South Africa. A Century of Faith and Commitment

The Comboni Missionaries celebrate 100 years of their presence in the country.

In 1924, the Comboni Missionaries arrived in South Africa, a vast land of diverse peoples. Only a few hundred were Catholic, and they were primarily European gold-diggers and adventurers. Charged with establishing the Catholic faith in the region then known as Eastern Transvaal, they embarked on a mission that would span a century and beyond.

The pioneers, numbering a dozen strong and originating from Germany, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland, arrived in South Africa in 1924 after being expelled from the Sudan. They encountered numerous challenges as they began their work, including a lack of infrastructure and support in the region.

Their first significant achievement was the acquisition of a farm outside Lydenburg, which they named Maria Trost, meaning “Mother of Consolation,” after a renowned Austrian Marian shrine.
In 1925, the Comboni Missionaries erected the region’s first church, dedicating it to the Immaculate Conception. Alongside the church, they established a primary school to provide education to the local population.

Fr. Bernard Zorn, affectionately known as “Baba Zulu” due to his passion for the local language, became the first parish priest of Maria Trost. Under his guidance and the collective efforts of the Comboni Brothers, the mission in South Africa began to thrive.

The brothers played a pivotal role in supporting the establishment of the Church in the Apostolic Prefecture of Lydenburg. Through their hard work, they expanded the farm to include a fruit and vegetable garden that provided for priests, brothers, sisters, and the community.

Notably, they initiated a tailor shop and carpentry, which not only served their own needs but also contributed to building chapels, churches, clinics, and schools as the Christian communities in the diocese continued to grow.

The impact of the Comboni Missionaries extended beyond Maria Trost. They established new parish churches, contributing to the growth of the Catholic faith throughout South Africa.

The year 1951 marked the establishment of the Burgersfort parish, accompanied by numerous outstations, further expanding the faith. Steelport, an outstation of Burgersfort, also became an independent parish. In urban centres, the missionaries ministered to the poor.

In Pretoria, the Comboni Missionaries first established Saint Anthony’s Hostel and, in 1965, they took over the parish of St. Augustine in Silverton, setting the stage for further expansion in the capital city. The missionaries were best known, though, for their work far beyond the cities, as they diligently promoted the Gospel in rural areas and less accessible regions.

They were actively engaged in the media sector through the Comboni Media Centre in Pretoria, with their magazine “Worldwide”.

They also dedicated themselves to the formation of new missionary candidates. In 2002, the Scholasticate was established in Pietermaritzburg, where young men from Africa, Latin America, and Asia came to study.

During the last century, the Comboni Missionaries in South Africa have dedicated themselves to the first evangelisation, working with people, who were oppressed first by colonialism and then by apartheid, and now in the present era when the young democracy is facing great challenges.

The Comboni Missionaries are confronted with the tensions of the times when, in their ordinary pastoral work, they encounter the root causes of xenophobia, inequality and discriminatory practices.

Missionaries accompany families wracked by poverty and unemployment. In a country with very high levels of asylum-seekers, migrants, and refugees and living with impoverished South Africans, their presence testifies to the Living God who is still drawing light out of darkness, still bringing hope where despair has set in, and manifesting the Resurrected Life that overcomes the forces of death and darkness. Today, 26 Comboni missionaries are working in 4 dioceses with eight parishes.  Their legacy in South Africa is one of unwavering faith, service, and dedication.

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