This tiny eight-seater oratory in Van Reenen honours brave Llandaff Mathew, who died saving eight men in a coal mine accident.
Blink and you’ll miss the sign and the small road leading to the church, but we were not about to give up, and on our third trip to Van Reenen we finally found South Africa’s smallest church.
Tiny it certainly is, about 20 bricks in length, with a small curved apse, and the front façade just 15 bricks wide. Modelled on a wing of Cardiff Cathedral in Wales, it is charming, resting under old trees on its sandstone base, with its quaint bell-tower surmounted by a stone Celtic cross. Below is a marble circle with the inscription ‘Landaff Oratory 1925’.
Only one person at a time can fit through the entrance. Inside, there is a narrow aisle leading to a small altar and, beneath the beautiful stained glass windows with their iris motif are just four pews, each able to seat two. Eight in total, numbering the men Llandaff Mathew saved at Burnside.
A fitting tribute
And therein lies a story that is huge, the story of a retired magistrate Maynard Mathew, whose son Llandaff died while saving eight miners from a coal mine accident at the Burnside Colliery in KwaZulu-Natal on 19 March 1925. Llandaff’s body was never recovered from the mine. He had apparently returned to search for more survivors when there was another rockfall.
Llandaff’s bereft father, Maynard, was determined to erect a plaque to comemmorate his son’s bravery, and asked for permission to do so in the Ladysmith Catholic Church.
He was refused. Llandaff was not clergy, nor a prominent national figure, and did not qualify for this kind of church-sanctioned tribute.
At the time Maynard was living in the lodge on the property – nowadays the garage buildings next to the oratory. Determined to have a memorial honouring his son, he sidestepped the restrictions by building a church himself.
Mathew was also clearly a devout Christian, for the stone plaque on the left wall proclaims ‘To the Glory of God’ first, and then follows ‘And in loving memory of Llandaff Mathew, who gave his life to save those of others at Burnside Colliery on March 19th 1925 Aged 28 RIP’.
Geraldine Johnson is the daughter of the current owner of the church, Mims West-Thomas, and also runs the adjoining tea garden. She says that although she was very young, she remembers Maynard as a very colourful, family figure. His wife, Sadie, apparently had to endure bigoted comments about her Protestant background with good humour. What happened to Sadie is unclear, but there is a photograph of Maynard in clerical vestments, on the wall of the church. The framed history of the church on the wall mentions that he became a Dominican priest on 7 May 1926.
In an interesting continuation of the tradition Mathew started, Charles West-Thomas also put up a tribute to a family member in the church.
A plaque on one wall is dedicated to his first wife, Terry. After her death, he remarried, and gave the chapel to his second wife, Mims, as a wedding present in 1974. When Mathew died, the chapel was sold to a George Tierny, and later to a Mr Osborne. Although he was a Protestant, Mr Osborne graciously allowed the church to remain a Catholic chapel. Charles West-Thomas bought the church in 1960 and succeeded in having it declared a National Monument.
Words Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo
Photography Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo and Paul Prinsloo