st-marys-cathedral-cape-townSt. Mary’s Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Church had its first site purchased as early as 1822 and a small church was built in Harrington Street, Cape Town. In 1837 this building was almost completely destroyed by torrential rains and on the arrival of the first R.C. Bishop, P. R. Griffith, the following year, permission was obtained to say mass in the Barracks; but soon the Bishop purchased the ‘Magdeburg garden’ with a building belonging to Baron C. F. H. von Ludwig. A large room was fitted out as a chapel and served as such for several years. Tanner’s Square (Looyers Plein), a vacant site immediately in front of the garden, was bought as a site for the future cathedral. The garden and square cost £2500.

The foundation-stone of the cathedral was laid on 6th October 1841 and building continued over a period of ten years, with occasional interruptions, mainly due to lack of funds. The design was the first work of the distinguished ecclesiastical architect Carl Hagen. Weekly subscriptions and occasional general appeals brought in most of the money, while donations came from Archbishop Carew of Calcutta, from Pernambuco and from Mauritius. The edifice was dedicated on 28th April 1851 by Bishop Griffith. The arrival of a French war steamer, the Cassini, added solemnity to the occasion, as several ecclesiastics were on board, who assisted the Bishop. The building is of pointed Gothic style, the roof is over cedar, and the two principal windows are of stained glass. A large oil painting of the crucifixion hangs over the high altar, the gift of Emperor Napoleon III, while a beautiful bell was presented by the Marquis of Bute. In 1865 a new high altar in marble was erected in memory of Bishop Griffith, and the organ gallery was enlarged to hold a new organ, thanks to the efforts of Dr. F. C. Kolbe. In 1927 large alterations and improvements were carried out under the supervision of Dr. J. Colgan, and in 1950 by Archbishop Owen McCann. The site and the imposing edifice, together with the Archdiocesan offices in Cathedral Place, dominate Stal Plein, with Table Mountain as backdrop.

The Coming of the Portuguese

Perhaps it may be said that Catholicism came to the Cape when Bartolomeu Dias erected a cross in honour of St. Philip on our shores. Later the building of the small chapel at Mossel Bay in 1501 was the first House of God where Holy Mass was celebrated.

The first church, however, in our Archdiocese was in the island of St. Helena. This was made a place of call by the Portuguese, and the first house (for a long time the only house) they built there was the house of God. There were too many misfortunes associated with the Stormy Cape for them to care to stop there, so they used to sail from St. Helena right round to Mozambique.

Dutch Occupation

Their golden days passed away, and the English and Dutch stepped into their place. The political world gained a great deal by the change, but for a while at least the Catholic Church was practically shut out of South Africa.

Van Riebeek arrived here in 1652 and the new colony had hardly had time to settle down, when the Church learned what was to be her position in it.

In May, 1660, the French ship Mareschal, bound to Madagascar, put into Table Bay, and was driven from her anchors by the terrible north-wester and completely wrecked at the mouth of Salt River. There was a Bishop on board with a few of his clergy. All hands were saved, thanks rather to the subsiding of the gale than to any promptness in measures of assistance. ‘A place was then assigned to the Shipwrecked crew, where they could put up tents and store the cargo. Several restrictions were imposed upon their liberty. One was that all munitions of war, except the arms of the six officers highest in rank, should be given into the custody of the commander; another, that they should not go beyond assigned limits; a third, that no meetings should be held for the celebration of worship according to the ritual of the church of Rome.’

Struggle for the Faith

In 1674, we learn that the Catholic Church was present here, at least in its laity. While obliged to submit to the deprival of public worship, they were yet anxious about the public recognition of the baptism of their children. The discussion of this question does not do more than tell us that there were Catholics already settled here.

We get a more interesting glimpse in the year 1685, when six Jesuits called here on their way to Siam, being sent for scientific purposes with the embassy thither from Louis XIV. They seem to have had an unexpectedly favourable voyage, and were able to have Mass nearly every day on board. Indeed to this and to the piety of all, including the sailors, they attribute their great good fortune. The names of these Jesuit Fathers were De Fontenay, Gerbillon, Le Comte, Visdelon, Bouvet and Tachard, the last of whom wrote a most interesting account of their voyage. The sketch they give of Cape Town makes it consist of the Castle and nine houses, but we may presume that these were only representatives of a larger number.

These six Jesuits were very kindly received by the Governor, or Commander, Van der Stel, and they say they had not expected to find so much politeness in such an out-of-the-way region. They were granted an Observatory in the shape of a pavilion in the Gardens, about 200 paces from the Fort, between the Slaves’ house and the Fort. Here they observed an eclipse of the moons of Jupiter in order to find the precise longitude. Their result was wrong, but then the velocity of light had not yet been discovered, and for this they were not responsible; they made their mistake most scientifically. What interests us more is the spiritual observations they made.

We quote their words: ‘Although we were engaged in observations day and night, they were not our only occupation. Hardly had we taken possession of our little observatory, when the Catholics of this Colony, who are fairly numerous, got to hear of it and showed very great joy. Morning and evening they visited us secretly. They were of all countries and of all classes, freemen and slaves, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Flemish, and Indian. Those who could not express themselves otherwise, because we did not understand their language, knelt and kissed our hands. They drew their rosaries and medals from their necks to show us that they were Catholics; they wept, and struck their breasts. This language of the heart, more touching than words, moved us very deeply, and constrained us to embrace these poor people, whom the charity of Jesus Christ made us look upon as our brothers. We consoled them as best we could, exhorting them all to persevere in the faith of Jesus Christ, to serve their masters submissively and faithfully, and to bear their troubles with patience. We recommended them specially to examine their consciences at night, and to honour the Blessed Virgin, that she might obtain for them more grace to live like Christians and to protect them against heresy. Those who spoke French, Latin, Spanish, or Portuguese, made their confession. We visited the sick in their houses and in the hospital.

It was all we could do to console them in so short a time, seeing that they were not allowed to come on board to hear Mass, nor were we allowed to say it on shore. Yet we must have been suspected at the Cape of bringing them Holy Communion. For when two of our Fathers were returning one day from the ship with a microscope covered with gold cloth, two or three of the inhabitants walking on the beach thought it was the Blessed Sacrament we were carrying in a pyx for the Catholics. They came up to see what it was; the Father told them, and to prove it made them look into the microscope. Then one of them spoke up and said, “i made sure about it, sir, because 1 know that you are the greatest enemies of our religion.” At these words we only smiled, and without replying went straight to the Castle.’

In 1686, some Portuguese priests were wrecked here and stationed at Rondebosch until they could be sent on to Europe with their companions in misfortune. They also were not allowed to say Mass.

That was a privilege for which South Africa had to wait for more than a hundred years.

Religious Toleration

From 1686 the Catholic Church almost disappears from the pages of South African history. Whatever aspirations individuals may have had after religious liberty were effectually quenched.

Two years after the arrival of the Huguenots (1690) the whole European population of the Colony, not including the servants of the Company, consisted of only 794 men, women and children, “an enormous proportion of whom, at the Cape especially, belonged to the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches. . . .” (Liebbrandt).

“Leeuwenhof” the present residence of the Administrator belonged to William Heems a well-known burger and a staunch Catholic who came from Bruges in 1680 and in 1714 was still publicly known as a Catholic.

Of special interest is the fact that in 1739 Father Loppin S.J. and two other priests said Mass in Cape Town on several days in the month of March. He writes “. . . with, two other missionaries and dressed as a layman, 1 lodged with a French refugee. He did not know that we were saying Mass in his house so early in the morning………

Indicative of the state of affairs in 1780 was the fact that Francois Duminy the newly appointed Harbour Master was relieved of his post when it was represented at Amsterdam that he was a “Roomsgesinde.”

But when the Dutch returned after the temporary English occupation, a breath of freedom came with them. On the 25th July, 1804, Commissioner General de Mist published his ordinance on toleration. It declared that “all religious societies which for the furtherance of virtue and good morals worshipped an Almighty Being, were to enjoy in this Colony equal protection from the laws.” This ordinance became our Magna Charta. At once Catholics availed themselves of their freedom, and the Dutch priests the Revs Joannes Lansink, lacobus Nelissen, and Lambertus Prinsen had the privilege of being the first officiating priests in the Cape Colony. In October 1805, a room was fitted up for them in the Castle itself, in which they might say Mass for the Catholic soldiers.

In the very next year our new-born freedom received a severe rebuff from the hands of the English, and the priests were ordered to leave the Colony. However, in 1817, better counsels prevailed, for in that year Bishop Poynter, Vicar-Apostolic of the English Midlands District, elicited from Lord Charles Somerset the information that “all religious denominations are not only tolerated, but entitled to equal privileges in the Colony.” The fruit of Bishop Poynter’s enquiry ripened two years later, when on New Year’s Day, 1820, the good ship Oromocte reached Table Bay, bearing among her passengers the Right Rev. E. Slater, who had been appointed Vicar Apostolic of the Cape of Good Hope and surrounding islands. The “islands” included Australia, New Zealand and Mauritius. With him were three priests, of whom one, Father Scully, was destined to remain and work in Cape Town.

The Old Church in Harrington Street

A piece of ground in Harrington Street on which to build a church was granted by the Burgher Senate on the application of the churchwardens. From beginning to end this building saw nothing but misfortune. The materials used were bad, the business arrangements were bad, and while the squabbles went on the floods of heaven came down in the great storm of 1837 badly damaging it. The church was built with mostly borrowed money. The difficulty in repaying it added to Father Scully’s troubles. What with financial difficulties, discord among his congregation, the growing hostility on the part of the civil authorities, the good priest found his position unendurable, and on the 11th July, 1824, he took advantage of a departing ship and left his troubles and the Colony behind him.

The Catholics of Cape Town finding themselves without a pastor, besought Mr. H. B. van Horstok, who was about to visit Europe, to secure a Dutch pastor. The result was the arrival of the Rev. Theodore Wagener on the 30th March in the Colony. He was shortly afterwards joined by another priest, Father T. Rishton, whose destination had been Grahamstown, but who preferred to remain in Cape Town on account, probably, of the dangers ahead. Father Wagener found himself unable to bear the strain and resigned. Father Rishton was appointed in his place. The strain eventually told on Father Rishton, and on the 27th March, 1835, he left on a six months’ holiday. He never returned.

Arrival of Bishop Griffith

Monsignor Brady, calling at the Cape on his way from the Isle of Bourbon and seeing the spiritual destitution of the Catholics of the Colony, undertook to carry a petition to the Pope himself. The result was that in the month of August, 1837, Rev. Patrick Raymond Griffith, O.P., was consecrated Bishop in the church of St. Andrew, Westland Row, Dublin, in order that he might be sent as Vicar Apostolic to the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived in Cape Town on the 14th April 1838. He found that the only Church, situated in Harrington St. was quite unsuitable for public worship. “We found” he writes, “a small chapel in utter ruin some portions of the walls only remaining, while the materials had been sold by auction and heavy debts remained to be discharged. Several claimants looked for compensation and all the past proclaimed that to attempt to rebuilt on the same premises, would not only expose him who would attempt it to continued litigation but would also perpetuate the discord that existed in the congregation.” Accordingly the Bishop applied for a room in the barracks and this was granted to him. But it was clear that this was only a temporary arrangement. The Bishop, with an unlimited trust in Divine Providence, for he had nothing else to rely on, began to consider how and where a new chapel was to be obtained.

It is clear that the building of a worthy House of God was the first thing that occupied Bishop Griffith’s mind; although he only arrived on 14th April 1838, we are told that the first donation for the new Church came in May 1838 but no general subscriptions were received until “the 3rd Sunday in Advent 16th December 1838 after a sermon on the subject” (Bp. Griffith’s Journal.)

New Site

Early in 1839 the Bishop purchased for the sum of £2,500 the Wachtenburg Garden together with a piece of ground in front known as Tanner’s Square (Looyers Plein). The Purchase was made from Baron Von Ludwig. Wachtenburg Garden had formerly been a Masonic Lodge and then a Museum and formed part of the larger Concordia Gardens. It is interesting to note that the open space on the west side of St. Mary’s which links Plein Street and St. John’s Street is still known as Concordia Place. St. Mary’s Dominican Convent and grounds stand to-day on the site of the Wachtenburg Garden. There was a large room in the buildings which’ would be suitable as a chapel, but it is easy to see that the deciding factor in Bishop Griffith’s mind, was that here was a site for the Cathedral: “one other great object”, he writes, “might be gained by this purchase beside the chapel . . . to wit, a large piece of ground in front, forming the place or space known as Tanners Square, sufficient and ample for building a Church. So 1 struck a bargain with the Baron” (Baron von Ludwig, the owner.) The sale was negotiated by Col. Bird, a former Secretary to the Government still resident at the Cape, whose good services were ever at the disposal of the Bishop. A clause in the original grant forbade any building on this open site but permission to build was obtained from the Colonial Secretary. Here it was that on Sunday October 6th 1841, the foundation stone of St. Mary’s Cathedral was laid.

The Building

Plans were drawn by a Mr. Sparman, a German, whose first estimate of £5,000 was soon increased to £7,000. But a meeting of the congregation held on August 2nd, 1840 felt that to build according to his plans would cost at least £20,000 and the architect was asked to reduce the dimensions in order to lower the cost. Mr. Sparman appears to have been a difficult person to deal with and it required a stiff letter from the Bishop to make him produce his final plans and specifications. On August 16th it was decided to build according to his revised plans, and that he was to be paid £200 for his designs and supervision of the work.

Unfortunately there is no record of the foundation stone laying ceremony, nor is there any trace of the actual stone, if an inscribed stone was used. Perhaps it lies some feet below ground level on the Hope Street side. The level of Hope Street was raised considerably later in the century and the ground on that side of the Cathedral was filled in to its present level.

The builder was Mr. James Begley, a prominent member of the congregation. In order to raise funds for the new Church, the ground on which the old chapel in Harrington Street stood was sold in lots for £700, but a considerable amount of this was lost through the insolvency of the auctioneer. The Government was petitioned for help on the reasonable grounds that the Church would be used by the military but “nothing much was obtained except the remission of transfer duty and the loan of certain machines for the digging of the foundations.” The fact that the Church was opened almost free of debt was due largely to the zeal of the Bishop and his clergy and the generosity of the faithful, few and poor as they were. Besides the weekly subscription there were six large general collections. Charity sermons were preached, generally by the Bishop himself. There is an interesting link with the Church in Australia in the fact that Archbishop Polding of Sydney preached when he called on his way to Australia. Donations also came from Archbishop Carew and friends at Calcutta, from Pernambuco and from the Vicar-Apostolic and people of Mauritius.

Several times the work had to be stopped but the delays were never long and early in 1851 the Church was completed, some only of the necessary fittings and furniture remaining to be procured. The total expenditure at the end of 1854 was £10,377 3s. 6d., the total receipts at that date being £9,932 17s. lld.

The Dedication

The Dedication took place in 1851. The Bishop writes: On Monday April 28th (the Feast of St. Mary of the Flight into Egypt being transferred to it from the day before . . . 4th Sunday of April) the new Church was opened at ten o’clock a.m. when the Right Rev. Bishop of Bourbon (R6union) Dr. Des Pres, and the Right Rev. Vicar Apostolic of Mission in China, Dr. Verolies, with two Vicars-General of the former and five other French Clergymen of their suites, assisted at the dedication, performed by the Vicar Apostolic, with all the Clergy of this Vicariate, Fathers A. McCarthy, J. Griffith, B. McMahon, J. Watkins. The officers and many of the crew, too, of the French war steamer “Cassini” in which the Bishops, etc. were proceeding to their respective destinations, were present and an overwhelming crowd of the people of the town. The ceremony commenced with a sermon and terminated with a Te Deum sung by the French Clergy and Officers, with four nuns and some French ladies, joined by our choir.”

Bishop Griffith preached, taking as his text: “I have surely built thee a house to dwell in; a settled place for thee to abide in forever.” (1 Kings VIII. 13), but unfortunately the local Press dismissed the sermon with the unkind statement that “it occupied a considerable time in the delivery”: and beyond that we know nothing. But whatever the words that were uttered on that occasion, we can be sure that the hearts of Bishop, Clergy, and faithful were filled with joy and with gratitude to God when they saw the completed Home they had erected for their Eucharistic King. For the first time in the history of Southern Africa, Christ dwelt in a Tabernacle that was worthy of Him, where the ceremonies of the Church could be carried out in their fullest details and splendour.

The Altar

In 1865 the Sanctuary was completed and a new Altar of Siena, Sicilian and Galway Marble erected to the memory of Bishop Griffith who died in 1862 and who is buried in the Main Aisle of the Cathedral. Bishop Grimley his successor was as indefatigable a beggar for St. Mary’s. Due to his zeal for the House of God, the large oil painting of the Crucifixion, a copy of the original by Van Dyk, (in the Louvre, Paris) was presented by the Emperor Napoleon Ill in 1869, when the Bishop called at Paris on his way to the Vatican Council. This painting hung above the Main Altar in St. Mary’s until 1949 when it was moved to its present position under the choir-gallery. There is another interesting link with the house of Napoleon in the fact that the body of the Prince Imperial, killed in the Zulu War in 1879, lay in St. Mary’s while on its way for burial overseas. The mother of the Prince, the Empress Eugenie, later come to South Africa to visit the scene of her son’s death and while staying at Government House, attended holy Mass at the Cathedral.

The Bell

While in Rome at the Vatican Council, Bishop Grimley also approached the Marquis of Bute who was in the Eternal City at the time, and obtained from him the large bell which has sounded its call to prayer over the roofs of Cape Town so many times. The original plan provided for twin towers, flanking the main entrance of the Cathedral and the foundations for these were actually laid, but they were never erected and for years the bell hung on a tripod behind the Cathedral, until it was finally hung in the single tower erected over the main door during the renovation of 1927. The bell was cast by Sheridan of Dublin and weighed 22 hundredweight, (or 30 cwt. with the fittings.) On one side is the figure of Our Lady in relief; on the other the Irish Harp, wolf-dog and round tower, wreathed by shamrocks with the words Erin-go-bragh underneath.


In the 1890’s the organ gallery was enlarged, and due chiefly to the exertion of the late Mgr. F. C. Kolbe. Towards the close of the century, stained glass windows, unrivalled in South Africa, were installed. The S.A. Catholic Magazine of June 1896 tells us that “the East Window of St. Mary’s is about to be fitted with stained glass in place of the hideous arrangement of staring colours which has, at present, so painful an effect on the eye.” The window depicting the Assumption of Our Lady, was made by Mayer of Munich and cost £265, when erected in September of that year. It was the gift of several members of the Congregation, whose names are perpetuated on a Tablet. Once again it seems to have been Mgr. Kolbe who was the driving force in the beautification of St. Mary’s. A magnificent organ was installed. This did duty until September 1958 when it was renovated and improved. The renovation was completed in May 1959.

Mention must be made of the oak Pulpit carved in Cape Town by a Scotsman named Tweedie and erected at the time of the Dedication of the Cathedral. The other stained glass windows followed in quick succession made by Messrs. Mayer of Munich and Hardman of Birmingham. The names of the donors are inscribed on each. The one in the Baptistery of the Little Flower was erected in 1925, donated by the children-once again at the instigation of Mgr. Kolbe. It is worth drawing attention to one of the finest windows, but rarely seen to be appreciated. It is the one above the organ, depicting the Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost.


As the years went by, St. Mary’s mellowed and gracefully grew old. Cape Town was changing its character in the streets around her. The open stoeps of the Dutch dwelling-houses disappeared before the march of Progress. Streets were widened and paved. Shops and offices and factories began to surround her, but her massive mud-packed walls still reared themselves against the fury of the south-easter and the blast of the North West gale. Seventy years had passed and the truth had to be faced that old St. Mary’s was showing her age. In 1926, one of the first acts of Bishop O’Riley, the first South African Bishop to be consecrated within her walls, was to authorise Dr. John Colgan then Administrator of the Cathedral, to proceed with an extensive scheme of restoration and renovation. Mr. F. Glennie, a Catholic architect presented a plan which, while renovating the Cathedral, preserved its essential character and left it St. Mary’s. The two side-entrances were opened, a Baptistery and Sacristy were built on either side forming the arms of a cross. The nave was lengthened and two side chapels added. The whole West entrance was remodelled and the present tower erected over the main porch. This work was carried out in 1927. But the old building was still St. Mary’s.

New Sanctuary

Another twenty years passed. Another Bishop, Bishop Hennemann, was fired with zeal for the beauty of God’s house. In 1947, the old sanctuary so unsuited for the carrying out in full of the ceremonies of a Cathedral Church, was remodelled. The Sanctuary was set back to the limit of the rear-wall, it was panelled in oak, the carving being the work of a Spanish Catholic artist resident in Cape Town named F. Cuairan. A new Altar of Italian Marble, massive and simple, emphasising the Table of Sacrifice and set off by the solid silver Tabernacle completed the work. The whole was completed in 1950 as a memorial to those parishioners of St. Mary’s who laid down their lives in the World War 1939 to 1945. It was used for the first time for the Consecration of yet another South-African born Bishop, His Grace Archbishop Owen McCann, the first Archbishop of Cape Town.


On Saturday 21st April 1951, one hundred years after the dedication, the Cathedral was consecrated by His Grace Archbishop Owen McCann, who later, on the 22nd of February 1965, became the first Cardinal in South Africa.

Article provided with kind permission by Father Peter-John Pearson