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Rebuilding the settler churches of South Africa

Rebuilding the settler churches of South Africa

When Courteney Bradfield returned to his 1820 settler roots in the Bathurst district of the Eastern Cape in 2015, and attended a service at the little Clumber Methodist Church, he was dismayed to find the steeple lying on the ground, inhabited by a swarm of bees.

A cloudburst during a monthly Sunday service revealed the roof was in bad nick too – rain streamed down the inside of the walls, soaked the aisle carpet and sloshed around the aged yellowwood pews. “We had to do something or the church would be ruined,” he tells me, as we stand outside the charming heritage building amid gravestones dating back to the 1820s.

1820 settler churches

Miracles became part of the pattern
of the Clumber congregation’s drive to restore
their church.

The Methodist Circuit didn’t have the funds to spare for the repair of what it saw as a tiny, shrinking, country congregation, but this didn’t stop the determined congregants who rallied to get their 1867 vintage church fixed in time for its 150th anniversary. It’s the third church on the site built by the Nottingham party of settlers led by William Pike, a devout Wesleyan lay preacher, who initially preached under a nearby tree.

With hardly anything in the kitty, the Clumber Church committee called for tenders and awarded the R65 000 contract to a respected local builder, and ordered materials. Fundraising efforts went into overdrive – the church got its own website and Facebook page to raise awareness as the digital call for donations went to 1820 settler descendants scattered around the globe.

“We got support from two guys in England – Paul Tanner-Tremaine, who runs a genealogy website for 1820 settlers, and Rob Smith, a history buff who continues ties between Clumber and Nottingham, where the settlers originated,” recalls Courteney. And strangely enough, when the roof was completed in 2016, the funds raised matched the amount needed.

I get goosebumps when Courteney tells me the same pattern was repeated when they repaired the church’s antique pedal harmonium and 1902 Gors and Kallmann piano. “The quote for tuning them came to R1 500, but when the tuner opened them up he found the felt had been eaten by fishmoths, so a complete overhaul was required. The appeal for funds had not specified an amount. The bill came to R13 000 and we had just 24 hours to cough up.

“Visiting German friends left a donation in an envelope, and when I opened it there was R3 000 in it. The same afternoon, our secretary phoned to say she’d just received a donation of R10 000. That was another miracle.”

1820 settlers church

Clumber church.

The momentum well and truly up, repairs continued into 2017 with repainting, sanding and sealing pews and floors, and sprucing up the gravestones and grounds.

By the time the church’s 150th anniversary came around in October, the rejuvenated church was ready to host a really big celebration to thank local donors and those from as far afield as England, Australia and the United States.

“I was astounded by the number of people writing to thank us for restoring the church,” says Courteney, explaining how they expanded the event to three days, starting on Friday with a thanksgiving service and fundraising auction with his cousin Jeremy Mansfield as auctioneer.

Saturday’s programme of music featuring local performers in a marquee in the church grounds drew a crowd of some 400, and 700 turned up for the Sunday communion service conducted by the district’s bishop-elect. “The weather was perfect and it was really divine the way everyone chipped in to help without being asked,” says Courteney. “The local Spar even delivered cakes early on Sunday morning.”

1820s church settlers

St John’s Anglican Church in Bathurst is a simple, solid construction in the Romanesque style, with neoclassical details.

In the Baviaans mountains outside Bedford, I find a pair of churches on Glen Lynden farm with a story of perseverance amid hardship. The oldest is a stone church with thick walls, built in 1828 after Thomas Pringle, the Scottish settler poet and anti-slavery campaigner, used his connections to get the colonial government to grant the land. The little church served both the 1820 Scottish settlers and their Dutch neighbours with services alternating between Afrikaans and English, so the ministers had to be bilingual.

“Part of the minister’s salary had to be earned from the farm. The first minister was the Presbyterian Rev John Pears, but he didn’t like that arrangement and left after a year,” says Gideon de Klerk, a local farmer who has attended services here since he was a youngster and now serves on the local Dutch Reformed Church committee under which the Glen Lynden churches fall.

When the community outgrew the tiny klipkerk, a bigger one was built next to it in 1874 and became known as the witkerk after it was whitewashed. “In the old days, my dad and I brought our farm labourers to paint it
with new whitewash, but these days we use a contractor,” says Gideon, explaining the risk of legal problems arising if someone were to fall off a long ladder.

A couple of years ago, the community had the old klipkerk’s roof replaced, but damage from a recent storm means more repairs are needed. And at the witkerk, repairs and a new coat of paint will cost in the region of R60 000. “We will make a plan, because it can’t be left like that,” promises Gideon with typical ‘boer maak ’n plan’ stoicism that has seen his people through generations of hard living on the land.

1820s settler churches

The little St Andrew’s Anglican Church at Bedford prior to its renovation and new roof.

Part of the plan to create an income for the local DRC involved renovating the old pastorie in Bedford and renting it out to the local private as a hostel. (They no longer have a full-time dominee and share a lay preacher with the Presbyterians, an arrangement similar to early days in this district).

Thanks to this income, supplemented by regular bazaars and the like, they’ve almost finished repairs to the 1894 DR church in town, now used as a hall to host the craft market during the annual Bedford Garden Festival, and will then focus on the two Glen Lynden churches again, even though they are infrequently used since farmers are now more mobile and attend services in town. “We’ve shared a minister with the Presbyterians for 18 years,” says Gideon with a smile. “It’s worked well.”

Across the road from the DRC in Bedford, bats are wreaking havoc not just in the belfry at the 136-year old St Andrews Anglican Church, and it’s in dire need of a new roof. “We have to clean out the guano, replace the leaking roof, sort out cracks and fix rotten floorboards at the altar,” says Rev Pat Wells, who arrived here
15 years ago to look after her daughter’s house, fell in love with Bedford and stayed on, serving the church first as a deacon before being persuaded by the bishop to take ordination.

It’ll cost about half a million rand for a contractor to do the job, but fortunately, the church received a windfall from a major benefactor who wants to remain anonymous, but regularly tithes her considerable income to the church. “Together with regular contributions from the congregants, many of whom are fifth-generation worshippers here, they now have enough in the kitty to fix the church,” says Pat.

The sprightly 80-year-old minister’s knight in shining armour is her old friend, East London civil engineer Dennis Walters.

A fellow Anglican, he is overseeing the contract as a service to the church. “People used to contribute their labour or knowledge to the church as a form of tithing. This is my contribution – and I’ll do the same for any Anglican church,” says Dennis.

1820s settler churches

Tough and hardy like this bulbine plant, the Scottish settlers put down roots in the Baviaans Mountains, worshipping side by side with their
Dutch neighbours at the Glen Lynden churches.

Back in Bathurst, the local Anglican congregation is very conscious of the bicentenary of the 1820 settlers’ arrival coming up next year. Charming St John’s, with a Charles Michell design built of local stone, is the oldest unaltered Anglican church in the country, and recently celebrated its 180th anniversary.

“Thanks to ongoing efforts, including by congregants with DIY skills, it’s in amazingly good nick,” says church warden Maryna Shepherd. “We are repainting the window frames at the moment and there are small ongoing repairs, such as damp on one wall.”

Funds come out of the weekly collection and donations, such as interest from the sale of land across the road from the church, a gift from a benefactor now living in Australia. “This church is a testament to the people of
the past and those who have kept an eye on it and maintained it regularly,” says Maryna.

“It’s a joint effort.”

Hard work, dedication, a good dose of faith… and yes, real miracles, are what keep our country churches going.

Handy Contacts

bathhurst churches, rennovation

Conductor Peter

Clumber Church clumberchurch.simdif.com Facebook Clumber Church
The 1820 British Settlers of South Africa www.1820settlers.com
St John’s Church is one of Bathurst’s heritage buildings.
www.sunshinecoasttourism.co.za
Bedford www.bedford.co.za

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