Who is Maria Ratschitz?

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Who is Maria Ratschitz?

The Mission at the base of Hlatikulu Mountain – Wasbank Valley

The Maria Ratschitz mission was established by Trappist monks in 1888. It was set on 3200 hectares of land and nestled in the fertile Nkunzi valley at the base of Hlatikulu Mountain (meaning “the great one”  and is also the last remaining natural forest in KwaZulu-Natal.)

The spire of the beautiful church can be seen from great distances and the peal of the church bells can be heard throughout the valley.

In 1886 two Trappist (they were a silent order so did not speak – only those involved in training were given special dispensation to speak) monks from the Marianhill monastery (Pinetown) chose the site for the mission station as it reminded them of the area in Bavaria from which they originated.

Maria Ratschitz was a daughter house of Marianhill. The mission was established on the farm Boschkloof in the Biggarsberg, which was purchased by Father Franz Pfanner for approximately ₤ 6000. It was named Maria Ratschitz after the Marian shrine in Leitmeritz in northern Bohemia.

The two monks lived in a simple wattle and daub cottage. The framework for this cottage was two huge yellowwood trees from the forest. They created a model farm with fine Friesian dairy herds, superb vineyards and nursery to supply trees.

An important aim of the agricultural order of Trappists was to create productive agricultural communities of African converts – to stimulate the emergence of independent agricultural farmers. They taught the dignity of labour and the principles of sound farming. They also instructed the young men in the skills of wagon building, wheelwright’s work, blacksmithing, wine making and cooperage, building, carpentry and shoemaking.

The relationships with the surrounding farmers and miners were good.

Exterior of Maria Ratschitz. Image by @jenna_explores

In return for adopting the Catholic faith, Africans at Maria Ratschitz were provided with land and the freedom to use it as they wished. Initially, they did not have to pay rent. Gradually, however, as the monks introduced the community to the beliefs and practices of Catholicism, they also introduced them to the responsibilities of life as rent-paying tenants. The scattered local people were encouraged to move into the laid out village. A school was opened, and by 1907 had 112 pupils.  The monks also provided medical care.

Between 1905 and 1910 the first substantial church was built. The church with its tall elegant bell tower had magnificent stained glass windows, lovely frescoes and a carved high altar and pulpit.

Lit by tall candle sconces, a glitter with polished brass and woodwork, the clergy processing in their rich, colourful robes, the organ and the lovely African voices echoing from the rafters, Maria Ratschitz church brought the beauty and grandeur of the centuries-old Christian faith alive in the dusty Wasbank Valley.

While favourable terms were extended to any Catholic Africans who wished to purchase land, the final conditions of sale gave preference to tenants already on the farm. In the end the scheme failed because of the state policy of land ownership. As mission land, Maria Ratschitz had been exempt from the provisions of the 1913 Land Act, which formed the basis of the territorial segregation between black and white people in South Africa. In 1936, this period of exemption came to an end. In terms of the new law it was no longer possible for the owners of Maria Ratschitz to sell off sections of the farm to Africans.

With the stroke of a pen, the 1936 Land Act cancelled out the missionary vision of a vigorous and economically stable and landowning group of farmers at Maria Ratschitz. As tenants on a farm in a “white” area, the people were now vulnerable to eviction.

Many members of the community, who were now bitterly disillusioned, left the mission. In the 1940’s the mission entered a period of stagnation and decline. The outbreak of the Second World War had a devastating effect on the mission. The German Trappist monks were interned and financial support from Germany came to an abrupt end. The Trappists never returned to the mission, which was subsequently staffed by other orders – French Oblates and later English Franciscans. These orders did not have the same agricultural expertise as the Trappists. During the 1940’s and 1950’s many of the farm labourers left to find jobs in the towns and cities.

From 1958 when the Franciscans took over the mission, it was soon realised that it was a severe financial drain and that they were short of brothers to administer the farm. A decision was made to lease out portions of the farm to surrounding farmers.

The sad decline of the condition of the land and the buildings continued.

In 1965 a scheme known as the Church Agricultural Project (CAP) was mooted. At first, the community supported the development. One of the reasons why they co-operated, and why later it went so wrong, was that they hoped to gain some measure of control over the land that had been leased to the surrounding farmers. In the early years, CAP made progress at the mission. A number of different projects were set up: repair to buildings, fences and dams, renewing of the pastures, rearing chickens and producing milk. Surplus milk, eggs and vegetables were sold. In 1969 women were involved in basket making, sewing, pottery and beadwork.

In 1967 the government informed the Maria Ratschitz tenants that they would be removed in 1968 to a black area. This had a negative impact on CAP. In 1968 the first 2 000 Africans on a neighbouring farm was removed. This created further tension and uncertainty among the people. By 1975 Alcock had left Maria Ratschitz and later that year there was no longer a resident priest as the community had been moved away to Lime Hill.

With no resident priest, the buildings fell into disuse and slowly deteriorated.

Full view of Maria Ratschitz. Image by @graeholliday

Then a plan for the restoration and development of the mission was begun in the 1990’s, by the Bishop of Dundee, into whose Diocese the mission fell.

An anonymous donation from Germany was received for the purpose of restoring the church of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows.

The restoration and new life at Maria Ratschitz have been an inspiration for the community in the valley.


Lori Voss


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