When school is too far away

2009-12-18 00:00

“TO work among poor people is a special call,” says Sister Virginia Nondumiso Beata Didi of Reichenau Mission near Underberg. She teaches at a small day school which she helps to run at the mission along with the principal Rosemary Kathi. “The school is aimed at helping to educate children from the many poor families who live in this rural­ area.”

Sister Virginia has been at Reichenau for 15 years and is a member of the Daughters of St Francis of Assisi.

“We operate under the Mariannhill Diocese­ but our mother house is in Italy,” she says. “We took over here in 1994 from the Sisters of the Precious Blood.”

Over the years, the Reichenau Mission has mainly been in the news because of its famous mill that was restored to working order in the eighties, only to have the floods of 1987 destroy the turbine house. Recently, a team of engineering enthusiasts came to the rescue and the mill is up and running once again, producing stone-ground wheat, rye and maize flours just as it did when first built in the late 19th century.

But the mill is just one aspect of the Reichenau­ story. Reichenau was the first daughter station of the Trappist monastery of Mariannhill near Durban. Built in 1887, the new foundation was named Reichenau after the oldest monastery north of the Alps.

As well as the church and the mill, the mission­ station complex includes stone-built barns, workshops and monastic quarters­ and it’s in one of these solid two-storey structures that the primary school for boys and girls is run by the two-woman team. “We start at 8 am, but many of the children come from far, so we usually start at 8.30 am,” says principal Kathi. “We give them lunch and we finish at 2 pm.”

Sister Virginia would like more children to come to the school — “my heart is sore for children who are not able to get to a school” — but for many, the distance that has to be travelled between home and school is an obstacle. Now Sister Virginia is hoping to solve this problem with the creation of a boarding establishment.

“Boarding will be for girls only at this stage,” she says.

Sister Virginia has had plans drawn up to convert one of the two-storey buildings into a boarding establishment with sleeping quarters for a maximum of 28 boarders plus a kitchen, dining and recreation room, plus a sick bay and housemother accommodation.

Today Reichenau is no longer connected to Mariannhill Monastery, but it is a parish in the Diocese of Mariannhill and the school operates under the benevolent eye of Reichenau­’s parish priest Reverend Lungelo Shezi. He is hoping an increase in pupils will also see funding come from the provincial Department of Education. “Currently, the school is run with the fees paid by the pupils’ parents,” he says.

Thanks to the German monks of old, the buildings are still solid and the external and internal walls appear to be in good condition. The necessary renovations and construction to create a boarding school are estimated to cost around R275 000.

If you can assist in any way, contact Sister Virginia at 033 701 1202 or 083 528 8056, or Reverend Lungelo Shezi at 033 701 1891 or 076 386 7072.

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