Van Reenen’s li’l church with a big story

2013-10-28 00:00

IT is so small, you might miss it altogether on your mad rush along the N3 towards Johannesburg or Durban in an effort to reach your destination. It is perhaps Van Reneen’s best-kept secret — this quaint little church with a big story.

Known modestly as the “Little Church”, it is the smallest church in the southern hemisphere, and it offers a place for rest and reflection along one of the busiest traffic routes in South Africa.

The quirky little church has passed through many hands since it was built in 1925.

It began as a private memorial built for a deeply grieving father who lost his son in a mining accident in a Dundee coal mine, and if you enter the ornate wooden doors and read the historical account of the Llandaff Oratory, you may be touched by the sentimental story. Especially when you hear he built the church in defiance of the cold-hearted church that refused to let him lay a plaque in his son’s memory.

But research done by Van Reneen historian and author Gillis van Schalkwyk may prove that the Little Church’s real story may have been intentionally corrupted over the years for tourism and commercial reasons.

Van Schalkwyk, who has recently written a book about Van Reenen’s Pass, which is to be released soon, says that the story of the Little Church intrigued him. There is no doubt that the tiny church was built by eccentric local Van Reenen Magistrate Maynard Mathew in 1925.

Mathew was a peculiar man who was the grandson of Viscount Llandaff 2 of Ireland and he was a friend of General Jan Smuts. The death of his favourite son, Llandaff, affected him deeply.

Records show that his son, Llandaff Mathew, was killed in a coal-mining accident in Dundee, but there seems to be some dispute about the manner in which his son died.

The popular story claims he died while saving eight men by dragging them out of a collapsed mine tunnel, and on his way back inside the tunnel, it finally collapsed, killing him.

But Van Schalkwyk, with the help of historian Pam McFadden of the Talana Museum, uncovered an account of the mining accident in The Natal Witness, dated March 21, 1925.

Mining inspectors reported that only two people were in the mine when the accident happened. One was Llandaff Mathew and the other was a young mining apprentice. The Natal Witness report gives the mining apprentice’s account of the accident. According to him, they were inspecting the roof in the haulage when Llandaff noticed a crack developing. Instinctively, he pushed the young miner into a narrow opening to safety.

Before he could escape, a section of the roof collapsed on him, breaking his pelvis and causing severe internal injuries, ultimately causing him to die the following day.

Van Schalkwyk said: “Maynard Mathew was determined that his son should not be forgotten. He decided to build his own church and had plans drawn up on a similar design to a wing of the famous cathedral in Cardiff Wales. So he purchased a quarter acre of land from Bob Bloy of the farm Scottstan and commissioned Mr John Smith, a contractor from Pietermaritzburg, to build his little church.”

The church was officially named the Llandaff Oratory, and Maynard Mathew became an ordained priest and served in his own little church.

On October 28, 1983, the Little Church was declared a National Heritage Site by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA).

But as time went on, the church and the property were sold, and the real story of the Little Church became corrupted. Rumour had it that Maynard built the church because he was shunned by the local Catholic Church, which would not allow him to place a plaque in the church honouring his son’s bravery.

People claimed that there were eight seats in the church for every man his son had saved.

Van Schalkwyk established that no church records exist to this effect. He also established that Maynard was never formally ordained as a priest but was admitted as a Dominican Third Order Tertiary (a layman), and as such, was allowed to wear their habit and minister in his own church. He became Brother Joseph.

Maynard would spend a great deal of time praying in the church and meditating. He was known as an eccentric. He was known to walk around in his pyjamas, chasing black people off the street to make sure they kept the curfew.

He had an ongoing feud with the local post mistress and he would stick used stamps on his letters, which she would return as unpaid mail. Not to be outdone, Maynard wrote a postcard to a well-respected farmer in the area complaining of the woman’s demeanour and incompetence. Of course she returned it unposted.

Maynard also had his own rickshaw, complete with a Zulu man who pulled it. He would use the rickshaw to ride into Van Reenen to do his shopping.

In later life, he became very large and portly around the waist. Apparently, he would lie stark naked on the veranda of his home and ask his servant to fan him. He was so fat he could not urinate unassisted and his servant had to help him with this unenviable task. Van Schalkwyk says he heard a story (which was verified) that on a particular day, Maynard called his servant for assistance and was irritated when the man was fiddling about and nothing was happening.

“Come on man, hurry up, I can’t stand here all day,” said Maynard.

“Sorry Sir,” replied the man, “I can’t find it.”

“You’d better find it,” retorted the old man, “you had it last.”

When the larger-than-life Maynard died, his estate was sold and the Little Church was sold to Mrs George Thiery. The church and the Green Lantern Hotel were part of the same property. Each time the hotel changed hands, the Little Church and its story went with it. This continued until the mid-seventies when the then owner, Charles West-Thomas, sold the hotel and excised the Little Church, which he gave to his new bride, Mims Mapp, as a wedding present. Her daughter Geraldine Johnson owns the Little Church to this day.

The Little Church was separated from the hotel when the N3 highway was built and it was left rather vulnerable and close to the road. But seeing an opportunity, Johnson opened a little tearoom alongside the church and she now sells antiques and collectables.

She has encouraged the church to be more than an ornamental attraction and it is used as a “working” church, with services every Sunday. Local farmer Ron Burgess, who is also a pastor, gives services in the non-denominational church every week. If the turnout is big, they use the garden. The tiny church is popular for weddings and baptisms. “It is intimate and has a unique character,” says Johnson.

Burgess says that they encourage visitors to use the prayer book and he says that miracles have happened. “We had a woman come here, whose son was critically injured in a car accident on the N3. We have been praying for him and he is almost fully recovered.”

Burgess has started a thriving crèche and Sunday school as part of the Little Church, and he believes it will continue to thrive. An emergency breakdown service occupies the plot next door and for those who woefully need this service, the church may provide a good spot to offer up prayers for heavenly guidance.

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