A spire, aspiration and inspiration

2012-01-16 00:00

THE icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa that hangs in the Jasna­ Gora monastery in Czestochowa is the most popular shrine and pilgrimage site in the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country of Poland. Credited with miracles, encrusted with legends, the icon’s story is wrapped up in Poland’s national identity.

A rare reproduction of the Black Madonna­ icon hangs in the church of the Sacred Heart at the Centocow Mission­ that stands on the slopes above the Umzimkulu River just over 10 kilometres from Creighton in southern KwaZulu-Natal.

Centocow is one of 22 mission stations established by the Mariannhill Monastery mother house near Pinetown and it was founded in 1888 by Abbot­ Francis Pfanner. A Polish princess had given a donation to buy the land, so Pfanner named the station after the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Poland. Czestochowa became simplified into Centocow.

Although Centocow might not yet be a place of pilgrimage it has already become the focus of “mission tourism” thanks to an initiative driven by Dudley Smith, economic development manager at the Ingwe Municipality centred on the small towns of Bulwer, Donnybrook and Creighton.

“This area is First World when it comes to the main industries, dairy and forestry,” says Smith. “But not everyone is able to benefit from these.”

In an attempt to remedy this situation an audit was commissioned to identify features unique to the area that could be developed to the economic benefit of the local community.

“We found we have three comparative advantages over other areas,” says Smith. “We have a number of mission stations built in the 19th century by the Trappist order based at Mariannhill, we have a railway line connecting us to Pietermaritzburg­ and we have 68 endemic species of birds.

“The trick is to take a comparative advantage and turn it into a competitive advantage, and slowly turn the area into a tourist destination,” says Smith.

So far the area has capitalised on the bird life which has seen the Sappi-funded development of the Marutswa Forest boardwalk near Creighton. But the municipality also has three operational rail locomotives, while a set of beautifully restored passenger coaches stand on the line outside the Ingwe municipal buildings. A good railway line providing access to the area from Pietermaritzburg via Underberg, offers the possibility of rail-based tourism. But what will tourists come to see apart from the birds? The mission stations. “We felt the story of Francis Pfanner and the Trappist missions could provide the basis for a tourism route,” says Smith.

“That the Trappist story has merit has been proved by Michael Green,” says Smith, referring to Green’s award-winning novel For the Sake of Silence.

But even before the novel was published, Smith knew the mission story was worth telling. “The late Dave Rattray taught us it’s the story in which the value lies — there’s not much point visiting the battlefields without the story.”

Smith says Rattray’s enormously successful audio CDs, Day of the Dead Moon, telling the story of the Anglo-Zulu War, provided a model. Enter historian Steve Kotze who shared Smith’s vision that the mission story was an ideal anchor for tourism in southern KwaZulu-Natal.

In an earlier interview with The Witness, Kotze said: “On one level the story of the Catholic missionaries is similar to the story of the Anglo-Zulu War in that it’s a story of colonial conquest,” says Kotze.“But it was not all one way. The Trappists were transformed by their experience in Africa.”

Kotze was commissioned by the Ingwe­ Municipality to script and produce an audio CD. The result, Hidden Treasures, is a double CD featuring Kotze telling the story of the Trappist missionaries during the 19th century with a particular focus on Centocow, as well as the story of the Xhosa and Bhaca people who populate the area.

Kotze now runs regular mission tours and recently another tour operator, Campaign Trails, has begun running mission tours. While at Centocow, visitors overnight at the specially renovated sewing workshop, a four-storey building now housing a weaving centre and a top floor kitted out for accommodation.

While Centocow is home of the Black Madonna it also boasts another hidden treasure, the artist Gerard Bhengu (see box), who was born and educated at Centocow. “Bhengu is central to the story­,” says Smith. “And now the original mission church, built in 1894, is being restored to house a gallery and museum­ to showcase his work.”

The Campbell Collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal hold 260 of Bhengu’s works. “They have been made available to us on the basis that we create­ a properly constituted gallery with a curator and the necessary conditions for the preservation of the original artworks.”

The restoration project has come about thanks to buy-in from a number of players. The first step in the process saw the Catholic Church give the church to the Ingwe Municipality on the basis the municipality would restore it. “We then applied to Lotto and it gave us R2,7 million,” says Smith. The Joan St Leger Lindbergh Trust gave R500 000, while the Sisonke District Municipality weighed in with R1 million and Ingwe with R200 000. “So we ended up with R4,5 million — enough to restore the original church and put the gallery into the building.”

The architect on the project is Robert Brusse who earlier renovated the old sewing workshop. Brusse is a well-known heritage architect who has enjoyed a long association with the Mariannhill­ mission stations. “I first clapped eyes on this church in 1972,” says Brusse. At the time Brusse was visiting the mission with diocesan representatives as the old mill on the Umzimkulu had become structurally unsound. “It was decided to demolish the mill and I recall someone looking at the old church and saying that will be next.”

That it wasn’t “is because it’s a very fine building and a fine example of Mariannhill­’s pioneering work”, says Brusse.

However, the church had fallen into a state of disrepair and Brusse acknowledges there are “dangerous structural aspects to this contract”. Certainly one of the more adventurous aspects sees the removal of the lower half of the tower while the upper half remains supported on steel-encased concrete pillars. The brickwork of the lower portion will gradually be rebuilt. Brusse and engineer Hugh Bowman undertook a similar exercise when they renovated Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban.

“We are working on the principle that this gallery and museum have to set the bar high for conservation in KwaZulu-Natal,” says Brusse. “We have a huge responsibility to future generations of South Africans.”

The church restoration is scheduled to be completed by the end of June and the gallery and museum will be opened on Heritage Day in September. “The Department of Arts and Culture has given us R500 000 per annum to employ a curator­ and properly administer the gallery,” says Smith.

“The museum will tell three stories — that of Gerard Bhengu, the culture and history of the Xhosa and Bhaca people­, and that of the Trappists.”

Some of this will be illustrated by ethnographic­ photos taken by the missionaries. “Pfanner brought out the best European technology, including photography, and we have access to a set of photographs held by the University of Leiden in Holland. This project has authenticity,” says Smith. “You can’t artificially­ create history.”

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