History of De Aar Diocese
Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Our diocese is situated in the southern part of Northern Province and Northwest part of Eastern Province. Within the church's structure, De Aar Diocese belongs to Archdiocese of Cape Town and our history is closely connected to the history of Cape Town Archdiocese. Since the discovering of the Cape, ecclesiastical jurisdiction was entrusted to the Portuguese missionary. After the settlement of the Cape in 1652, the practice of the Catholic religion was prohibited by the civil authorities.
In February 1818 Pope Pius Vll erected the Vicariate Apostolic of the Cape of Good Hope and adjacent areas. Several "surrounding islands" were added - including Madagascar, Mauritius, even Australia and New Zealand. The first Vicar Apostolic became the Right Reverend Bishop Bede Slater, OSB, residing in Mauritius.
On June 6, 1837, Pope Gregory XVI constituted the Cape of Good Hope a separate vicariate and appointed the Rt Reverend Bishop Patrick Griffith, OP, as the first resident vicar apostolic. Ten years later, in 1847, the Vicariate of the Cape of Good Hope was divided into the Vicariates of the Western and the Eastern District of the Cape of Good Hope. We may assume that the apostolic work of the missionaries was done well and there has been some development in faith and growth of catholic population. We do not know how many Catholics were living in this part of Karoo. There had to be some good number of people that missionaries had made an effort to come here. Where they were coming from? The most possible from Cape Town or Port Elizabeth. What we know for certain is that the first entries into De Aar baptismal books are date to 1922 with the signature of Fr. Martino Hayes CSSp (Holy Ghost Fathers).
By decree of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide (that department in the Vatican which deals with missionary territories) dated June 13, 1939, the name of the Western Vicariate was changed to the Vicariate of Cape Town.
On January 11, 1951, Pope Pius Xll established the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the then Union of South Africa, and set up the ecclesiastical Province of Cape Town, comprising the metropolitan church of Cape Town, with the suffragan sees of Aliwal, Oudtshoorn, Port Elizabeth, Queenstown and De Aar.
In June 1923, Pope Pius XI requested Fr Dehon, the General of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (SCJ), to send missionaries to South Africa, and the Catholic Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith encouraged the German Province of the SCJs to assign members of their Congregation to this area in Africa. The Mission Procurator Fr F. W. Demont was nominated the first Prefect Apostolic of the new mission field, the Gariep Prefecture, which comprised the Southern area of the Kimberly vicariate and the Northern area of the Port Elizabeth vicariate.
The first SCJ missionaries led by Fr F. W Demont arrived in Aliwal North on 28 November 1923. They were Frs J Berle. G. Schulz and brother Bonaventura Weber. After seven years, in 1930, there were nine SCJ priests and nine SCJ brothers working in South Africa. The work and establishment were particularly difficult, but the fruits more satisfying by comparison. Four centres were established in Aliwal, De Aar, Jagersfontein and Indwe. In 1936 the Prefecture of Gariep became the Vicariate of Aliwal North and the Apostolic Prefect Fr Demont was appointed bishop on 22 March 1936.
During World War II the freedom, and therefore the work of the SCJs of the German Province was very limited and in some instances entirely curtailed as a result of the internment of the German SCJs. The prospect of assistance from Germany was bleak and a plea for assistance was met by the American Province.
In June 1948 the first SCJs arrived from America they were Frs G. Turkiewicz, B, Gasiorowski and A. Dettmer who were soon joined by Frs A Pudenz, L. Will and brother J Hasselhoff. The prospects of more priests and brothers coming to South Africa was excellent, as many volunteers were available in the American Province for service in the foreign missions.
The Region of Aliwal North had always been entrusted to the care of the German Province of the Congregation, and there followed the usual hints of nationalism with the arrival of the American SCJs. It was hoped that development would function better separately than in a joint German-American effort, and in 1953, the diocese of Aliwal North was divided so that approximately 60% of its territory formed the new Prefecture of De Aar. The mission work was entrusted to the American SCJs and Fr A. Dettmer was appointed the first Prefect Apostolic of the Region which consisted of an area of about 48 thousand square kilometres and a Catholic population of about three thousand.
At the time of its establishment priests were resident at St. Mary's and St. John's in De Aar as well as in Middleburg. The American priests on assuming duties in a strange land, apart from having to adapt to the harsh climatic conditions of the Karoo and the necessity of having to learn several African languages made a valuable contribution to the Region as the following facts indicate.
In 1950 Fr A. Pudenz transferred to De Aar to assist Fr Bea at St. John's.
1951 - Fr Turkiewicz was appointed parish priest of St. Mary's parish, De Aar and Fr Gasiorowski was appointed Regional Vicar of the new territory and priest-in-charge of St. John's parish, being joined by Fr Will who took on responsibility for the outstations. Fr. Pudenz was transferred as the assistant to Fr. Dettmer in Middelburg together with brother Haselhoff.
- Dormitories were built at St. John's to admit boarders from the outlying areas of the Vicariate, and a farm was purchased in the De Aar district.
1952 - A church was built in the township at Middelburg and consecrated by bishop Luck. The school at Middelburg was renovated during this period and two houses were built for teachers at St. John's. A house was purchased in Noupoort to serve as a rectory.
On 24 March 1953, this Territory (formerly included in the Aliwal Diocese) was made a Prefecture and entrusted to the American Province of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
The Rt Rev Mgr AJ Dettmer SCJ was appointed the first Prefect Apostolic. Fr Will as ProPrefect and Frs Gasiorowski and Pudenz as councillors.
1954 - New parish halls were built at St. Mary's, De Aar, and in the township at Middelburg and a home for delinquent children was established at St. John's.
In this comparatively short period, the material growth was evident but in the same period the increase in the number of priests and brothers was disappointing Fr. Turkiewicz had left the Region in 1953 to continue his studies overseas and did not return to South Africa. For ten years after the establishment of the De Aar Region, the only American permitted to enter the country due to the policies of the South African government was B. Zicke who arrived in June 1954.
Although many volunteers regularly applied to come to South Africa, the government continued to refuse permission on every occasion without giving reasons for its actions. Priests, therefore, had to be sought elsewhere and the English Province responded by sending Fr Nugent to South Africa in 1955. During 1959 the English Province provided another volunteer Fr Howley who came to join the Region of De Aar.
In 1961 the properties of the Prefecture and the SCJ Region were formally divided. In the same year, the Superior General Fr J. De Palma visited the Region and the arrival of Fr L. Tadyszak seemed to indicate some relaxation of the government's attitudes, but unfortunately, by this time the source of volunteers had dried up in America, mainly due to discouragement over the years to grant visas, and the apartheid policy, but also most probably, due to the fact that the Americans were looking to the mission of the Congo and Indonesia.
At the time of Vatican II and for some time afterwards much criticism both within and without the missions was voiced. The extent to which this criticism affected possible volunteers is difficult to determine, although it undoubtedly had some effect. In spite of this new volunteers continued to arrive from time to time, but only in sufficient numbers to replace the priests and the brothers who had left. The staff of the De Aar Region numbered about twelve and it was not possible to undertake many new ventures. They devoted themselves to the spiritual and social upliftment of the parishes whose numbers continued to grow.
By decree of the Holy See, dated 13 April 1967, the Prefecture was elevated to the status of a Diocese and the SCJ’s General Superior, Fr J. De Palma was ordained the first bishop of De Aar. Slow but steady progress continued to be made in the new diocese including the erection of new churches and parish halls, and the number of Catholics in the diocese was reckoned to be in the region of six thousand.
Catholic schools were experiencing severe difficulties due to the lack of sufficient staff, as the result of the policies of the Nationalist government, resulting in the closure of three of the five schools in the diocese.
Apart from the Prefecture being raised to a diocese in 1967, the years between 1963 and 1975 were a time of continuation in both De Aar and Aliwal Regions. The number of priests and brothers continued to decline.
In 1974 there was a strong chance of the American SCJs having to leave South Africa as a result of political pressure. Fr Strittmatter investigated the possibility of the SCJs assuming mission work in the Kingdom of Lesotho, to enable them to remain in Southern Africa. The technical school was built and run by the SCJs and some lay volunteers from America, Germany and Switzerland. This school was officially dedicated by the bishop of Leribe and opened by the prime minister of Lesotho - Chief L Johnathan. The community continued to work in Lesotho for several years after 1978, before leaving the territory.
The ten year period from 1975 to 1985 saw the arrival in South Africa of several more priests and brothers from America namely Frs J. Haselbauer and S. Weise and brother G. Selenke, followed by brother G. Timmerman in 1976 and in 1978 brother Cletus Miergard arrived to join the numbers of priests and brothers in the De Aar Region. Fr P. Rudy and Br. F. Paleshen came in 1983 and 1985 respectively.
In 1980 the SCJs of De Aar made a decision to become involved beyond the diocese. Port Elizabeth was their choice and the new foundation had a threefold purpose:
1) to seek candidates for the SCJ
2) to provide SCJs from other provinces with the opportunity of being able to work in a large city and experience the work undertaken in the urban ministries
3) to have a house for rest and relaxation at the coast.
Within a period of twelve years, six SCJs were involved in various ministries in Port Elizabeth. Unfortunately, the involvement of the SCJs declined as they left either the diocese or the country. The last one to leave Port Elizabeth in August 1995 was Fr William Pitcavage.
The only two priests of the former De Aar Region who were at that time still active in the apostolate in South Africa were: Fr John Strittmatter - served as a parish priest in Petrusville, Graaff-Reinet and Middleburg. He was also the Regional Superior of the De Aar Region for some time and Fr William Pitcavage - worked in Lesotho, the Port Elizabeth diocese in South Africa and served as Regional Superior of the De Aar Region.
As the years went by, mission work continued to progress in both Regions, the Catholic population increased steadily, and new churches were consecrated. However, the shortage of priests continued to remain a problem.
The first SCJs from Poland Frs Adam Musialek and Marian Szalwa came to South Africa at the invitation of the Regional Superior of De Aar where the need for personnel was greater than that in the Aliwal Region.
On 27 February 1988 Fr Fritz Lobinger, the diocesan priest, was ordained as a bishop of Aliwal North and was appointed as the Apostolic Administrator of the De Aar Diocese, following the retirement and returning of bishop De Palma to the United States. Fr Lobinger as bishop-elect was concerned about the lack of local vocations and already elderly personnel. He visited Poland in order to seek assistance from the Polish province of the SCJs and he requested two more Polish SCJs who arrived in Aliwal during 1990. They were Frs Paul Koscielny and Michael Ciemiega. In September 1991. three more young Polish priests arrived in Aliwal North there were Frs Marek Przybys, Andrew Malek and Peter Surdel.
On May 1st 1992 Fr. J Potocnak SCJ was ordained as the second bishop of De Aar.
And the story will continue in the future .....