Robin Lamplough delves deep into the history behind the renowned Mariannhill Monastery and one man’s determination to achieve a goal
pictures paul reichle
Almost 140 years ago, in December 1882, a small band of Austrian Trappist monks settled on a remote Natal hillside west of Durban. There, under the leadership of Father Francis (christened Franz) Pfanner, they would build a monastery complex which became the focus of an important Catholic missionary endeavour. Pfanner named it after the mother and grandmother of Jesus of Nazareth, Mariannhill.
These men were not new to Africa. Two years earlier they had settled in the Sundays River Valley, inland of Port Elizabeth. Then, defeated by prolonged drought, Pfanner decided to move to Natal. A forceful personality, Pfanner had earlier founded a Trappist monastery in Bosnia, then part of the Turkish empire. His experience in the Cape led him to refuse to start his Natal mission in another remote area. He acquired land near the British settlement of Pinetown, and made a fresh start.
The Trappist rule called for silence and hard work. The monks laboured in the fields and erected buildings. They lived on a simple diet of bread and vegetables. Meat, eggs, fish and seasoning were excluded from their menu. Pfanner’s goal was to draw the indigenous people to Catholicism. He devised a scheme to attract landless Africans to Mariannhill. He offered land rent-free for the first year, under certain conditions. The renter was required to build a European-style house, with at least one door and one window. In addition, the house was to contain at least one table and one chair, obtainable from the mission carpenters at a total cost of £1, which could be earned through day-labour. And, in a typically 19th century European rider, civilised clothing and monogamy were obligatory – with “idleness” unacceptable. Later Pfanner would also open two schools, boys and girls separated, to provide an introduction to western education. A Mariannhill order of nuns, Sisters of the Precious Blood, was established in 1885. They subsequently opened an orphanage.
Meanwhile, workshops were built and manned by monks with special skills. Woodwork, metalwork, baking, tailoring and bookbinding were just some of the services offered. Later a guest house and a tea room were added to the list, all generating revenue for the station. In 1910 a Mariannhill-owned Zulu newspaper was founded, Izindaba Zibantu. In 1928 it was re-named UmAfrika. Although still published, UmAfrika is no longer owned by the monastery. St Mary’s Hospital was opened in 1921. It would serve the entire Highway community for almost a century, until it was taken over by the provincial health service in 2016.
Pfanner decided to start Mariannhill outstations. As a result, missions were established at Centecow, Reichenau, King’s Grant, Lourdes, Emaus and other places in the Natal interior. Even further away, after Pfanner’s death, was Endaleni, near Plumtree, in south-western Zimbabwe. But none of this addressed the inherent contradiction of a Trappist missionary order. Trappism requires silence, whereas missionary work involves spreading a message. This tension would reveal itself in Pfanner’s later history.
In May 1890 Pfanner was charged with mismanagement of the monastery and found guilty. The Mariannhill community responded with a vigorous protest and Pfanner was subsequently exonerated. But two years later a visiting superior summarily suspended him. Pfanner withdrew to Emaus near Umzimkulu, where he lived until his death in May 1909. Ironically, just months earlier, the reforming Pope, Pius X, had separated Mariannhill from the Trappist order, resolving a problem that had festered for years.
In a bizarre finale, it is reported that the abbot’s heart was removed and buried at Emaus. It was an eerie reminder of the end of another missionary, David Livingstone, in East Africa a generation earlier. Pfanner’s body was then sent by road and rail almost 300 miles to Pinetown, after which it was interred at Mariannhill. A bronze memorial was erected at the grave.
But although Pfanner was dead, the Mariannhill order he created had developed a life of its own. His example, memory and achievements were preserved and venerated. A 2018 website reveals that there are 49 missions in South Africa under Mariannhill. The website of the Emaus Heritage Centre urges adherents to pray for the beatification of Abbot Francis. This is the first step towards him being proclaimed a saint, clearly the organisation’s goal.
Even in the 21st century Mariannhill continues to have an influence beyond its perimeter. Dr Frank Mdlalose, first premier of KwaZulu-Natal in 1994, was a graduate of St Francis College. In 2008 local academic and former Pinetown schoolboy, Michael Cawood Green, published a novel about Francis Pfanner entitled For the Sake of Silence. Most recent of all is an ambitious plan inspired by the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Trail through the Pyrenees in Europe. The broad intention is to develop a Natal hiking trail linking some outstations and ending at Mariannhill. Watch this space!