whose beatification cause began recently — and Bishop Jolivet from the then Durban Vicariate, our Superior General at the Motherhouse in Menzingen was asked to send Swiss Sisters to work with the Mariannhill priests and brothers in their mission of evangelisation in Natal. In 1883 the first 5 pioneer sisters were brought to Durban by Abbot Pfanner, and Umtata became their first mission station.
From that humble beginning grew many other mission stations in southern Africa: in South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia. They eventually divided into the 4 provinces that we now have: Southern African Province 2 70 houses (which include Zimbabwe = 6 houses, Namibia = 6 houses and Ireland: 2 houses); Cape Province = 13 houses, Lesotho Province = 14 houses and Zambian Province = 10 houses.
The Holy Cross mission in District Six, opened in 1910 by our Sisters, was the very first house at the Cape.
It was handed to the Cape Province by the Southern African Province in 1981. Since then about 20 of our Sisters have been ministering in the school and parish as well as using the convent as a base from which to minister in pastoral works and medical fields in the area.
At one stage the convent accommodated pre-postulants and their formation team; at another time 4 semi-retired Sisters lived together in community and were in good contact with the parishioners and the poor in the area.
From 1910 to January 2016 a Holy Cross Sister was always the principal in our Holy Cross Primary School while other Sisters were staff members. Since Sr Mary Quimpo left, after being principal for nearly 20 years, to take on the ministry of provincial leadership, the Western Cape Education Department has been in the process of selecting a new principal; hopefully one will begin next year.
At present 3 Sisters are in Community because of the venue being close to their places of ministry: Sr Rosemarie Watson, Sr Aletta Spogter and Sr Alma Kohler.
Supported by the generosity of parishioners and one other donor the community continues the outreach to the poor, unemployed, migrants and refugees which has always been a part of its ministry here in District Six.
A nice Family Portrait!
This picture was taken long time ago..but probably you can still easily recognise most of these sisters, who have been part of the history of our Community. And where are sr. Alma, sr. Aletta and sr. Rosemarie?!
Some interesting historical notes
about the beginning of the mission of Holy Cross Sisters in District Six
It appears that Sister Philothea on her return from Europe in 1908′ had called on Bishop Rooney in Cape Townwho had asked her about the possibility of starting a Coloured mission at the Cape. This seems to have been the case according to the earliest extant letter from Mother Maria Theresia on the subject.
She wrote: “I was very pleased to receive the information regarding the Coloured Mission School which you gave to our good Sister Philothea… I have already written to Mother General, and as she is very favourably disposed to mission work among the Coloured people, I trust she will not withhold her consent to a small beginning. Thank you for the kindness with which you received our dear Sister when she passed through Cape Town.”
The following month an entry in the Provincial Chronicle recorded that Mother General had given her consent to the foundation:
“Rev. Mother General writes: I willingly give my consent for the Coloured mission in Cape Town as proposed by Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Rooney, Bishop of Cape Town.”
A series of letters followed between the Mother Vicar and the Bishop, although those of the Mother Vicar are the only letters available.
In May, Mother Maria Theresia wrote again:
“Your last letter has given us great pleasure, and confirmed us in our hopes of soon doing some further real mission work… There will be no delay from our side and we shall do our best to have a small staff ready for next year. It is a great relief to me to know that you, my Lord, will take over the building of the school. For the Sisters, I suppose we could rent or buy a suitable cottage nearby, or, if you judge it better, erect a small building with the necessary rooms on the piece of ground you have kindly prepared for us.”
In August, the Bishop was thanked for having sent the contract for signature and the letter continued:
” From your request for our prayers that you may succeed in managing to have our Convent adjoining the school, I conclude that you are planning the erection of a Convent for our Sisters. This is a great relief for me because our funds would not enable us to do anything in that line in the near future. The only way open to me would have been the renting of a cottage for the Sisters.”
The Bishop was obviously doing all in his power to get the mission started, arranging for the building of the school and Convent. It is not surprising, after their experience in the Transkei where the whole responsibility was left to them, that the Sisters should have appreciated the preparations made by Bishop Rooney. This was what they had originally expected when they first came to South Africa in 1883, offering their services as fellow-workers to the Bishop. In November, Mother Maria Theresia wrote:
” It is very encouraging for us to see how generously you provide for the future mission and we are grateful that you succeeded in securing the grant for the teachers, as also that you intend building a small home for them. This is even more than I ever dared hope for.”
In January of the following year, a letter discussed the appointment of teachers and the filling in’of the requisite forms for Sister Jane Francis Sister Lucy, Sister Dympna, Sister Bernadette who were teachers at the new mission. Mother Maria Theresia expressed her gratitude through the Bishop to the Sisters of Nazareth whom he must have asked to accommodate the Sisters until their Convent was ready. However, she was afraid they might inconvenience the Nazareth Sisters by too long a stay and wondered whether they might not make themselves a temporary home in the school building. The letter concluded:
” I read with interest the information you gave about the possibility of further missions. Believe me, my Lord, we have no higher ambition than to extend our work among the Coloured people.”
On 18 January 1910 the four Sisters set off for Cape Town to open the Coloured mission,
A very promising field of work. The Convent is not yet ready for them, so they will lodge at Nazareth House.
Later in the month the Chronicle noted:
” The new Convent school, a handsome new building, has been opened in Cape Town under the direction of our Sisters.”
The first Coloured school at the Cape was, of course, the Searle Street Convent in the famous District Six area. The pleasure which the Mother Vicar experienced at being invited to work among the Coloured people in the Cape Peninsula was the second great break-through into “real” mission work for the Holy Cross Sisters, the first being the Basutoland Mission 1908. It was almost as if a strong intuition had directed Mother Mary Theresia into a sphere of work where the development of the Sisters’ apostolate “would alone justify them as leaders in this sphere”. District Six is a colourful residential and commercial part of the municipal area of Cape Town. It received! the name in 1867 when the Municipal Board Amendment Act laid down that for purposes of elections, the municipality of Cape Town was divided into six districts. District Six is the Southern District from Table Bay to Devil’s Peak. In 1909 the Districts were replaced by eight Wards and District Six was included in Castle Ward However, the earlier name stuck, mainly by reason of its slums and its reputation for crime. This had not always been its character. By the eighteen-forties, respectable middle class whites had moved into the area and a number of Malay and Coloured residents, mostly artisans and small businessmen. During the eighteen-nineties, the rising price of land and the growth of population in Cape Town caused the overcrowding and disgraceful sanitary conditions. Black dock laboureres, in search of a home, moved in, and landlords made high profits from letting dilapidated premises. By the turn of the century, District Six was an unsightly slum, “bawdy hostess” to merchant navies the one Cape Town suburb known in the seaports of the world. In 1901 bubonic plague broke out in the area and the Health Authorities had it razed to the ground. However, between 1902-03, jerry-builders built new houses, most of them unfit to live in. This was the area into which the Holy Cross Sisters were invited in 1910 and, in all their years there, they were not only never molested, but were, in fact, loved and befriended by the people.
The Sisters, on their arrival in Cape Town, were met by Rev. Mother Benignus of Nazareth House and were taken to the Convent of the Nazareth Sisters. The following day Bishop Rooney said Mass for them and interviewed them after they had breakfasted. He then brought the Sisters to see their new school which had been completed with large, airy rooms, but no school desks. They were then taken to the small school for White pupils on Sir Lowry Road, conducted by two Catholic ladies, where there were eighty Pupils on the r0ll.
The Convent in Searle Street had not progressed beyond the foundations. The following day was spent at the school preparing for the opening on 24 January, ten desks having been borrowed from the school in Sir Lowry Road. The new school was expected to accommodate about seventy pupils. The opening day is recorded in the Chronicle:
New School opens. The Sisters greeted by large numbers of shy-looking children both White and Coloured. At 9 a.m. a ‘stream’ of women with ‘masses’ of children ‘poured’ in. Great confusion everywhere. Difficult to understand the names of the children. Mr. D. Craig Department Inspector, arrives on the scene and writes the names of pupils into the registers. The Pupils sit in rows on the floor because of lack of desks. Whites and Coloureds are mixed.”
At the beginning of the following month there was a General Inspector at which the Inspector expressed himself satisfied. This month saw, too, the arrival of fifty dual desks from the firm of J. Bennett, Glasgow. On Easter Monday the Sisters left Nazareth House in two cabs to enter their new home, amidst torrential rain. Three new members of staff joined the community in March. The number of pupils on the roll necessitating this.
The Cape Town Mission has asked for assistant teachers is the numbers of Coloured and White poor children are weekly increasing. Sisters Virgilia, Constance and Claudia are sent to reinforce the staff there.
It would appear that the Sisters took over the little school in Sir Lowry Road as the Ailwai Chronicle continues:
And with this addition they are enabled to take over a school for Poor Whites. This School must have continued until 1918 when an entry records:
Seventeen children in White school, only the sub-standards are being kept.
The Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the new Convent Chapel from the beginning and Holy Mass was said there twice a week. As there was no Catholic Church in the area, the Sisters walked to St. Agnes, Woodstock on other days for Mass.
When School re-opened on Easter Tuesday of this first year, the pupil: were separated according to race, on instructions from the School Inspector.
Two rooms in the school were now occupied by White children. There were two hundred and twenty-three pupils altogether on the roll at this time.” In 1920 when school re-opened, there were twenty-three pupils in the White Sub-standards and as there was no sign of an increase, the White section of the school was closed and the rooms thus vacated, occupied by the Coloured children. The school curriculum included Standards five and six, as mention is made in 1918 of a room being hired in a neighbouring house to accommodate these classes.
Until 1920 when free education was introduced, the Sisters charged fees “one penny a week in the lower classes, fourpence from standard four up.” There is little of unusual interest recorded as regards the progress of the school and, unfortunately, no Chronicle exists for the years from 1927 to 1931. The numbers of pupils increased progressively so that in 1933 a new school building had to be erected:
Accommodation needed for one hundred and one standard three pupils. Fifty-nine boys and squeezed into the passage, thirty-six girls into the Principal’s office; the babies into the Sisters’ Chapel — the Sanctuary screened off by a curtain. The ‘Standard one teacher takes her pupils out of doors.
The new school was opened on 5 May 1933. Yet in 1935 a chronicle entry records: “Rooms overcrowded when school begins”. This lednto further building and a new school was opened in 1939 for Standard two and Sub-standards A and B. “Finally in 1959, a second floor was built above the new Parish Centre to provide six badly-needed classrooms. These latter class-rooms are the property of the parish. By 1955 the number of pupils in the school had risen to over seven hundred. In this year there were thirteen classes in the school, four of the teachers being Sisters and most of the pupils Catholics. When, in 1964, the school came under the control of the Department of Coloured Affairs, it was decided to have one school for Standard six Coloured pupils only, in Cape Town. Holy Cross Searle Street lost three Standard six classes as a result of this move and, in consequence, the number of pupils decreased. However, as in 1971 certain Catholic Coloured schools closed down, the number again increased. In 1971 there were seven hundred and twenty pupils taught by twenty-one teachers although in 1969 the pupils on the register had totalled eight hundred and ninety.
Private music lessons had been introduced from the start and the first Trinity College of Music examinations were taken by twenty-six pupils in 1916. This opportunity to develop their musical talents was much appreciated by the people of the District. Perhaps the best known music school in the area was the Convent where serious students of music learnt to play the piano, violin and cello. The classes proved to be so popular that due to the limited facilities and lack of space the number of students had to be restricted. This gave rise to an almost continual waiting list. Students were entered for the examinations set by Trinity College of Music of London, and in these many of them excelled.”
As the school grew, the Holy Cross parish grew too. The Chronicle notes the regular annual number of baptisms, confirmations and receptions of Holy Communion. The ground adjoining the Convent was bought by the Bishop for the erection of a church in 1915, the church being opened in 1916:
Last Holy Mass in Convent Chapel — altar taken over to new church. As Chapel is vacated we can now move back from No. a 60 Searle Street to Convent.”
1925 saw the resignation of Bishop Rooney and the‘ consecration of his Vicar-General as Bishop J .J . O’Reilly, Vicar Apostolic of Cape Town. ‘In the same year, the Kindergarten classroom was vacated and transformed into a priest’s residence. In May 1926 the first resident priest was stationed at Holy Cross Mission, Searle Street. Later in 1932 the priest had to vacate this ‘cottage’, while another cottage in Nile Street being used for two classrooms was renovated and enlarged to become a new presbytery.” The parish had developed to such an extent that admission to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1934 was by ticket only — the tickets were free, of course. In 1938, the Sisters bought the site of the Nile Street school and the former presbytery for one thousand pounds, the transfer deeds costing forty pounds seven shillings. There was a very special bond between the Sisters and the people in Holy Cross parish. The strong link binding the people to the ‘parish and to one another has been a characteristic of the parish life. Of course, this spirit exists in every parish but it has been particularly strong in Holy Cross parish.“
The 1914-18 war is recorded in the Chronicle although that of 1939 li4g in not. French priests on their way home to France for active service ca e a the Convent while waiting for their ship.
In May 1915: A mob, led by women, soldiers and sailors, wreck and burn shops and stores owned by Germans. The same had been done in Durban and Johannesburg a few days previously.
The following year a letter from Cape Town docks was received 3° stating that the Government of Travancore was sending eight Sisters back to the Motherhouse-in Menzingen on the S.S. Golconda. The Sisters could not leave the ship but the community at Searle Street received‘ permission from the captain of the harbour to board the ship as she lay in Table Bay. It was a joyful meeting. There were altogether ninety-two priests and brothers as well as women and children on the same ship. The Bishop obtained a second permit for the Sisters to visit the ship again by the kind services of the Commissioner of Police. The visits were a source of great pleasure to the Holy Cross Sisters who were being sent back from India. Then in September 1918 the epidemic of Spanish ‘flu struck the Cape. The Sisters offered their services to the Town Council to assist in nursing and feeding the sufferers. The Chronicle records details of families visited — six hundred and thirty-six in one week — and of the soup, porridge, milk and bread served to the poor.
Finally, the Sisters themselves fell ill and the work had to be curtailed. Luckily, they had trained some of their schoolboys to carry supplies to the sick and these were able to help the remaining Sister who was still able to be up and about. 3′ When peace was declared a salvo of guns from the Docks and Signal Hill was answered by every engine and factory hooter in the city.” The following day was declared .a Public holiday. A thanksgiving service was held at St. Mary’s with ‘Te Deum’ and solemn Benediction.
The Convent in Searle Street became a centre of activity for the Holy Cross Sisters. Sisters training as teachers at the Cape Town College resided at the Convent; postulants and Sisters coming from Switzerland, Germany, Ireland now disembarked at Cape Town and spent some time at the Convent before leaving by train for Aliwal North. Catholic visitors, clerical and lay visited the first Catholic Coloured mission at the Cape. Sisters arrived for vacation courses in High Dutch. In 1913 the first hydroplane crossed Table Bay and in 1917 the Sisters and pupils saw for the first time an aeroplane ﬂy over the church and school. Mother Provincial, on her way to and from Europe for the General Chapter stayed at Searle Street as well as coming for regular visitation. It was an exciting place to be in those early years, and as the city grew and developed, the Convent remained a witness to the changes taking place. ‘
Trial runs of trackless tram in Hanover Street. When the new trams are finally approved ‘we shall sleep better at night without the rattle of the old trams….’ Visitors to the Convent never tired of the view from the first floor windows across the jewelled night harbour when huge ships drifted lazily at anchor in the Bay before later developments had cut off the view. The Convent was very proud of the rich harvest of vocations to the priesthood and Religious life from among their pupils in the parish. At least six Coloured boys had become priests, coming back to say Mass in the parish in which they had grown up. Three Religious Brothers and at least six Religious Sisters, some of whom were Holy Cross Sisters, had joined the missionary apostolate of the church to continue the work begun by the Sisters and the first priests at Holy Cross. If this is the acid test for the Catholic School then Holy Cross Mission, Searle Street, passed with ﬂying colours.
However, time changed and the passing years brought sorrow to the Coloured people in ‘District Six’. By 1964 the area was hopelessly overcrowded, with all the concomitant evils such as gang menace, liquor running, dagge smuggling. In this year, the Minister of Community Development appointed a Committee to replan and develop District Six. The area, eighty-six point six per cent of whose population was Coloured, was to be divided up into nine different sections, two of them proclaimed White areas. Most of the properties in the entire area were owned by Whites. This led to the displacement and resettlement of many Coloured people. 35 In an article entitled “The Proclamation” in the Diamond Jubilee brochure, Father L. Henry wrote:
I, quite frankly, see no real reason for celebrating. It may be that I am bitter… It may be that I love Holy Cross so much and consider her still as my first love… We admit that there was progress and development since 1916 until that iniquitous proclamation from the powers that be… District Six is to be a White area. We admit — very sadly too — that that was the beginning of the end of the Holy Cross we knew and loved… it was the beginning of the demolishing of our houses and the beginning of an exodus to the sandy wastelands of “Die Kaapsevlakte” or to the promised land across the seas.
I will always remember 11 February 1966… How could I forget? I remember taking Holy Communion to the sick that day. I remember walking the streets of District Six… walking among its people, – a people, dejected, perplexed and yet hopeful that the God above would somehow intervene.
I remember the evening Mass in the Parish Church and I remember with a sort of sad pride the many tears that were shed that night by priest and people around the altar of God. How could we not weep at man‘s injustice to man?
As a result of the outcry from White people as well as from Coloured, the District was rezoned in 1975. Certain areas were returned to the Coloureds. But the damage had been done. The Holy Cross school is still the biggest Primary school in District Six with an enrolment of approximately seven hundred pupils. The schools are to be kept open until alack of pupils forces them to close. There is only one Sister, near retiring age, on the school staff, although a small community of Sisters still lives and works in the parish. It is the end of the road for another splendid missionary achievement. Perhaps the frontispiece to the Jubilee brochure expresses the correct attitude to what has happened to the people of District Six and in particular to the community of Holy Cross Mission:
Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not only remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we brought, thanks to this suffering, — our own comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this. And when they come to judgement let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. Yet it is a shameful indictment of the policy of apartheid that this unique world on the fringes of the mountain and the dockland should have been destroyed.