150 years of selfless service

2014-09-27 00:00

THEY arrived in South Africa 150 years ago in their black habits and veils that resembled large white sun bonnets and ended up changing the face of education in the country and affecting many lives — both in Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

The Holy Family sisters built and ran such prestigious schools as St Anthony’s in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, Convent High School in both cities, Langsyde in Elandskop, Maris Stella in Durban as well as St Augustine’s and a host of other schools.

Their legacy lives on as former pupils who attended their schools have made an impact in all walks of life in South Africa and abroad. Many still hold reunions, despite the fact that their alma maters closed decades ago.

The Hilton Village website recently carried a story of Holy Family Convent classmates Maureen Jardim and Olivia Schaffer, reunited after 54 years.

Sister Myrtle Beaunoir and the retired nuns who live on the old school premises at 80 Loop Street, said there were often knocks on the front door as former pupils brought their families along to show them their old school.

Olga Martin, who taught at St Anthony’s School in Pietermaritzburg, said the school closed in the 1970s, but is still fondly remembered by the Pietermaritzburg community.

“The Holy Family Sisters introduced a well rounded education. There were high academic standards, religion of course, ethics and good values. But, above all they promoted the arts. I remember our pupils learning ballet and tap dancing.

“A young Elizabeth Sneddon, after whom a theatre is named at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, used to adjudicate our speech and drama exams,” Martin recalled.

The Holy Family Sisters also established schools, hospitals and clinics in Gauteng, the Cape Province, the Free State, Kimberley and Botswana. They founded the famous Parktown Convent School In Johannesburg and the Kensington Sanatorium, which is now the Wits University Donald Gordon Centre.

The nuns will be celebrating the 150 years since their arrival in South Africa in May 1864. There will be gatherings in Johannesburg, Durban and Pietermaritzburg and they would like all their former teachers, pupils, families of their pupils or anyone linked to their schools, clinics or hospitals to join them.

The Johannesburg Mass and gathering will take place at the Cathedral of Christ the King on Saturday, October 4 at 10 am.

To RSVP, call 011 726 6728 or e-mail: kathleen.mitchell2010@gmail.com

Durban’s event will be at the Emmanuel Cathedral on Wednesday, October 15 at 10 am. To RSVP, call 031 208 4425 or email:hfcomover@telkomsa.net

The Maritzburg celebration will be at St Mary’s Catholic Church on Saturday October 18, at 10 am.

To RSVP, call 033 342 5850 or 083 464 1039 or e-mail: holyfamilypmb@futurenet.co.za.

• nalini@witness.co.za

History of Holy Family Sisters

SIX Holy Family Sisters arrived in Durban from France on May 27, 1864. They were on their way to Basutoland (Lesotho) to work on mission stations there. According to Sister Kathleen Mitchell, those nuns spent six months in Pietermaritzburg and learnt English, while waiting for the ox-wagon to take them to Basutoland. Mitchell said that on March 4, 1875 another group of Holy Family Sisters arrived, this time to settle in South Africa. “Their mission was to attend to the education of the children of settlers,” she said.

Mitchell said 1887 marked a turning point in the life of the sisters when Mother Marcel Mouzey was sent out from France to head the order. This was when negotiations were started for the nuns to take ownership of the properties on which they lived and worked.

The nuns from the order came mainly from France and Ireland as well as other parts of the world. The last principal of St Anthony’s in Pietermaritzburg was Sister Ascension (Rejanne) who was French Canadian.

Mitchell said the Holy Family Sisters who worked in South Africa for the past 150 years, fulfilled the words of their founder, Father Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, who told the first pioneers, “Go forward my daughters, let nothing check your course … and may your hand scatter on all sides the divine seed of good works and good example.”

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