The Dominican Sisters
A short History of the Oakford Dominican Sisters in South Africa
In 1877 German settlers in South Africa requested that Sisters from their homeland be sent to them, and the Dominican Convent of St. Ursula in Augsburg – itself a religious house dating from 1335 – sent seven Sisters to King William’s Town in the Cape. Their work would eventually lead to the establishment of the Oakford Dominican Congregation.
In 1889, Mother Mauritia (Prioress of the Sisters in King William’s Town) responded to a request by Bishop Jolivet, O.M.I. (Vicar Apostolic of Natal). He had asked her to send sisters to help in his vicariate — at the Oakford Mission, which was situated a few miles outside the town of Verulam. This mission was known as the Mission of the Sacred Heart and was established by a young and zealous missionary, Fr. Mathieu, O.M.I.
Mother Mauritia generously sent eight sisters to this new mission. These were the first Dominicans to go to Natal and the first Dominican missionaries to work among the African people of South Africa.
Oakford in those days was a large, tumbledown farm, containing a few derelict buildings, some magnificent views and almost nothing else. What was life like for these eight pioneer sisters? The hardships were many, the poverty intense; but then, they were working among poor people and they had the example of their untiring priest, Fr. Mathieu, whose parish extended for some hundreds of square miles. If there were snakes, ferocious heat and the difficulty of teaching in a strange language, with no equipment and little accommodation; if food supplies did not come through because of lack of transport; if communication was often cut off and water hard to come by, and locusts destroyed hard-won crops, and prejudice and bigotry hampered the work of spreading the Gospel – there was also the knowledge that Christ was being preached.
Indeed these pioneer sisters had to clear away bush, rock, and trees, cultivate crops, take care of animals, put up buildings, learn Zulu and French. The Sisters saw a need to school the children of the farmers who worked on the mission and soon they built and opened a boarding school at Oakford for white children and one for African girls. This would also begin to provide a stable income for the missionary work that had been begun.
During this time Mother Mauritia indicated to Bishop Jolivet that the Motherhouse in King William’s Town could no longer support the Sisters at the Oakford Mission. She offered the Sisters the choice to return to King William’s Town or to remain at Oakford and become independent. The Sisters voted unanimously to continue at Oakford and that year – 1890 – the Oakford group of Sisters became a separate entity. Mother Gabriel Foley was elected the first prioress of this new congregation. Expansion of this new group of sisters quickly happened. In 1891 another house was begun at Newcastle, Natal (eventually to also become a separate congregation) and a school flourished there.
As Oakford grew and numbers of vocations increased, there were many requests from Bishops in many other parts of the country for Sisters to staff missions in their provinces.
How it started on the Bluff
In January 1961, Fr Coughlan OMI, the parish priest of the Bluff, approached the Dominican Sisters of Oakford for the first time. He suggested to the Sisters to open a Catholic school on the Bluff, near the church at Brighton Beach. Archbishop D E Hurley OMI followed up this request in February of the same year. In 1963, Fr E Boulle, OMI, the then Vicar General, Fr Coughlan OMI, the parish priest, and Fr R Coates OMI, the Provincial of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, renewed the request.
A historical connection
There had been a connection between the Bluff parish and Oakford since 1884. In that year, Fr Mathieu OMI was sent to Oakford in order to start a mission. Bishop Jolivet and Fr Mathieu OMI decided to settle on the Oakford farm a group of Christian families as a nucleus of the new mission. A number of volunteers from among the Mozambican Catholics (often referred to as Zanzibari) from the Bluff were brought to Oakford where they were given a piece of land to grow vegetables and fruit. Later, in the early 1900’s, they were among those whom Fr Mathieu registered as the Amakholwe tribe.
The new school
In July 1963 the Oakford Dominican Congregation accepted the offer and purchased a piece of land adjacent to the church on Brighton Beach. Archbishop D E Hurley OMI signed the transfer document. The first building – now the pre-school – was completed just in time for the opening of the school year on 28 January 1964, with two classes, grade one and grade two. As the convent building was not completed and the three Sisters who had been assigned to the school, were anxious not to delay the beginning of the teaching, one classroom served for their temporary accommodation. The official opening by Archbishop Hurley OMI took place on 23 February 1964. The school was dedicated to Our Lady of Natal. Together with the first school building, the convent, now St Dominic’s Retreat Centre, was built. It was blessed on 22 August 1964, the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Fr E Boulle OMI officiated as Vicar General at the solemn blessing of the convent.
Steadily growing demand
The school started with an enrolment of 28 children. Enrolment steadily increased from 164 learners in 1966, 200 learners in January 1968, to 280 learners in 1969. As the number of children and classes increased, part of the convent was used for schoolrooms as well. The new Junior School was opened in 1968. The school then had an enrolment from grade one to grade seven.
The development of another apostolate
Plans to add a secondary school phase were abandoned in 1970. Instead, the Sisters got involved in youth work, which eventually developed into retreat work. The present convent building was added in 1973, when the old convent became too small to accommodate the demand for retreats and a Sisters’ community.
Continued bond with the parish
From the very beginnings in 1963, the Sisters were involved in the parish, teaching catechism and confirmation classes both at Brighton Beach and at Fynnlands. In the1970’s, one Sister also taught catechism at Christ the King parish (Wentworth) and played the organ there. The Bluff community has always kept a close bond with the parish through the school, direct involvement and the Retreat Centre. Priests, Brothers and Sisters, men and women, Catholics and other Christians from all over South Africa have been coming to St Dominic’s and have also prayed at St Francis Xavier’s Church.
Convent School of Our Lady of Natal
(Taken from the Parish Newsletter February 1966)The school reopened on January 25th (Class 1 to Std 2I, incl) with a roll of 140 pupils. With rapid growth of the school Std 2 and Std 3 have to be held in the convent. It is hoped that the remaining part of the school will start in the near future.We welcome Sr. Jacinta (from Empangeni) (Class 2) and Sr. Gonzaga (Std 3) and say Farewell to Sr Moira, who has been transferred to Virginia.