The mourning of Father Ernst

2009-08-05 00:00

MONDAY mornings normally start quietly for me in Hilton. I stumble through to the kitchen where I read the newspaper over a prolonged cup of filtered coffee. It’s a good start to the week. Several weeks ago, however, my routine was broken by a phone call. “Father Ernst has been murdered,” my mother said, her holiday spirit clearly broken. “We’re coming home early so we can go to the funeral.”

Father Ernst. Murdered. Life just stopped for a second. Then, it broke back into action. I scrolled through my cellphone. Sister Irene. I dialled. “Sister, what has happened,” I asked. “Oh, I was just about to call you. They have murdered Father Ernst,” she said, her voice weak. “Who?” I asked. “Robbers, I think. They wanted the money for salaries, but he had already paid everyone,” she replied.

Father Ernst — murdered for money. The man I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with when I was just four. The man who let my family live on the mission station for five years. The man at the centre of my childhood kingdom. And now, he is dead.

The memories of my childhood just come rushing back in. It was 1985. For political reasons, my parents decided to leave our white-picket-fence lifestyle in Hout Bay for the dusty and isolated region of Maluti in the Transkei. We were given permission to live in the old convent at MariaLinden Mission Station, because the Precious Blood sisters had recently moved into new quarters and the building was vacant.

We were welcomed by a man you’d easily find in a novel: that mysterious, wise man who you had to take time to understand. Father Ernst was a big, strong man in his mid-50s who spoke only when he had to. Our family was invited to eat with him until we got our kitchen up and running. We had to be there, clean and dressed, at exactly the right time, so Father Ernst could say grace and eat. It was never a good idea to be late. We had entered the life of a monastery.

“I don’t want to eat peas,” I would say to my mother at the dinner table. She’d look shyly up at Father Ernst and apologise. “No, no, no,” he’d say in his Austrian accent. “Don’t worry about it.” Slowly, as the weeks and months passed, we broke down the barriers of unfamiliarity until, eventually, we were like family.

Those were the most memorable days of my life; my formative years, you’d say. The ones that made me the man I am today. Sister Irene and I would spend hours together in the fields farming away, and I have a clear memory of the Ixopo-born nun sitting on a white tractor with me sitting on her lap, steering. They were exciting days for my dad, as he entered a career of community work and eventually priesthood. They were adventurous for my oldest brother, who collected birds’ eggs and started colonies of rabbits and pigeons. And they were meditative days for my middle brother and my mother, both of whom struggled with the isolation.

Returning to Mariazell for the funeral on Friday, June 5, 2009, was like returning home to our old family. A distraught family, albeit. The mission, now 115 years old, was abuzz with activity. Over 1 000 people had turned up to pay their final respects in the impressive basilica. Four bishops and 15 priests stood solemnly at the altar, while 20 monks and nuns sat motionless in the side wings. The church congregants were bursting at the seams. And in the middle of all of this lay Father Ernst in a coffin, his face battered and bruised, his body still.

Of the many speeches given, boarding master Lehlohonolo Matabane’s was by far the most powerful. He told the congregation how he was one of the first to discover his colleague’s body. “I didn’t believe it was him. I said to the people who brought me there, ‘but where is Father Ernst?’ and they said, ‘this is Father Ernst’. I could not believe it,” he told the church.

The Bishop of Mthatha, Sithembele Sipuka, highlighted the three murders of Catholic priests in South Africa this year and called for justice to be served. Knowing politicians were present, he lamented the lack of religion being taught in schools, even at missionary schools. “Over 80% of South Africans are Christian,” he said. “And yet, we cannot teach it properly at school. And it is showing in the moral breakdown of people in this country.”

Another leader stood up and said: “The men who murdered Father Ernst could very easily be in here today. We will catch you and justice will be served.”

A procession of clergyman, colleagues, the school band and the congregants then began a long march from the church to the cemetery, passing Father Ernst’s house — his dogs yelping for attention behind the fence — the scout hall he so passionately ran and eventually the school he built up over the many years.

Walking past a gravestone, marked “Father Leonard Seoaholimo”, I remembered the first time I had been into this cemetery, aged five. I told someone after that funeral: “I just saw a priest get ‘dugged’ into the ground.” And so, over 20 years later and metres away, Father Ernst was “dugged” into the ground. The men of cloth stood with their hands raised in the air, clutching the earth that would rest on their friend. Father Tebogo Makoro, whom Father Ernst had raised and educated at the mission station, gave the call to drop the soil. A furious wind picked up and red dust came swirling out of Father Ernst’s final resting place. There was anger in the air. And sadness.

With all losses, however, there are moments of happiness. We were reintroduced to a lot of our old friends at the funeral and I have now started to make an effort to keep in touch. More importantly, I realised a need to tell the story of Mariazell to keep alive the memory of Father Ernst and the many diverse characters of that area. This is just the beginning of that story.

Matthew le Cordeur is a senior design sub-editor at The Witness and is currently writing a book on the 20-year history of Thandanani Children’s Foundation. E-mail or phone 033 355 1307 if you would like to contact him with regard to the history of Thandanani or Mariazell.

Who is Father Ernst?

FATHER Ernst Plochl (Joseph) was born in Austria in 1931. He was ordained a priest in the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mariannhill in 1958. After several years as boarding master in Wels, Austria, he came to South Africa in 1968. He was sent to Mariazell High School where he worked as the boarding master. He then became parish priest at Mariazell from 1970 to 1980 and at MariaLinden from 1981 to 1987. From 1988 to 2009, he was manager and rector of Mariazell High School. He died on the eve of Pentecost, May 30, 2009.

Mariazell High School

THIS Catholic school is situated at Mariazell Mission Station, about 30 minutes outside Matatiele. Catholic brothers and priests (belonging to the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mariannhill) and sisters (of the Precious Blood group) have been based there since 1894, where they have brought skills and education to the people. Famous liberation heroes who attended the school include Mosiou “Terror” Lekota, Albertina Sisulu and Epainette Mbeki. It has always been regarded as a school of excellence, because of the high pass rate of the pupils.

Court Case

MARIAZELL High School boarding master Lehlohonolo Matabane is on trial in the Maluti Magistrate’s Court for orchestrating the murder of father Ernst Plochl with two alleged accomplices from Pietermaritzburg. The case is in its early stages.


Precious Blood sisters (Sister Irene on the right) with William, Matthew and James le Cordeur at MariaLinden in 1987.

Father Ernst Plochl and Trish le Cordeur at MariaLinden in 1987.



The funeral procession of father Ernst Plochl at Mariazell.

Matthew le Cordeur and Sister Irene at father Ernst Plochl’s funeral at Mariazell on June 5, 2009.

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