Sacred Heart Church
The history of the Catholic Church in the Petrusville area dates from about the middle of the 1950s is closely linked to that of Hopetown. It was to the Hopetown area that Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) priests came from Kimberley to look for and find scattered Catholics. Later with the arrival of the Sacred Heart (SCJ) priests, first Fr Leonard Will in 1963 and later Fr John Strittmatter from 1974, missionary work began in earnest. These two priests, both Americans, worked tirelessly for a total twenty-five years (1963 – 1988) to bring and develop the Church in Hopetown, Petrusville and Philipstown. Also, various farms in the area and the Orange River Station became faith centres. The faith had never been established in the area but was brought here mainly by individual lay Catholics from outside the area who came here looking for work, mainly as farm labourers – people from the Eastern Cape, (Xhosas), Lesotho (Sothos) and some from the Western Cape. Among the people of European origin, the influence of the Dutch Reformed Church was overwhelming and there were very few of them who were not members of that church or some other protestant church.
In a region which was overwhelmingly hostile to the Catholic Church, Fr Will and, later, Fr Strittmatter would visit towns and farms and humbly ask anyone they met whether they knew of any Catholics in the area. It must be said that while the priests were generally met with suspicion and outright hostility, there were, nevertheless, many non-Catholics who were truly helpful. In this way, through hard work and great missionary zeal the priests, especially Fr Will, discovered many Catholics and, after some time was able to bring them together to form Catholic communities.
The Old Church
This is certainly true about Petrusville. With assistance from the Catholics of Hopetown, Fr Will came frequently to Petrusville looking for and finding Catholics who were scattered all over the area, particularly on farms. Slowly, the numbers grew to consist essentially of Sothos and Xhosas. There were a few Europeans and so-called Coloureds, especially while the Vanderkloof Dam was being built. The first church was a building constructed out of mud belonging to an old, faithful and loyal Catholic lady, Mrs Paulina Soaholimo. The building was in what is remembered as the “Old Location” (Township). Initially, Fr Will lived in De Aar and visited more or less once a month. During these visits, Holy Mass and the Sacraments would be celebrated, and as much instruction as possible given. Soon a house was purchased in Petrusville, not far from the church and Fr Will came to live permanently in Petrusville. Holy Mass was now celebrated every day at 7.00 am and immediately afterwards some ladies in the community would give classes to a few of the children. Petrusville now became the focal point for the surrounding communities.
Bishop de Palma blesses the New Church
As early as 1959, the Petrusville Municipality had decided to expropriate the land on which the Old Location was built. Only in 1964 were efforts made to develop a new location. In April 1977, the Department of Bantu Administration advised the Town Council that there was enough housing in the New Location and that the Old Location should be demolished. Despite this, demolition only took place much later. Meanwhile, the old mud church continued to be used. In 1983, a splendid new Church was built in the New Location and opened and blessed by the late Bishop de Palma. It was named in honour of the Sacred Heart. Many priests have followed Frs Will and Strittmatter and their contribution should not be forgotten or underestimated.
Baptism and First Communion
The growth of the Church has been disappointing and the majority of Catholics in the parish is still made up of the founding members and their families. There are many reasons for this. First, there has been very little growth. if any, in the population. Also, and not least of the reasons there has been, and still is, a serious shortage of priests, nuns and catechists.
Consequently, there has been very little inculturation. In other words, the Faith has not taken on flesh among the indigenous people: Catholic culture has not really affected their culture and their culture has not been embraced by the Catholic culture. In fact, there is a dual religious system, the Catholic and the traditional, in the minds of a majority of our indigenous Catholics. This is not intended as criticism – we’ve not had the time or resources. After all, it took hundreds of years for the Faith to become inculturated among the peoples of Europe even though they had the monks and monasteries to assist. We’ve only been going for about 50 years! Another on-going problem is the lack of a stable population: most of our younger adults move out of the parish to look for work or finish their education elsewhere. Efforts to catechise these people and their children are very challenging and, sadly, not very successful. Nevertheless, we do celebrate Holy Mass and the Sacraments frequently and authentically, and we are developing to some degree a genuine Catholic devotional life. The Sodalities of the Sacred Heart and St Anne are well represented as is the loyal team of altar servers.
Five new Catholics
All is not doom and gloom. People are beginning to trickle into the area from the North and this, we hope, will bring new members to the Church. Moreover, judging from the continued existence and resilience of the Church in Petrusville and the desire of the people to be Catholic, there is every hope that it will still be around, if not flourishing, in 50 years’ time. Hopefully, young lay men and women will be influenced by the Holy Spirit to become committed and zealous missionaries and that the New Evangelisation will come in strength to Petrusville. Certainly, this would be the greatest legacy that we could inherit from the hard work, commitment and enthusiasm of Frs Will and Strittmatter and all the other priests. God bless them!