The Holy Family Sisters
The order of the Holy Family Sisters was founded in Bordeaux, France on 28 May 1820 by Fr. Pierre Noailles, a recently ordained priest, to fill in some measure the immense gap left by the ravages wrought in religious life by the French Revolution.
The Holy Family Sisters in Natal
In 1875 the sisters came out to South Africa, and specifically, to Durban, in response to a request from Bishop Jolivet, who asked them to establish a school in the town. The first convent was set up as the parish school of St. Joseph. This was followed by Convent High School, both of which were in Broad Street.
Establishment of Maris Stella Convent
At this time, the Berea was largely unexplored bush, with dusty roads traversed by wagons. As there was a need to expand the Broad Street School, the Reverend Mother St. Bernard, decided to purchase some land on the Berea, a lovely ridge of hills overlooking the port and town.
A small cottage stood on the land, shaded by a solitary tree. This was the first building to carry the name, Maris Stella – Star of the Sea. The first Sisters took up their abode in 1893. In 1894, a Novitate was opened and a Chapel, made of wood and iron was erected. This Chapel was to serve the needs of the Sisters and the surrounding community. Often the Sisters from the Broad Street Convent would visit and sometimes bring some of their students up for the day.
As the student members were increasing in the Broad Street Convent there was a demand for a larger Boarding School, plans were set in motion for the establishment of a new Convent, day and Boarding School on the Berea site. The new School, built in brick and of the Victorian Style, with large verandas and wrought iron railings and trims, was officially opened by Sir Michael Gallway, on 22nd May 1899.
Establishment of the Holy Family Convent – Glenmore
As the city increasingly grew around the school in Broad Street it was closed and moved to it’s present, off Francois Road in Glenmore in 1961.
The Role of the Holy Family Sisters at the Bluff Mission
The Holy family Sisters were responsible for the development of the St. Francis Xavier mission School at the Bluff from 1878. This was the first school for Africans in Natal. (The Catholic Church in Natal over 150 by Prof. Joy Brain Page 54)
There is not much information available in the parish with regards to the early days, so I had approached the Holy family Sisters on the occasion of the parish’s 110th anniversary in 1990. The following is abridged from written information received from Sr. Jacquine Dormehl of the Holy Family Sisters – Deacon Malcolm Wright
In December 1880 five Holy Family Sisters went to St. Francis Xavier’s, where they stayed in a humble little dwelling that had been erected to serve as a shelter for the holidays. The sisters took over the evangelisation of the women and children. Statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Francis Xavier were blessed by Fr Sabon, carried in triumph and installed in the humble chapel. In May 1882 Fr. Baudry left the mission as he had been given other work to do. The task of evangelisation was not an easy one, in fact it was laborious. They nevertheless persevered.
In December 1884 it was decided that some of the sisters would live permanently at the mission as from January 1885. Two sisters were keen to work amongst the interesting population that had settled on the Bluff.
They were soon surrounded by 28 pupils and this number increased in no time to 35. The work of these sisters was not limited to the narrow sphere of an elementary class. They were also the catechists to the little Christian community. They guided the women in sewing and the men in reading and writing. About this time an inspector visited the little school that had developed under the sisters. It was second to none in rank among the indigenous peoples of the country.
Another important event was the visit by Bishop Jolivet, who had been on a visit to Rome. A gracious “Arc de Triomphe” had been erected in the plain at the entrance to the mission, where all the inhabitants had gathered. He arrived on horseback, and was soon surrounded by about a hundred African people, Men, women and children, singing litanies of the Blessed Virgin Mary and acclaiming the arrival of His Lordship with loud “Hosannas”. Accompanied by good wishes, were presents of maize, bananas, calabashes, honey gathered from the woods, all still fragrant with freshness. These were placed at the feet of His Lordship with the products from the farmyard. The sisters applauded the enthusiasm of their good Christians.
More than all else, the work at the Bluff was extremely interesting to the Mother General in France, especially as the Africans were being evangelised. This work realised fully the idea of foreign Missions. Established in the midst of the Africans, the Sisters shared in some way their life and tasted as compensation for their sacrifices, the immense good fortune of contributing to the conversion of Souls.
There was always a certain number of catechumens to instruct, but it was particularly through the children that the work of moralisation was accomplished in the heart of a population degraded by Paganism. By 1886 there were about 50 pupils attending the school.
The number of Catholics was increasing and the Holy Mass was celebrated with great solemnity. Africans have a great flair for music and they are able to harmonise with the greatest of ease.
The school was recognised as an industrial school and was examined periodically. To teach the pupils reading and writing was not sufficient. It was necessary, according to age, that they had some idea of grammar, arithmetic, geography and Tonic-solfa. The inspector was satisfied with the talent of the pupils in basket making and was delighted to receive a basket made by them.
The little mission of the Bluff became the most attractive for retreats given to the sisters of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The presence of the Lord, the calm solitude, the nearness of the sea, the beauty of nature and a house more spacious and more convenient – all made it a delectable oasis. When, after long months of hard work, the Sisters spent a fortnight there, and they felt refreshed and ready to face new hardships.
Although much good was done amongst the Africans at the mission there was still a certain amount of apathy amongst them. They appreciated the benefits of the church with indifference and they took their children away on the most futile pretexts.
However Catechumens were numerous. A resident missionary at the Bluff would have improved the movement of conversions
The little mission at the Bluff progressed uniformly. In a population of 150 inhabitants, 30 men and 20 women were faithful to the monthly communion.
The school was submitted to severe inspection. Marked progress was made in English, singing and needlework, but complaints were made about the iron roof of the classroom, which radiated heat, making the pupils listless. The sisters remedied this by covering the roof with tarred canvas.
Every day after school the Sisters visited the families in their huts and particularly the sick.
Sr. Francis Borgia supplied the following information:
“In 1914 Sr. Lelia McTaggart was sent to the Bluff for the school. With her were two sisters, Sr. Batlide and Sr. Lucy who formed the community. Sr. Lelia soon became a fluent Zulu speaker. Before the Group areas act was enforced the whole area consisted of African people whose children attended the school, which was under the Natal education department.
Besides learning the 3 R’s the pupils were taught how to raise vegetables and care for the garden. The parish was large and the singing at mass was beautiful. The Broad Street sisters spent their holidays and sometimes, week-ends at the Bluff. When the area was declared a white area, all the African families were obliged to move out and by the middle of the sixties the school closed.”