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Saint Olivers – the people’s church

In 1982 people from South Africa’s newest homeland, KwaNdebele, went to see the Catholic Archbishop in Pretoria. They told him that there was no Catholic Church for them.

So the Catholics looked for a place to build a church. At that time, whites could not live in a ‘black’ area. So the Catholic Church bought a farm right next to KwaNdebele at a place called Sybrandskraal. And they called their new mission Saint Olivers.


When the priests went to live at Saint Olivers, they soon saw that there was lots of work to be done. Villages were starting everywhere. People who lost their jobs on nearby farms were moving to KwaNdebele. And people who could not get houses in town were building there too.

Land that was once fields was fast covered with houses and shacks. But there were no jobs, and no help for people with no money. “Poverty is the greatest problem here in KwaNdebele,” said one of the brothers from Saint Olivers.


“Every morning five hundred buses leave here to go to Pretoria. And every night the same five hundred buses bring tired workers home. People spend four hours a day travelling to and from work. And those people are the lucky ones! “Many people in KwaNdebele have no-one in the family who is working. These are the people we try to help. People here need so many things – food, clinics, schools, houses.”


“We spoke to Operation Hunger in Johannesburg,” the brother told us. “Every month they brought food for us to give to the people who needed it. We stored it while we waited for people to come and collect it.”

People came from miles around to use our telephone. There was no other working telephone for forty kilometres. Some months our telephone account was over a thousand rand.

“People came to us with all their problems. So we started an advice office for the people of Kwaggafontein and Tweefontein. Vusi Mbonombi works there full-time now. He helps people with legal problems. And he helps old people to get their pensions.”


The priests also started building. First they built a hall in Kwaggafontein, about 30 kilometres away from Sybrandskraal. Then they built a clinic in one of the Tweefontein villages. And at the moment they are busy building a second hall in Tweefontein F, close to where the sisters live.

“We needed places for our church services,” the brother said. “We thought about it. We could build churches that people used once a week. Or we could build halls we used on Sundays, and that people used during the week. We decided to build halls.

“We help people who are building houses. We lend out our brick-making machine so that people can make their own bricks. And if people have problems with the plans for their houses, we help them to draw better plans.”


Sister Anaclete, one of the nuns who works in the clinic, spoke about how the clinic started. “Before Brother Rene built the clinic, we had nowhere to work. We used to go to the different villages and just use people’s houses. Now it is better -everyone comes to us and we can give better treatment.

“We treat all sorts of sicknesses here – but a lot of sickness is caused by people not having enough to eat. We run classes for new mothers on how to feed their children. And if we see that a baby is not getting enough to eat, we give powdered milk to the mother.

“We are also trying to start a vegetable garden behind the clinic. People have no water in their homes so they cannot grow vegetables at home. But we have a tap at the clinic which people can use. So people who want gardens will each get a piece of ground. And we will help people with seeds.”

But that is not all that the nuns do. Sister Immaculata runs a class for women who want to learn how to read and write. And Sister Natalie runs a sewing class in the Kwaggafontein hall.


Last year everyone in KwaNdebele faced a new problem-‘independence.’ The government of KwaNdebele said they wanted ‘independence’ from South Africa. And a group called the Imbokodo started. They beat up people who said that they did not want ‘independence’.

People started to fight back – and soon the people of KwaNdebele were counting their dead. “In many ways we were caught in the middle,” Sister Immaculata said. “Our duty is to serve all people – it doesn’t matter if they are Imbokodo or comrades’.


“Many people from Tweefontein were killed. And many of them were comrades’. The police said there had to be ministers of religion at their funerals. So we helped to bury the dead.

“The police would say only fifty people – or only two hundred people could come to the funeral. But often many more people came. Then there would be trouble. And the priests went between the people and the police to try and keep peace.”


During this time, the priests were having a problem with their house. The farm which the Catholics bought was given to KwaNdebele. “We needed permission to stay on in Sybrandskraal,” the brother told us.

“Everyone we spoke to in the government was very nice to us. They said they would ‘look into the matter’. We got one letter that said we must move. But the Minister of the Interior told us not to worry about it.”


“Then in January we got a second letter. This time it was serious. We had one week to move all our things. We don’t know why the government suddenly said this.

“Today we are living in a small room, behind our hall in Kwaggafontein. We do not know what is going to happen. We have asked for a site for a house, like the sisters have – but we do not know if we will get it. Whatever happens, our work must go on.”


And that is what the people of Saint Olivers are doing right now -working. No matter what problems the priests and sisters of Saint Olivers have, they all say the same thing.

They say there is only one place they want to be – and that is with their church members in KwaNdebele.


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