The Story of Johannesburg’s Cathedral of Christ the King

By Fr J E Brady OMI

“Later on we might do the beautiful and the grand and then we mean to do it right well”-these words were written sixty-five years ago by the priest, Father Aloysius Schoch O.M.I., who built the Kerk St. Pro-Cathedral to be a future Parish Hall but to serve as a Church until the building of the Cathedral proper. He hoped to realise this plan on the adjoining stands within the decade, but it is only today that the Cathedral of Christ the King has been realised on a completely new site. In a few months time Johannesburg will celebrate its seventy-fifth birthday. The Church has played an important part in the development of this metropolis and the opening and dedication of the New Cathedral of Christ the King, will be for all a vision realised, a dream come true, a promise fulfilled, a long series of sacrifices rewarded. The story of the events of the past three quarters of a century must be of interest to all, if for no other reason that they may appreciate the solid foundations laid by the pioneers and the manner in which the next generation has built upon those foundations.

The New Chancery of the Cathedral of Christ the King

The New Chancery

While visits were made across the Vaal River in the early fifties by pioneer missionaries, Fr. Juaquin da Santa Rita Montanha (from Mozambique) and Fr. Hoenderwanger, O. Praem (from Fauresmith) our story really begins in 1870 when freedom of Catholic Worship was granted in the South African Republic, and Fr. Le Bihan O.M.I, established the first mission in Potchefstroom, the former Capital.

With the finding of gold in the Eastern Transvaal (1875) Fr. Walsh, O.M.I, came from Natal and built a small Church at Pilgrims Rest and later at Lydenburg. It was Bishop Jolivet O.M.I, of Natal who journeyed by post cart to Pretoria (1877) and dedicated the new mission in the Capital to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Almost a decade later when the diggers travelled from the Diamond Fields with the exciting news that gold had been found in Barberton and De Kaap they little realised that they were crossing over the richest gold mine in the world-the hidden goldfields of the Witwatersrand.

The following year an outcrop of gold bearing rock was found by chance at Langlaagte and in the September (1886) President Kruger declared the fields “a public digging”, it was thus the mining camp was born. As the news spread prospectors came from all parts of South Africa and even from overseas to seek their fortune on the “Ridge of White Waters”. As the numbers increased visits were made by the Oblate Fathers in Pretoria and in February 1887 arrangements were made to say Mass for the Catholics among the prospectors.

First Mass
A very significant entry is found in the diary of Fr. L. Trabaud, O.M.I, on February 19th. “I set out at 9.30 in the conveyance of Mr. Guerin for the Goldfields of the Witwatersrand. We were five travellers, Mr. Coleman a Jew, Mr. James-a Wesleyan Minister, a Salvation Army Officer, a young man and myself. I stayed with Mrs. Brennan who had prepared a comfortable place for me.

“February 20th. Sunday-I said the first Mass that has ever been celebrated on this plateau, open veldt up to the present. A reed hut, the Bakery of the Camp, is put at my disposal by Mr. Whelan of Bloemfontein. There were thirty-three Catholics present.” The exact site of this first Mass is lost to us. But it was situated in Ferreira’s Camp to the west of the present City Hall. By April there were over sixty people present when Fr. Trabaud again visited the Camp to say Mass in the house of Mr. Kennedy-to-day this site is marked by the New Magistrate’s Court. The following month, Fr. Mongi-noux, the first Prefect Apostolic of the Transvaal, travelled over from Pretoria to take up residence on the Goldfields and he tells us that “the town they are building is to be called Johannesburg.”

We get a good picture of prevailing conditions in the account which follows. “The beginnings of the new mission were rough and ready, the work overwhelming. One had to search among this motley crowd of diggers for those who were Catholics and then plead with them lest in the mad rush for gold they should forget their religious duties. Saturdays were particularly tiring. Where will we have Mass tomorrow? That was the question that had to be answered. We had no actual Church and we moved about, choosing some sort of spot that would be central for the miners to attend. Today, one would fix on an unfinished storeroom, next Sunday a stable and so on. Having decided on the place we had to notify the people by going the rounds of the camp.”

In the light of the many Churches and our magnificent Cathedral in the city today, it is well we realise that it was only seventy-five years ago that primitive conditions prevailed.

First Church
Thanks to the generosity of the miners, Protestants as well as Catholics, Fr. Monginoux was able to buy a piece of ground and to build a small Church, with a three-roomed dwelling for the priest on one side, and a temporary Convent and School room adjoining, for the Holy Family Sisters whom he hoped to get from Natal.

Once again we are indebted to the diary written by Fr. Trabaud for the following interesting details of the first Church on the Witwatersrand, August 20-21st 1887. It reads as follows: “Fr. de Lacy, myself and Arthur Knight (the latter was a boarder at Loreto Convent School, his father was proprietor of one of the early mines on the Goldfields) set out for Johannesburg in a private vehicle about 10 a.m. We arrived at 5 p.m. We found Fr. Monginoux making the final details for the decoration of the School-Chapel which had been built on the corner of Fox and Smal Streets. The small convent which is attached to it is nearly finished. The neighbourhood is still just bare veldt, but the town is growing rapidly.

August 21st was the feast of St. Joachim, the patron of Pope Leo XIII (then reigning Pontiff). As the mission began on February 20th the anniversary of the election of His Holiness, Fr. Monginoux gave the name of St Leo, as the second patron. The ceremony of Blessing the new Church began at 11 a.m. and ended at 2 o’clock. We dined at the home of Messrs. J. and W. Quinn.” Within the next week Fr. S. Hammer O.M.I, arrived from Kimberley to be Parish Priest.

Second Church
Within five years these buildings were quite inadequate and a large Church and presbytery were built on the diagonally opposite corner-Main and Von Weilligh Streets. These buildings were standing until three years ago. Meanwhile the former first Church provided accommodation for the ever increasing number of school children.

In 1895 the Holy Family Sisters acquired a former Club and adjoining ground in End Street and the decision was made to sell the whole block, Fox, Smal, Main and Von Weilligh and build a large and more permanent edifice near the Convent.

There is a story of those early days which will be of particular interest to the Kerk Street parishioners today.

Picture Johannesburg at that time. Its eastern boundary and hence the name was End Street: to the west was Fordsburg, where a small Church had been erected in Crown Road-1891. Doornfontein was then the residential area of the town. Towards the close of 1890 Father Monginoux, was returning to the Presbytery in Fox Street, after visiting some of his parishioncrs in in Doornfontein. He crossed over the open space now bounded by Kerk, Gold, Pritchard and Nugget Streets. Its size, locality etc. immediately struck him as ideal for a Church site. With a prayer in his heart, he took a medal of Our Lady from his pocket and pushed it into the ground, driving it in with his walking stick.

Two years passed by and in 1892, Fr. Monginoux was succeeded by Fr. A. Schoch. One of the new Prefect’s first duties was the choice of a new and larger site for a Church. He built the second Church already referred to on the corner of Main and Von Weilligh Streets, but three years later the whole block was acquired by Castle Brewery, and Providence guided him in the choice of the new site to the one for which Fr. Monginoux had offered that fervent prayer.