The Cape Town Congregational Church started as a Church for the members of the 93rd Regiment of the Sutherland Highlanders.
With the arrival of James Read in 1800 a Calvinistic Society was formed with members pledging to help each other in Christian Life. With the arrival then of Rev. George Thom in 1813 members of the Fellowship on 6 May 1813 gave each other the hand of Christian fellowship, which constituted themselves into a church and the Rev Thom, conducted the first Free Church service ever held on South African soil. Out of 90 communicants, 63 were members of the 93rd Regiment of the Sutherland Highlanders. The following year this regiment was transferred to India leaving the membership of the church with 27 members.
On 3 April 1820 Dr. John Philip arrived in the Cape and was formally invited to the Pastorate of this Church. He accepted the offer however with the stipulation that the church should be governed by a Church Meeting – the start of the First Definite Congregational Church in South Africa came into being. They met in the Orphan Chambers in Parliament Street and moved later to a building in Church Square which later became the Cape Town Club, and was known as the Union Chapel. Later a Church was built in Caledon Square which became the headquarters of the Congregational Church in Cape Town.
This church however had a small membership. The group that met in Church Square had to vacate the premises and the Rev Pitt started the Trinity Congregational Church, quite independently from the one in Caledon Square, in the St. Martini’s School room in Queen Victoria Street. The use of this building was kindly granted at a nominal rental by the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Long Street.
The first service to be held in this room by the Rev Pitt was on Sunday 11 April 1896 and three adults and 5 children were present. It was decided to buy as site for a church in the area known as Tamboerskloof. Part of the Saasveld Historical Gardens was obtained and the new Trinity Church, Kloof Street was opened on the 13 February 1898.
A Management board was also formed. On 30 January 1907 the Trinity Church, Kloof Street and the Congregational Church Caledon Square united and the Union Church in Kloof Street were formed. Early in 1916 , Rev Pitt and his Church Council started looking for a larger site for the Church. In 1919 Rev Pitt’s health became poorly and a young man was appointed to assist his as the members did not want him to retire. He died in July 1919 and was succeeded by the Rev. Penalligon. In 1920 the present site was bought and a church built was officially opened by Princess Alice Countess of Athlone in April 1925. In 1917 Rev Bowen also became the minister but died in 1928.
The Stephenson Hall was added in 1935, in 1964 Louis Bosman Hall and in 1968 the Chapel.
Many ministers of the church occupy a notable place in South African History, including Dr. John Philip, Rev James Cameron, Rev T.D. Philip and the Rev John Mullineux.
But perhaps one of the most prolific people was the famed explorer Dr. Livingstone would preach at the desk which is now the communion table inside our church. Talking of Dr Livingstone, many years ago I was doing some research at the church and lady secretary told me that the desk inside the church apparently had Livingstone’s signature on it, but from all the polishing over the years this magnificent piece of furniture had sadly had his name rubbed off. I ask the lady if I could have a look at the desk as I might be able to find the signature – she was baffled but said “yes go ahead”. A silversmith taught me this trick many years ago and said if you breath lightly on silver or wood you will see any indents or engraving appear. After a few minutes of huffing and puffing along the edges of the desk, low and behold, the Livingstone’s signature appeared. I am not sure who was more shocked, her or me.
One of the other prominent members of the church was actually invited to serve as Prime Minister; the man was Saul Solomon founder of the Cape Argus.
The organ was bought from St. Mary’s in Woodstock, and completely renovated after the last war in memory of Messrs Ernest Hammond, Jack Van Niekerk, Duncan Bowen, Neville Bellamy and Jack Mills who paid the supreme sacrifice during the 2nd World War.
If you look near the entrance to the Graafs Trust Building, you will see a circular blue plaque reading “Site of Union Chapel. First Congregational Church in South Africa 1921”
The following churches were also then established: Claremont Congregational Church 1840, Sea Point 1893, Observatory 1894 and Rondebosch 1903.
The church records for the Trinity Church which go back to 1821 are now housed in the Kloof Street Church. The Sea Point Church records are also available at the church as well.
Written by Heather MacAlister