A Short History of the Archives of the Catholic Diocese of Port Elizabeth

DSC 0083After the untimely death of archivist John Reeks, conservation, register research, genealogical research and preservation of local church documents wDSC 0083as taken over by Helena Glanville (right).

She is assisted by Theresa Waldek, who deals with the Southern Crosses prior to their being bound into annual volumes, as well as the ongoing classification and preservation of archival books.

Very few people are aware of the enormous contribution made by John Reeks to the archives, who laid an excellent foundation to the archives in the 2 to 3 years he worked here. He also started a small museum of church artifacts, such as church plate, priests vestments, travelling priests’ kits from the 1900’s and earlier, silver trowels for the laying foundations of churches, and Catholic schools, keys for opening churches and schools, photographs, paintings, illuminated awards, collections of letters by Bishops Griffith, Ricards, MacSherry and other bishops.

They provide a fascinating insight into the history of the early church in the Eastern Cape – well worth a visit by parishioners and clergy interested in finding out something of our spiritual roots and giving us a real sense of history.

displayroom3Local and overseas researchers are already making use of the information contained in the books and church documents, but there is a feeling that this wonderful facility is being under-utilised.

There also appears to be little understanding of the work done in the early days and the hardships experienced by the clergy in the 18/ 1900’s and even in the twentieth century. There is also the fascinating event of the walls of the first St. Augustine’s building collapsing after heavy rains, necessitating its rebuilding.

There are also some stained glass windows, worth looking at, also pictures of the old Blessed Oliver Plunket church in South End, which had to be demolished.

No relevant history of the church in South Africa can be written or referred to without acknowledging the efforts of Dr. S.R. Welch, Mr. Theal or Count A. Wilmot for our early history, and those of, Frs. Brady or Dischl, Prof. J. Brains of KZN and others for the more recent years, or for that matter, the Religious Orders who kept such good records of their missionary work in South Africa and Monsignor F.C. Kolbe, editor of the South African Catholic Magazine.

An excerpt from Theal’s history (from the South African Catholic Magazine of 1891 which is part of the Archive’s Africana collection.), provides us with an excellent view of the early history of the Vacariate…
In 1895 after an 8th month research trip to Europe, Count Wilmot returned to South Africa to organise his section of the church’s involvement in South Africa. The cost of the journey was shared between Mr. C.J. Rhodes and Count Wilmot and the result was three publications: (i) Wilmot on “Monomatapa (Rhodesia), its monuments and history from the most ancient period to the present” arranged in three volumes: Phoenicia, Arabia and Portugal; (ii) a revision of Mr Theal’s “History of South Africa 1486 – 1871” and (iii) Wilmot’s “History of South Africa up to the present” (that is 1895 both general and church).

It is recorded that Wilmot succeeded in discovering that the Portuguese Jesuit Archives taken from the monastery at Evora were housed in the National Library of Lisbon and that he suggested to Mr. Rhodes that a similar institution be formed: the South Africa National Historical Library in Cape Town. The proceeds of his publication went to the Vatican, Propaganda and the Society of Jesus and his lecture tour profits went to the Nazareth House Sisters and their work in the Colony.

Count Wilmot writes: “The first Europeans that ever came to South Africa were of course Catholics. Protestantism did not then exist. Moreover their first act was a religious act; the standard they hoisted was not the standard of Portugal but that of the Kingdom of God. It was in August 1486, that Bartholomew Diaz erected a cross at Angra Pequena, and later on in the same voyage another which gave its name to the island of Santa Cruz in Algoa Bay. At this latter place the historian tells us also of ‘religious rites’. Was there a priest on board? If so, it was South Africa’s first Mass.

displayroom19“The first church, however, in our S.A Vicariates was in the island of St. Helena. This was made a place of call by the Portuguese, and the first house (for a long time the only house) they built there was the house of God. There were too many misfortunes associated with the Stormy Cape, for them to care to stop there, as they used to sail from St. Helena right round to Mozambique.

“Their golden days passed away, and the English and Dutch stepped into their place. The (European and UK) political world gained a great deal by the change, but for a while at least the Catholic Church was practically shut out of South Africa.”

Editorial note: (i) Catholics lived in the colonies but had no permanent resident priest until after 1820.

(ii) Evora is a Portuguese city about 72 miles from Lisbon. It contains a temple and other remains of Roman and Moorish architecture. It also has a beautiful 12 c cathedral. The city walls still exist and traditional trade included wine and textiles

The archives are situated in the Chancery, and are open from Mondays to Fridays between 9am and 1pm. By appointment.

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