Man of the cloth chose austere life

2011-11-24 00:00

HE was a Catholic priest but not an unusual sight praying in a temple or a mosque. Father Garth Msizi Michelson (78), who died last Wednesday in his cardiologist’s rooms during a routine visit, was widely respected by religious communities throughout the province.

On Sunday, the Divine Life Society of South Africa held a memorial service where eThekwini City Treasurer Krish Kumar paid tribute to “our beloved Father Michelson”.

Kumar said Michelson was associated with the Spiritual head of the Divine Life, Swami Sahajananda, for more than 30 years. He first started visiting the Loop Street Ashram in Pietermaritzburg and when he moved to Durban he attended Sunday evening services at the Reservoir Hills Ashram.

While in Pietermaritzburg, Michelson routinely visited the Soofie Mosque in Masukwana (East) Street, which was close to the St Joan of Arc Church in Orthmann Road where he was the parish priest.

Interfaith organisation, the Turquoise Harmony Institute, paid tribute to him in a national Sunday newspaper. In a recent publication of the organisation, Michelson wrote a piece on Muslim scholar M. Fethullah Gulen. The piece was titled: “Forgiveness, Tolerance, and Dialogue in Gulen’s thought.”

According to Maritzburg friend Julian Peters what made Michelson stand out was his absolute devotion to the poor and that he chose to live a life of austerity. Kumar in his tribute said he drove around in a dilapidated vehicle and when a devotee at the ashram offered to buy him a more comfortable car he politely refused, saying it was not in keeping with the cardinal vows of the church of poverty, chastity and humility.

Michelson was born in Bloemfontein on June 1, 1933. His family moved to Johannesburg and he matriculated from Marist Brothers College in Observatory. He worked in a factory while studying for a BSc degree part time. By 1953, Michelson decided to become a priest. He studied at St Joseph’s Scholasticate in Cedara later completing a doctorate at the Gregorian University in Rome. He lectured at various seminaries in South Africa and served as secretary for Ecumenism of the South African Catholic Bishop’s Conference.

He founded the Scion Community of Reconciliation first at Mariannhill then at St Joan of Arc. Ronnie Green and his family, who lived in the community for five years, said Michelson was a great man, who would not pass anyone on the roadside without going to help. “The community was near the highway and we had a constant stream of visitors looking for shelter. No one was turned away,” he added.

Green recalled an incident which was also mentioned in the Divine Life Tribute when Michelson was hijacked. This was not the first time he was robbed, but he told them that he felt sorry for his assailant and was concerned about what drove a person to crime. He went looking for the young man and found him after 10 days of searching. They sat in silence for a while and Michelson told him he had come out of respect and concern. Green recalls that the hijacker broke down and wept.

Michelson went on to work with peri-urban communities around Durban and the south coast. He lived with the communities and the focus of his work was on caring for those with HIV/Aids.

His funeral will take place tomorrow (Friday). There will be a requiem mass at the Emmanuel Cathedral in Durban, followed by a mass at St Joseph’s Scholasticate at Cedara at 11 am with the burial taking place at 1 pm.

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