When King John II of Portugal sent his explorers on the spice trail they had by necessity to fringe the West and South coasts of Africa. The King told his explorers that the voyagers were “first to spread the Christian Faith and secondly to gain the riches of the East”. (The Catholic Church in South Africa p. 1). Bearing this principle in mind, it is interesting to see how Providence has placed Our Lady in the history of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa and South Africa in particular.
Some examples should suffice: Bartholomew Diaz arrived in a certain gulf on 8th December, 1487 and he named it, in honour of that day “the gulf of Santa Maria de Conceicao”. Today this gulf is known as Walvis Bay. He sailed on, rounding the Cape of Good Hope to drop anchor in Algoa Bay where, off what is now Port Elizabeth, he landed on a rocky islet which he called the Island of the Holy Cross. There Holy Mass was offered for the first time on South African soil.
Ten years later in 1497, Vasco da Gama would set sail leaving Portugal on 8th July. “Early in November they landed in a bay West of the Cape which they called St. Helena, there they rested for 8 days. On 16th November they resumed their voyage, two days later they sited the Cape. On 22nd November, they rounded it, and on the 25th November they anchored in Mossel Bay, where they stayed for a fortnight, sailing on the feast of the Immaculate Conception and siting on Christmas Day the land to which they accordingly gave the name which it still bears, Tierra de Natal”. (ibid)
With the arrival of the Dutch in the Cape Catholicism was prohibited in South Africa until 1837, when the first Vicar Apostolic was appointed to the Cape. He was the Irish bishop, Raymond Griffith, a Dominican. Through the apostolate of this missionary our Lord’s divine religion would be planted on South African soil and our Lady would help as Mediatrix of all graces with the conversion of souls. Much could be said on the early years of the Church in this country but for our purposes two items of interest are worth noting:
1) The first religious sisters would come to this country in 1848: they were the sisters of the Assumption.
2) In 1852 the Natal vicariate would be entrusted to a religious order founded in 1816 by St. Eugene de Mazenod the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
It is of interest to note that the Catholic Church in South Africa is almost 200 years old and of the 29 dioceses presently in this country, 16 have our Lady as Patron.
What interests us now is an event which we commemorated on 4th May – the fiftieth anniversary of Our Lady of the Assumption being proclaimed as principal Patroness of South Africa.
50th Anniversary of the Proclamation
DEO GRATIAS ET MARIAE
In 1952 the Oblates of Mary Immaculate celebrated the centenary of their arrival in Natal. A
Marian congress was held in Durban from 30th April to 4th May it was perhaps the largest gathering of Catholics seen in South Africa i.e. 40,000 Catholics for the praying of the Rosary, 60,000 people in Albert Park for the final ceremony and procession. The bishops of South Africa had asked the Pope to proclaim Our Lady, Mediatrix of all graces, as principal patroness of the country. On 4th May Pope Pius XII in a radio message broadcast during the closing ceremony proclaimed instead Our Lady Assumed into Heaven as principal patron. The Catholic population accepted the Pope’s decision with filial gratitude.
Fifty years later the priory in Durban marked this event, so important for our country. From the 1st to 3rd May a triduum of Masses and Holy Hours took place, culminating on Saturday, 4th May with a solemn votive Mass of our Lady of the Assumption, followed by exposition of the Blessed Sacrament during which the renewal of the consecration of South Africa to its patron took place, as well as the consecration of the parish of Durban to the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary. Credit must go to our African parishioners who sang the polyphonic Mass beautifully. In the evening the recital of the Holy Rosary was followed by a finger supper and light entertainment.
It is an event important for our country, and yet, to my knowledge nowhere else in the country was it commemorated. Even here in Durban, albeit that we had announced and encouraged our parishioners for over a month about this important event, relatively few turned up to honour Our Lady.
I pray that on 15th August Durban parishioners and parishioners elsewhere will celebrate her feast in a worthy and filial manner asking her intercession for the Catholic Church in this country and for South Africa itself, of South Africa itself.