The history of the parishes in the Diocese of Eshowe
In the late twenties, the Benedictines in Zululand experienced a financial crisis which seriously threatened the further progress and development of the missions. The economic depression in Europe and America made it more and more difficult for benefactors to support the mission work among the Zulus. In his effort to make his vicariate more independent of overseas money, Bishop Spreiter suggested buying a farm which could generate enough money to get the Benedictines out of their financial straits. Fr. Theodos Schall concurred with this idea. In March 1930, they were offered a 1184-acre (473,5 hectares) farm in the vicinity of Empangeni for an unusually low price of £ 1 400. This meant that one acre cost little more than £ 1. Enquiries showed that the selling price for farmland in the region was £ 2-3 per acre at that time. It was only after Bro. Willigis Gaßner had thoroughly inspected the farm and had found the conditions very favourable that Bishop Spreiter decided to buy it. The deal was signed at the end of March 1930, much to the delight of the chronicler, who wrote: "We are all of the opinion that we have never before been offered a farm for such a low price and that we are unlikely to get another offer of that kind. The farm is in every respect ideal for the establishment of a big mission station. It has a healthy climate, fertile soil and about one thousand acres (405 hectares) that can be put under the plough. This is quite something in this country" (chronicle of Eshowe, January - June 1930, pg. 23).
The Matimona Farm, as it was called, was situated thirty kilometres north-west of Empangeni. The Mtimona river formed its western border. Near the river, on the lowest point of the property, was the farm house which became the living quarters for the missionaries. They arrived there on August 13, 1930, and dedicated the place to Our Lady of Fatima. As the climate was very unhealthy in the mosquito infested valley along the river, the Benedictines decided to build a new mission on a convenient hilltop. In January 1937 they were able to move into the new premises.
Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing came to Fatima on May 24, 1939. They started a nursing service and began teaching in the primary school of the mission. A small boarding house was added in 1940 to accommodate children whose homes were too far away from Fatima. The school went up to Std. 4 only and had never more than sixty to seventy children. In the mid-seventies, it was handed over to the Kwazulu Government and no longer played any role in the mission concept of the Benedictines. For a while, the sisters continued rendering various services to the mission. However, lack of personnel eventually forced them to close down the convent. The last group of Tutzing Sisters left Fatima on January 3, 1991.
More than fifteen years after their arrival at Fatima, the priests and brothers were able to move into new premises which were especially built for them. The building was ready in 1946. The project that followed next was the church for which a Swiss architect, P. Krieg of Zürich, drew up plans in 1959. The foundation stone was laid on December 8, 1959. Bro. Candidus Mayer supervised the construction work which took eighteen months to complete. Bishop Aurelian Bilgeri blessed the church on August 13, 1961, when about 1800 people came to Fatima to witness the ceremony.
The Fatima Farm never really fulfilled the expectations raised of the Benedictines who had bought the property with such high hopes in 1930. The first few years at Fatima were particularly disappointing for the farming brothers. A severe drought in 1931 and 1932 destroyed the sugar-cane and reduced the cotton crop. In 1933/34, swarms of locusts caused great damage to the sugar-cane and maize plantations (cf. chronicle of Fatima, January - June 1934, pg 29 ff.). In 1932, sugar-cane was planted for the first time. The Government Sugar Board gave the Benedictines a sugar-cane quota of forty hectares. This was later increased to one hundred hectares. However, without irrigation, the Fatima Farm was at best marginal land for sugar-cane production. It lies outside the so-called sugar-cane belt, a narrow strip of land with a relatively high rainfall along the coast of the Indian Ocean. The land seemed to be more suitable for ranching or for growing cotton. After several poor seasons exacerbated by drought, the brothers decided in 1950 to try cotton. In the same year, four hectares were turned into a cotton plantation. Relatively good harvests even encouraged the brothers to enlarge the cotton business. Cotton was the main crop between 1955 and 1959 when no sugar-cane at all was harvested. As new brands of sugar-cane appeared on the market in the early sixties, the brothers made another attempt at planting sugar-cane and were allotted a higher quota. The amount of cane they harvested each season varied considerably. It all depended on the rainfall. Within three consecutive years from 1977 to 1979, they recorded a low of about 2700 tonnes and a high of over 8000 tonnes. Afterwards it dropped to around 3000 tonnes per year. In the early eighties, the government began buying land in the Umfolozi district in order to consolidate the homeland of Kwazulu. Bishop Mansuet Biyase used this opportunity to sell the Fatima Farm to the government. The sale was registered in December 1983. The Fatima Mission kept only about five hectares of land.
For over thirty-five years the Fatima Farm was managed by Bro. Augustine Kleck (1884-1967). He had had seven years (1913-1920) of experience as a missionary in East Africa before coming to Zululand in 1922. Bishop Spreiter appointed him in 1930 to go to Fatima and build up the station. The chronicler writes in his eulogy of Bro. Augustine: "He was the driving force of the new foundation. He began the old mission in the Matimona valley at the foot of the Fatima hill...He built a road up the hill where the present mission station was started a few years later. All the trees and bushes that can be seen now were planted by him. He encouraged the building of a church and made all the cement blocks that were needed for the building. Nobody has shaped Fatima Mission the way he did. He was a tough man from Suebia (Germany) who was still riding around on his motorbike when he was eighty years old...Although his legs were somewhat deformed from birth - this was one of the reasons why his parents suggested that he become a saddler as this would enable him to practise his trade while sitting on a chair - he was always on his legs, right to his last days. He died on March 24, 1967...With him we have lost one of the great veteran missionaries and a very prayerful person" (chronicle of Fatima, 1962-1967, pg. 106-107).
Economic considerations were foremost in the minds of the Benedictines when they bought the Fatima Farm in 1930. Nobody then anticipated that the place would gradually develop into a spiritual centre for the Catholic Church in Zululand. It all started when Bishop Thomas Spreiter acquired a copy of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima (Portugal) and placed it in the newly built chapel of the Fatima Mission on May 1, 1932. After the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Benedictines faced great uncertainty with regard to the future of their mission work because they were Germans, Bishop Thomas Spreiter made a solemn promise which was to be decisive for the further development of Fatima as a mission station. The content of the promise is recorded in a document, dated July 2, 1940. It reads as follows:
"In this time of war and trouble, I as the shepherd of the flock entrusted to me have made a vow which I herewith declare solemnly in writing. This is the text of the vow:
A chapel will be dedicated to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of the Visitation to Elizabeth if the Vicariate Apostolic of Eshowe emerges unharmed from all the distresses of the war. This promise is made also to ask Our Lady's intercession for the speedy release of our confrères who are interned and that we may not suffer any further detentions.
The place where this chapel is to be erected cannot yet be determined. A side chapel in one of our existing churches could be used for it. An inscription should designate it for coming generations as a votive chapel. A thanksgiving Mass should be celebrated there or in the church itself every year on July 2.
This was vowed and written down at the Inkamana Mission on July 2, 1940, the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady to her cousin Elizabeth."
It was Bishop Aurelian Bilgeri who took the initiative to fulfil the vow of his predecessor after the war. He mentioned this in a letter to Fr. Theodos Schall: "I have now decided to build a church at Fatima. Perhaps it will develop into a place of pilgrimage in the future. It would be the right place. The Marian Year would be the right time for this. We could then deliver on the promise of our late bishop...I am of the opinion that Fatima has a future" (letter of Bishop Bilgeri to Fr. Theodos Schall, 29-06-54). In a circular letter, dated October 26, 1954, he informed his missionaries about the plan he had in mind: "You know that it is the special wish of our Holy Father and of the South African bishops that each diocese should have a shrine in honour of Our Lady. It is not so well known that our vicar general (Fr. Theodos Schall) found a written document in the estate of our late Bishop Thomas (Spreiter) in which he promised to build a shrine in honour of Our Lady if our mission work could be continued during the war. Fr. Theodos Schall honoured that promise for the time being by building a beautiful grotto at our Holy Cross Mission (Emoyeni). It is my wish that we erect a proper Marian Shrine in the next three to five years to fulfil the promise and as a renewed request to Our Lady to intercede for us in the present and future difficulties our diocese may experience." (Cf. chronicle of Fatima, year 1954). Bishop Bilgeri blessed and opened a small chapel at Fatima on December 8, 1954, and pronounced it to be "the first and most important Marian Shrine in the Diocese of Eshowe." It was built to hold the statue of Our Lady of Fatima which Bishop Spreiter had brought to Zululand.
The first major pilgrimage to Our Lady of Fatima was held on May 30, 1955. Some five hundred Catholics came to Fatima on that occasion. The service started in the evening and continued until the early hours of the morning. In the next few years pilgrimages to Fatima were arranged by and for various parishes in the Diocese. From 1961, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady was set aside each year for a diocesan pilgrimage. In South Africa this is celebrated on the Sunday nearest to August 15, the actual Feast of Our Lady. Bishop Bilgeri used the first such pilgrimage which took place on August 13, 1961, to bless the newly erected church at the mission. About 1800 people travelled to Fatima on that day.
From about 1965, the number of participants in the annual pilgrimage rose steadily. There were approximately 3000 in 1967 and 5000 in 1971. From 1980, the number varied from between 6000 and 8000. No fewer than sixty-fve buses and two hundred and ten private cars were counted in the parking plot at Fatima in 1980. Since 1985, the annual diocesan pilgrimage to Fatima in August has been held during the night. It starts with a service in English in the early evening. This is followed by a procession with the statue of Our Lady and the reciting of the rosary later on. The pilgrimage is traditionally concluded in the early morning hours with the celebration of Holy Mass in Zulu. As a rule, a church prelate from outside the Dicoese of Eshowe is invited to celebrate the High Mass and to preach the sermon. Attendance at these pilgrimages has only dropped slightly since they have been held during the night hours.
Parish Priests at Fatima
Assistant Priests at Fatima
Benedictine Brothers at Fatima
This page was last updated on 24.10.06 17:41:28