I am sure many of you are aware of the Society’s current missionary work in Tanzania and Kenya. But you may not know of our early work in South Africa, both in Capetown and in the Transkei area of the East Cape. The Society of Saint John the Evangelist was founded in 1866 as a society of missionaries and the ministry of the Society was intended to be missionary work, both domestic and abroad
Its organization was modeled on that of St. Vincent de Paul’s Company of Mission Priests, founded in France in the mid 17th century. Within four years of the founding of SSJE, a missionary province had been opened in the United States, and in 1874 the Society established a base in India. It was not until 1883, however, that the Society began its work in South Africa, when Fr. Frederick William Puller arrived in Capetown to serve as chaplain to the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, who ran a hostel for girls and a medical mission which included the care of lepers on Robben Island. The Society started the parish of St. Philip the Deacon and built a school. The work in Capetown was primarily with native Africans, mainly migrants from countries to the north; and “coloreds,” which included all other non-whites—Malays, East Indians, and persons of mixed blood. Virtually all of these were men who had left their families and had crowded into Capetown seeking work. To provide them housing and to serve as a evangelical base, Fr. Puller established St. Columba’s Hostel in 1886. It was through St. Columba’s that Bernard Mizeki, a native of Mozambique, became a Christian, was trained as a catechist and sent as a missionary to Mashonaland (now Zimbabwe).
In 1889 Fr. Edward Osborne left the staff of St. John the Evangelist, Boston to become Superior of the South African province of SSJE. He was responsible for the construction of Cowley House, our mission house in Capetown in 1894, and a little later the new St. Philip’s Church next door, both designed by the distinguished South African architect Sir Herbert Baker. Beginning in 1901 as most of the non-white population in the district surrounding the Mission House was forcibly resettled in surrounding townships, SSJE followed its audience, building churches and schools, first in Ndabeni and later in Langa, and Nyanga, while at the same time maintaining its presence in Capetown, where our chaplaincies were connected with the medical work of the All Saints Sisters and St. Columba’s Hostel.
In those early days it was customary for members of the Society to be involved in foreign missions for at least part of their religious life. Some were sent from England to America, then after a few years to Africa or India. Though the membership of the Society was small in those early years, it was able to undertake significant missionary work because of the laity attracted to its ministry who boosted its numbers and worked along side the brethren.
English Christian missionaries began to work among the Mpondomise people of the East Cape in 1865. A mission district, originally comprising 5,600 square miles, was established in the Tsolo district on the south bank of the Ixnu River in 1882 twenty seven miles west of the regional capitol of Umtata. The mission was called St. Cuthbert’s. In 1891 a young missionary and mystic, Godfrey Callaway, came to assist and the following year his friend, Gerald Ley, joined him. Both men were fluent in Xhosa, the native language. Together they were to give over a hundred years of ministry to the mission. The bishop permitted them to attempt a religious community which was not successful, and in 1904 its members asked to be admitted to SSJE. Fr. Puller, who by that time had worked in South Africa for twenty years, was temporarily placed in charge. An impressive stone church begun in 1897 was completed by Br. Maynard and an Oxford stone mason in 1906, after the Society had assumed charge, and dedicated that year.
Fr. Puller brought with him the first contingent of Wantage Sisters—English Sisters of St. Mary the Virgin—to assist SSJE at St. Cuthbert’s. Medical work began and the Sisters, who were trained nurses, established St. Lucy’s Hospital. In addition, at its height the Society maintained fifty outstations within a ten mile radius of St. Cuthbert’s, each with a church, and many had primary schools as well. The missionaries were able to make the rounds on horseback once a month to provide a sacramental presence (there were no paved roads at the time). Later, as a trained native clergy developed, the Society turned over much of this work to them. At St. Cuthbert’s SSJE and the Wantage Sisters established boarding schools for boys and girls, the latter also offering training in weaving. To help with the work, the Sisters nurtured an African religious community for women, the Community of Saint John the Baptist, which assumed many of the responsibilities of the English Sisters when they returned to England after World War II.
As the South African government instituted apartheid policies which segregated the native and colored population, it became more difficult for SSJE to maintain its presence there. When the de-humanizing Bantu laws affecting the education of this portion of the population were instituted in the 1950s, the Society closed its schools rather than collude with the government. During the next decade the Society terminated its work in Capetown, withdrew its members from St. Cuthbert’s mission and returned to England. But the Cowley legacy in South Africa is still apparent. SSJE gave Cowley House in Capetown to the local diocese which first used it as a hostel for families visiting political prisoners on Robben Island. Later, since the end of apartheid, it has been a trauma center for former political prisoners. In the Transkei region many of the mission churches built by the Society are thriving, St. Lucy’s Hospital continues to provide much needed medical care for the region, and the Sisters of St. John the Baptist, now living in the former SSJE Mission House, are involved in a number of ministries.