A History St. Francis Xavier Mission
St. Francis Xavier Parish was one of the first successful mission stations to be established in the Vicariate of Natal, now the Archdiocese of Durban.
The mission was established in 1878. A number of liberated slaves and other labourers had settled on the Bluff eking out a precarious living as fishermen. One of the prominent people at the mission at the time was the catechist, Saturnino do Valle, who had arrived about 1872. He had bought himself a boat and earned his living as a fisherman. Fr Sabon, parish priest in Durban, gave him permission to teach in Portuguese, and when a convert was ready he would take him to Father Sabon who would examine his knowledge of the Faith and for Baptism. Father Baudry (hence Baudry Road) often visited the families on the Bluff. It was suggested that a large plot of land be purchased and then leased to Catholic Parishioners who would farm on it. On the 5th April 1880 fifty-five hectares of land were purchased for 400 Pounds. The bush was cleared and within three months Fr. Baudry had erected a chapel on the highest point overlooking the sea. The official opening of the Chapel took place in July 1880 and the mission was named in honour of St. Francis Xavier at the suggestion of the mother superior of the Holy Family convent. A procession was organised and more than 200 people took part.
By 1884 the Catholics were numerous enough for a considerable group to move off and form a nucleus of a mission at Oakford.
In January 1885 a school was opened and by July 1885 there were 50 children in the school.
By 1893 there were 250 Catholics on the Bluff. Two Holy Family sisters lived permanently at the mission running the school, which now had 60 pupils. A lay brother attended to the maintenance of the buildings and had a flourishing garden while the Oblate Fathers (under whose care the mission was, and still is today) had a holiday cottage.
In his report of that year to Rome the bishop laid particular stress upon the valuable work being undertaken at St. Francis Xavier mission, describing it as “one of our most interesting undertakings”.
In 1921 a new mission church was built to replace the old Chapel. The mission continued to flourish. Unfortunately the missionary character of the mission was not to last. By 1938 the European town of Durban had definitely embraced the area and the end was in sight. Many of the inhabitants of the area moved to the nearest townships of Lamontville and Umlazi.
From 1949 to 1952 Father Noel Coughlan O.M.I. took over as priest in charge at the mission. He was asked to open a Shrine to our Lady. In May 1952 a Marian Congress was held at the Greyville Race Course in Durban, which thousands of Catholics attended. At the end of the Congress the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII proclaimed Mary Assumed into Heaven, Patroness of South Africa. On the 8th December of the same year many people came on a pilgrimage to the Bluff gathering where the statue of our Lady now stands. Elaborate plans for a shrine and other buildings were drawn up which would have totally changed the face of the mission, but were never implemented.
On the 15 January 1953 a very important step was taken in the life of the St. Francis Xavier Mission. Archbishop Denis Hurley issued a Decree of Erection whereby the mission was elevated to the status of a Parish. The boundaries of the Parish were described as: “to the east, north and west, the Indian Ocean and Durban Bay (so as to include Salisbury Island in the Parish) and the west and south-west shall be as to include in the Parish King’s Rest, Wentworth and Brighton Beach. The latter boundary shall be more precisely determined at a later stage”. The decree also stipulated that: “the Church of St. Francis Xavier shall be the Parish Church and shall enjoy all the rights attaching to this status in accordance to Canon Law. The Church of SS. Joseph and Brendan (in Fynnlands) shall be an auxiliary chapel.” The Decree also indicated the property holdings of the parish. Of the initial 55 hectares of land the parish would hold only approximately 6 acres. Some of the land was held by other Religious orders in the church such as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Holy Family Sisters and the Augustinians. Most of the land had been sold. The other land holdings was the plot of land that SS Joseph and Brendan was situated on, and which was just over one acre in size and a plot of land in Torquay Avenue, Fynnlands, which was originally to be used for the Fynnland church, but was deemed unsuitable. This plot was also just over one acre in size, and was sold in 1958.
In 1959 a school feeding scheme supported by the Bluff Catholic Community and two Catholic butchers on the Bluff was started. The Ladies of the community cooked the meals in the Presbytery kitchen and served it in the grounds of the Holy Family Convent adjoining Primary School. When the weather was bad it was served in the school. In some cases this was the only meal received in 24 hours. By the end of the 1960’s the school was closed.
On the 15th May 1960 the first Annual Pilgrimage to the Shrine of our Lady of Natal took place. The second in 1961, and the third on the 19th August 1962. In 1964 the statue was erected. Father Coughlan, now in his second term at the Bluff, requested that the Dominican Sisters of Oakford open a school on the church property. After negotiations and discussion with the sisters the land required for the school was sold to them. On the 28th January 1964 the Convent School of our Lady of Natal was opened. The school expanded over time, and this required more land for classrooms to such as it stands today.
The face of St. Francis Xavier mission certainly changed in it’s first ninety years of existence and was destined to change even more over the next thirty five years, eventually coming a full circle with a new church, presbytery, classrooms and a hall added.
Message from Cardinal Napier | Message from Fr Stuart Bate OMI | Forward: Professor Joy Brain | Introduction | A history of the St Francis Mission | Establishment of the Church at Fynnland | The Church at Wentworth | Centralisation of St Francis Xavier and Building of the New Church | The Building of the Parish Hall | The Building of the New Presbytery | The Building of the Wall of Remembrance | The Architectural meaning of the New Church | Your Church in Rhyme by Fr Andy Slowey | The Human Contribution to the Growth of the Parish | Groups and Organisations that have contributed to the Parish | Current Groups within the Parish | Local Vocations | Awards and Recognition | An Armchair tour of the Parish | The Shrine to Our Lady of Natal | Landholdings of the Catholic Church on the Bluff | A Portrait of the Life and Times of St Francis Xavier | Picture Gallery | Timeline of incidents of the Bluff Parish