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 October 1929, the stock market crashed, sending the nation into the worst economic depression in history, the Great Depression. During this time, Spence Burton, the superior of SSJE, was working with the celebrated architect Ralph Adams Cram on plans for the new Monastery on Memorial Drive. The project, when finished, would not only enable the Society’s work in the spiritual formation of students, lay people, seminarians, and clergy, but would also be a living monument to the Society’s hope for the future
The American Congregation of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist gained autonomy from the English branch of the order in 1914. When Spence Burton was elected the second superior of the American branch in 1924, he had high aspirations for its mission; aspirations that required a suitable mother house for the Society’s growing numbers and ministry. The project began to be realized when initial financial gifts from Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Burton family allowed land to be bought and the first building to be built. This building, known as Saint Francis House, was completed in 1926. A second unit, with more rooms and a temporary chapel in the basement, was added to it in 1928. It was used for ten years to house the members of the Society, and is now the Guesthouse of the Monastery. But much was left to be built, including the chapel and new living quarters for the Brothers, as well as a refectory, library, and common rooms.