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St Francis Church



St. Francis Xavier is a Catholic church situated in the location of Kuyasa in Colesberg. It is at the corner of Church Street and the Main road in the area called Zwelitsha. Currently, it harbours about 40 families (family in the black culture includes anyone that bears the same surname and clan name as yours).

An interview was conducted with four lady parishioners; Adelina Matsoso, Annie Mohlakula, Elizabeth Mtemekwana, Julia Thobothobo and Monica Ntengemntu; belonging to the parish dating as far back as the 1950s. As much as their stories at certain points differ, like the names of the priest that did holy mass but their stories bear the same information.

People gathered at Mrs TotinaTikani’s house where Holy mass was conducted on the two-room of their four-roomed house. One room was used as the confession room. Mr Matthias Mohlakula rang the bell outside his home each time before mass to invite people to join in.

Miss Thobothobo, the granddaughter of Mrs Tikani, further states that back then coloured people and black people stayed together in the same location and attended the same church. The government then built a location called Lowryville and the coloureds moved to that location. Ms Ntengemntu states that a teacher named Mr Seherie assisted the priests. William Ramokhele, the father of Ms.Ntengemntu, ensured that the churchyard was clean. He planted flowers around the church.

On these interviews names of Father Nugent, Father Alfons Nordhlone, Father Benedict Gasiorowski and Father Thabo a Sotho speaking priest from Jagersfontein in the Free State, diocese of Bloemfontein, came to light. This is where the differences surfaced as previously indicated. The abovementioned priests came to do holy mass.

People used to walk in the early hours of the morning, sometimes in the dark just to reach Mrs Tikani’s house by6:00 am to attend service at 8:00 am. A priest would come once a week to do Mass. Once done he would listen to confession on the other room.

Monsignor Aloysius Dettmer SCJ, deputy to Father Joseph Nugent SCJ who was stationed in Colesberg at the time St. Francis Xavier was built, reported in April 1954 that three years ago five French engineers, who had been working on the construction of Gariep dam formerly known as Hendrick Verwoerd, joined the congregation of Colesberg at mass.

On his report, he states that this marked a new era of development for the community of Catholics. Though the dam is situated just outside the boundary of our diocese, our side of the Orange River would share in many aspects of the construction. This led to the decision of Msgr. A. Dettmer to construct a presbytery with a chapel at Colesberg. It was anticipated that after another two years the constructors of the dam will be leaving but a few of them actually live within the parish. Gradual but steady development in Colesberg was visible and this was on account of site issues connected with the dam. Also, the delay of the construction of Van Der Kloof dam in Petrusville favoured this small town Colesberg.

Several immigrant families employed at the then Hendrick Verwoerd dam gave up their residence at Colesberg but the church at Oranjekragwas still holding out well.

He further stated that travellers looking to attend Mass on Sunday would be directed to the Mission church. To their surprise, they found a wonderful congregation at the end of a road through the slums.

Long queues waiting for confession would be what welcomed them when they entered and at the front of the pews a big and smiling Mr Mjela, a catechist, would be conducting instruction until the confessions were done. Among the women, a good number dressed in purple uniforms of the sodality of St. Anna whilst men of the Sacred Heart wore red stoles. The organisations brought life to this Mission. Men instilled discipline and their strong forte was issuing orders for the good of the church. Amongst other duties, the men prepared the list of deceased parishioners, catechumens and confirmed ensuring that prayers can be focused on the needs of each group. Men chose to make positive contributions and would carry them out with a good sense of responsibility.

On the Regional meeting held in De Aar Prefecture at St. Mary’s on 1st March 1964 it was discussed that the white Catholics should be encouraged to do something to make an initial start in Colesberg. It was also suggested that Fr. Nugent in charge Colesberg should spend more time in Colesberg rather than travelling back and forth.

On 9 March 1962 on a Father’s general discussion, it transpired that there were now 250 black Catholics at the church on the location and that the church needed a good catechist. The church now needed a resident priest that could travel between the church and Noupoort and priest was to stay in Noupoort.

On the minutes of the meeting of the Regional Council held in De Aar on the 4th March 1963 the matter of an imperative need to purchase a then available plot in Colesberg to build a house where a permanent priest would reside. It was agreed that the matter would be brought to the Prefecture Council.

The Prefectural meeting held on the 31st January 1963 in Middleburg decided that a plot or house accommodate Fr. Joseph Nugent SCJ will be bought in Colesberg. That would enable him to work there and at the surrounding farms. Until the house is built or bought Fr. Joseph Nugent SCJ would have to stay at a hotel.

The construction of St. Francis Xavier as articulated in the memoirs of Father Nugent

Fr. Joseph Nugent, a priest of the Sacred Heart, was born in Mullingar Ireland in 1920 and ordained 22 May 1952 al Malpas England. A member of the English Province of Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, deputed by Msgr Dettmer SCJ Prefect Apostolic of De Aar under the American Province of the aforementioned Congregation, undertook to oversee the building of a Catholic Church, later to be known as the Church of Immaculate Heart of Mary in the area designated by the Municipality of Colesberg for the Bantu.

From an entry dated 30 August 1960 Fr. Joseph Nugent SCJ states on his memoir that they had first applied for a site for the church about 10 years ago and intermittently since. The application was refused on the grounds that a new location would be assigned to the Bantu. A plot, 72 feet by 60 was allocated to them but felt that it was not large enough. This was attested by a Councillor who was the only Catholic in the white population. He advised that they may continue the church foundation into the next erf and then apply for permission for an extension since the council had decided to allocate two erfs to each denomination.

They had ordered twelve windows with amber coloured glass, three heavy doors and two plywood doors. William Tobias was hired to haul stones, sand and bricks at fifteen shillings per load for sand and another for a 1000 bricks. The bricks to build the church were supplied by Bendlela July, a Catholic.

At that point Fr. Nugent was staying at Central hotel. Steve Wertheim from De Aar had suggested the use of face-brick on the inside of the Church. Permits for the two masons to stay in the location were issued by Mr Bezedenhout.

On an entry dated 30 September 1960, he states that Father Pudenz reported the progress he saw in the two visits he had made to Colesberg. Arch windows were done by a carpenter called Nimrod Mrwadi. There were twenty-one men working on the construction including eight masons. With the visible progress, Monsignor hopes that the church can be opened on 8 December. The discussions about the name came with others thinking that the church ought to be dedicated to Saint Francis Xavier.

Monsignor Dettmer opened the church on 16 December 1960. He brought within his combi a few Europeans from De Aar. The blessing started at 10 o’clock in the morning forming the choir was Fr. Nugent and Monsignor.

16 October 1961: The location Mass is said on the third Sunday and usually about 40 people receive. A second Mass is said at “Potfontein”, a farm of David Du Plessis on a hut of a native and about eight people received.

25 February 1962: The first wedding between a Catholic and a non-Catholic took place. The following Sunday there was a Catholic wedding between a 15-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy, Ramaisa and Vellie with nuptial blessing in the Sunday Mass.

In July the same year trees were planted around the church. The cypress tree which came from Aliwal North; the ash tree from Wyrley-Birch; the oleander from Fr. Baur SCJ and the begonias tree from Eensaamheid.

After mass on 23 September 1962 the first confirmation of 26 candidates including two whites was done. It was expected that six more from “Potfontein” should have been confirmed.

It was hoped that the building would start soon on the two plots obtained near the hospital. Fr. Wienand would do the house plans and one would be chosen. END OF FR. NUGENT’S MEMOIRS.

When the church started here in Colesberg it was mostly made of Sotho families. It is only when the Xhosa families came back from the farms that the community mingled. The sodality of St. Anna was as strong then as it is now though they were few. On the prayer meetings they did not share the bible sharing but rather prayed the rosary and for each other. The way they were so strict no girl child would enter the church without wearing anything on the head and no one was allowed to receive the Eucharist with bare shoulders.

It is because of these strict rules that a Sotho speaking girl from the Mafale family showed interest in becoming a nun. Her father did not want to hear anything about it. It is only when he saw his daughter’s eagerness that he agreed. The race was rife at the time and she could not join the Dominican sisters because of racial issues but instead, she joined the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa, Lesotho. She was then known as Sr. Agatha and has served more than 50 years as a Catholic Sister.

Unknown to Mr Mohlakula, chiming the bells each day before service inspired his grandson. He joined the priesthood and is Fr. John Mohlakula serving in the Diocese of Oudtshoorn. He visits the church when he is on vacation.

The late Mr Kopung, Kweleta, Moloinyana, Mrwarwaza and Plata including Mr Kibi and Sifuba, these men assisted the priest with the church duties. They would wear white garments with black bibs and would also conduct a service of the word in the absence of the priest. This came to a stop at the era of Fr. Paul Kościelny SCJ

The late Sister Dorothy Phate OP.  and Sister Paulina Makunyane OP. helped in grooming the young people of the church. Sr. Paulina Makunyane OP., did with the music competitions; plays, especially during Easter. She sent young people to programmes such as YES. She would also do retreats and camps with young people. This kept the young people at church because they something interesting would surely come. Later Sister Mary Kewuti, OP. a retired Dominican sister served the community of St. Francis Xavier. She gave catechism classes and groomed more of her products to continue where she left off.


After Fr. Joseph Nugent SCJ; Fr. Baaij SCJ came to serve in 1965. He wrote to the Religious Superior in a letter dated 14 March 1971,

“It will be five years in May that I have been in charge of the works of Colesberg, although the residence here was established on the 3rd of December 1966.

Previous to this time the actual work comprised of the care of white people at Colesberg and Wrexham Farm, and specific mission work at the mixed location (coloureds and Bantu of Colesberg), and the farms Potfontein, Eensaamheid, Holfontein and the township of Norvalspont.

In the meantime, the concentration of whites warrants a weekly service which is also attended by whites from Farms Wretham and Weltevreden. The coloureds of the old location have moved to a new township Lowryville (where the construction of a church hall is being considered, but we leave this to the initiative of the diocese) which requires two-weekday service.”

Eensaamheid is a farm on a way to Norvalspont. It is about 10 kilometres from Colesberg. It was previous belonged to Andries Louw. Every dweller in that farm belonged to the Catholic community. That led to the owner building a small church for them. So whenever the priest visited them he would bring with the church elders.

Fr. Baaij SCJ left St Francis Xavier after his appointment as the Bishop of Aliwal North diocese on 17 December 1973.

Fr. Joseph Nugent came back. He served the community of St. Francis Xavier until Fr. Colin Bowes.

Fr. Bowes started in Colesberg in 1989. It was at the time when apartheid was rife, as a result, he experienced intolerance from the white community as in that time coloured or blacks were not welcomed to reside in the “white area.” People heard for the first time about the retreat from him. St. Francis Xavier community started to complain now that he had never baptised not a single child in that eight years that he had served in that community though there were children to baptise. It was at that time that Fr, Bowes was moved from Colesberg.

Then in 1997 Fr. Gerry Fitzsimmons was brought to Colesberg and worked until his untimely murder in October 2004. He loved the Xhosa culture to an extent that he even called himself “Rhadebe” a Xhosa clan name. Fr. Gerry organised bursary sponsors and introduced CHIRO and the Sodality of Mary. After his murder Fr. Mokesh Morar and Bishop Joseph Potocnak, known as Bishop Joe, were assisting in Colesberg whilst Bp Joe was looking for a priest to work here. It was a daunting task to find a replacement as the news of the gruesome murder of Fr. Gerry caused fear amongst the fellow priest.

Fr. Peter Surdel SCJ accepted the position and resumed work in Colesberg in February 2005. Despite the event that shook the community of Colesberg people came in numbers to church and filled it to the brim. For the first time, the community was introduced to Adoration. He had played a significant part in lifting the morale of the community. He serviced this community until May 2006.

Thereafter Fr. Douglas Sumaili served the community of Colesberg for four months.

In November 2006 Fr. Paul Kościelny SCJ was introduced to Colesberg. He has graced the community with his hands-on approach on things, as a result, he was immobile for a couple of months after he fell from a rooftop. At that time Fr. Bowes was assisting here. Though now retired he also assists with Bp Adam Musialek by serving the community when Fr. Paul goes on vacation. Fr. Paul is still serving to date.

St Joseph Church

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