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A Mission of Women: Early History of the Dominican Sisters and Sacred Heart Convent

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

The idea to bring German nuns to South Africa to teach the children of German settlers here was first mooted by Sir George Grey, Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, in the mid 1850s.

On 17th November 1864, Sir George McLean, Lieutenant Governor of British Kaffraria, gave six plots of ground bordering on Queen’s Road in King William’s Town, as a grant in freehold to Bishop Moran, in trust for educational purposes.

On this ground the first portion of “King” Convent was built.

Bishop Ricards’ plan for a convent school in that town was eagerly supported by Father Fagan, who began collecting funds for the project. In order to help, the Bishop first sold his carriage and pair given him by his Catholics. Later he also sold a farm granted him by the government and gave the proceeds towards the erection of the Convent.

On 14th September 1876, the foundation stone was laid in the presence of a large assembly. So successful was Dr Ricards in appealing for the support of the public on this occasion that no less than 1 200 pounds was “laid on the stone”.

Among the donations the Bishop’s was leading with a 100 pounds, and was followed by Notre Mere, the intrepid Foundress of the Assumption sisters of Grahamstown, who, out of their poverty, gave 50 pounds.

The building was going on apace, although the Bishop and Father Fagan still did not know where the Sisters for the new school were to come from. By the middle of 1877 the Bishop, seeing that the funds had nearly been exhausted, told Father Fagan that, unless 2 000 pounds could be guaranteed in two days’ time, building operations would have to stop.

Ten of the leading Catholic gentlemen of the town immediately guaranteed a 100 pounds each. They were Messrs E.J. Byrne, Rudolph Malcher, William Herley, Albert Deiringer, Thomas Logan, Patrick Mullin, Henry O’Donoghue, Edward Hartigan and Patrick Egan.

The remaining 1 000 pounds were obtained from other contributors, notably Messrs Kilduff, Beet and Colonel Frederick Schermbrucker.

The convent was duly completed and ready for occupation by 14th September 1877: exactly a year after the foundation stone had been laid.

Meanwhile in Germany, when the choice of the pioneer Sisters had been finalised, a contract was drawn up between Bishop Ricards and Mother Hyacinth Schippert. By this the latter agree to send seven Sisters able and willing to direct an institution for the education of young people.

The Bishop, on the other hand, accepted the Sisters under his jurisdiction, promising to give them sustenance until they could support themselves, and to care for their spiritual welfare by appointing as their chaplain one who could speak German as well as English, and to lend them the necessary money for the voyage to South Africa.

The nuns noted in their annals that the Bishop kept them going with the proceeds of his lectures and pamphlets for about a year, until their school was self-supporting.

All the other preliminaries having been arranged, the day for the Sisters’ departure from Augsburg was fixed for 14th September 1877: another Feast of the Holy Cross, namely that of its Exaltation.

For the last time on that day the little missionary band knelt in their loved chapel at St Ursula’s, offering themselves wholly to God for the work He was entrusting to them in far-off Africa.

Mother Aquinata Lauter, who had received nearly all the members of the party into the Order, had written a touching letter of farewell from Wettenhausen.

Contrary to the custom then prevailing of donning secular garb for a long journey, the Sisters were as a special favour allowed to travel in the religious habit.

After a tender farewell to broken-hearted but generous parents and friends, the seven pioneers passed out of the convent enclosure and drove away to the railway station, while the bell rang out the evening Angelus.

Canon Alexander Soratroy accompanied the Sisters as far as London where they joined Mr Fraundorfer and his family on board the sailing vessel the “Balmoral Castle”. The ship reached Cape Town on 11th October 1877, where Bishop John Leonard of the Western Vicariate went on board to welcome the missionaries and conduct them to St Mary’s Cathedral.

The Irish Dominican Sister who had come from Cabra 14 years previously, gave their fellow Dominicans hospitality. After four days spent in Cape Town the voyage was resumed and they arrived at Port Elizabeth, where they were met by Bishop Ricards and their chaplain, Rev Arnold Widdershofen S.J., Father J Fitzhenry and Father Nicholas Fanning.

The mouth of the Buffalo River was reached on 19th October.

As a special privilege the party was allowed to land on the Sunday evening. With eyes fixed on the shore they courageously boarded the Governor’s tug. To their distress the travellers noticed a ship stranded on the rocks.

As their tiny boat tossed like a cork on the stormy waters the Bishop prayed the Rosary for their safe landing and the difficult crossing was happily achieved. Had they landed the following day they might have shared the fate of some of their fellow travellers who were wrecked on the bar.

The Sisters were met at the harbour by the Catholics of Panmure, now East London, with Mr John Gately at their head. They were taken to a small hotel where they were eagerly greeted by citizens of King William’s Town who had travelled 60km to welcome them.

After having heard Mass next morning at the little wood-and-iron church which stood at the corner of St Paul’s Road and Chapel Street in the North End, the nuns were joined by Father Fagan.

The recently completed railway would take them and its first passengers to King William’s Town on the Wednesday. It was well that the Sisters went this distance by train, for near the village of Berlin the wagon that bore their heavy luggage stuck in the mud and was delayed for several days awaiting wheel repairs, for there was no such thing as a spare wheel in those days.

Great excitement prevailed in King William’s Town on 22nd October 1877, when the first passenger train was due to arrive.

Though it was expected only in the late afternoon everyone was alert from early morning. A little after five o’clock, amid the cheers of the townspeople the little train slowly steamed into the station. A coach drawn by six horses was there waiting for the Sisters, but as the whole town had assembled to meet the longed-for arrivals, they decided to walk the short distance to their home.

It resembled a royal procession for rows of radiantly happy faces lined the streets. A throng of townsfolk escorted the nuns to the hall door. By strange coincidence the Angelus bell rang again – this time as if in welcome to the missionaries.

While the Sisters reached King William’s Town on 22nd October, it was decided that Foundation Day should be kept on the anniversary of the day they left Augsburg: the 14th September, the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross.) The convent building, hewn from great blocks of blue quarts sandstone with a white cross over the portal, stood out in relief against the evening sky, the Amatola Mountains, blue in the distance serving as a backdrop.

The house consisted of five rooms on the ground floor and four on the upper storey. The largest room on the ground floor had been prepared as a chapel.

A scroll over the roughly-made altar read “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus”, while a small screen in one of the doors showed the way to the sacristy which was, like the temporary kitchen, only a wood-and-iron lean-to.

On the small side altar stood a status of the Blessed Virgin Mary that was donated by Father Fagan. He had no money to buy a new one, so he took the one from his little church in Durban Street. The Bishop made a touching address to all present, after which Father Fagan arrived with the Blessed Sacrament from the parish church.

Benediction Service was held and the “Te Deum” solemnly sung, to mark the end of the long journey. As the shades of evening deepened the visitors departed, leaving the Sisters alone with their Divine Master. Before retiring for the night they prayed the Rosary, begging blessings through the intercession of Christ’s Mother on their benefactors and on their future work.

The great undertaking which may be called A MISSION OF WOMEN had begun...

Source: All For God's People, a history of the Dominican Sisters of King William’s Town, by Sr Marietta Gouws . Full text available here.

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