Mariannhill Monastery History

In 1882 on the 26 December, Trappist missionary Fr Franziskus Pfanner established Mariannhill Monastery in the outskirts of the city of Durban, in South Africa. Moved by the ideal of promoting the integration of the native Zulu people in the white society of the Transkei region, Fr. Pfanner also promoted local development opening schools, health clinics, craft workshops, printing presses and farms providing work for hundreds of monks, lay missionaries, women religious and natives. In 1885 he was made an Abbot and, in the years that followed, thanks to his encouragement the presence of monks throughout the Vicariate of Natal by 1907 had produced 19 branches and a Congregation of women religious, the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood – already approved by the Holy See.

the-mariannhill-monasteryThe Trappists of Mariannhill, active in various sectors ranging from evangelisation to healthcare and education, needed a new juridical form and so it was Pope Pius X who decided on 2 February 1909 to separate the Monastery from the Order of Trappists and make it a religious congregation of pontifical right. The solution was officially made public on 28 July 1909, (the anniversary of the priestly ordination of Abbot Pfanner’s and his arrival in Africa) however the elderly missionary had died shortly before, on 24 May 1909.

In the years that followed the Institute dedicated itself definitively to mission ad gentes and soon assumed an international aspect, spreading to German speaking countries in Europe and to North America, with increasing commitment for Africa to support the local Churches and promote local vocations to the priesthood and to the missions.

To mark this centenary 1909-2009, the Congregation has planned celebrations in various local communities in cooperation with its female branch, the Missionaries of the Precious Blood to “pay homage to Abbot Franz Pfanner with deep gratitude and veneration ”. “The legacy of the mission, vision and courage demonstrated by Abbot Franz– we read in a joint statement issued by the respective General Superiors, Fr Damian Weber CMM and Mother Ingeborg Müller CPS – urges us, more than ever in this jubilee year, to continue the work started by the pioneers of Mariannhill”.

Missionary expansion and a new Congregation is born

After the Founder’s departure, the Abbey was entrusted to the direction of Abbot Amandus Schölzig, who accepted requests for greater rigour, but continued to open new mission stations in Natal with the full support of Bishop Jolivet: Mariazell, Maria Telgte, Hardenberg and Marialinden, all in East Griqualand. He sent monks to Tanzania who settled close to the Usambara Mountains (1897) and later opened a second foundation at Tanga (1898). With the help of Abbot Pfanner negotiations with Cecil Rhodes led to the purchase in 1895 of piece of land on which Triashill Mission (Zimbabwe) was built. Other monks went to Johannesburg for apostolate among Catholic seasonal minors and the Polish minority.

Catholic missions in South Africa received strong support. In 27 years, 1882 to 1909, the number of mission stations increased from 4 to 49, and more than half (28) were Trappist missions. The Apostolic Vicariates remarked on the figure, stressing the need to preserve the Mariannhil missionary dynamic. The elderly Abbot Pfanner, on 8 May 1907, expressed a desire for a missionary congregation superior to the Trappist Monastery and directly under the jurisdiction of Propaganda Fide in Rome. The new institute would have maintained all of its Cistercian identity


except “clauses regarding silence, fasting, cloister, restrictions on correspondence and food. I – he wrote – suggest that a new Universal Mission be founded in Rome, and that it should adopt the Trappist method of work”.
On 2 February 1908 it was decided that the decision for separation from the Trappist Order should be taken by the Mariannhill community. Discussion between 11 and 16 May 1908, resulted in an independent reformed Cistercian community with its own Constitutions. The text was sent to Cardinal Gotti, prefect of Propaganda Fide, who sent it to his consultant Dom Hildebrand Hemptinne, Benedictine Abbot general. After a Relatio in favour, the Constitutions were presented to Pope Pius X, who signed a decree of approval on 2 February 1909, promulgating it on the following 28 July. The main points were total separation from the Trappist Order and the establishment of a specifically missionary congregation with simple vows (Institute of the Missionary Religious of Mariannhill, since 1936, Congregation of the Missionaries of Mariannhill); division of members, professed and consecrated laymen; the transformation of the Monastery of Mariannhill in Collegiate Church. The constitutions were later modified in 1984 to meet Vatican II requirements and are at present at the stage of approval pending new drafting.

A House of Formation was opened in 1910 in Holland (Arcen) and then a Minor Seminar at Lohr, in Germany. In Natal work consisted mainly in consolidating existing stations and publishing the daily Izindaba Zabantu for the black population (1911), which still exists today with the name UmAfrika. In the meantime work continued to complete the building of St Joseph’s Church Mariannhill and adjacent school, which from 1913 onwards specialised in training teachers.

An attempt to merge with a branch of reformed Cistercians in 1912 was unsuccessful and in the same year the definitive Constitutions of the Institute were approved with some changes to the text of 1909. The new Preamble reads: “The Congregation of the Religious of Mariannhill is destined for missionary work, mainly in South Africa. Its members take simple vows and are guided by the Rule of St. Benedict in the form expressed in the Constitutions”. Pius X promulgated the text ad experimentum for 10 years on 24 June 1914, prohibiting the monks from signing a union with any other Order. The outbreak of World War I delayed the election of the first superior general for several years. In 1919 Pope Benedict XV sent a canonical visit to Mariannhill. The Visitors convoked a general chapter which ordered the necessary changes from the Trappist Rule (the white habit with black scapular was replaced with a black cassock and red sash) and voted for vocation pastoral among the natives, encouraging the entry of local men to the Institute. At last on 8 March 1920, Fr Adalberto Fleischer missionary in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was elected first Superior General. A decree issued by Propaganda Fide 28 June 1920) conferred full independence on the Congregation also in matters of religious discipline. Immediately the Congregation opened a second House of Formation, this time in Germany at Reimlingen and then the first Novitiate at Mariannhill, which began its activity on 23 January 1921 with four novices.

On 10 September 1921 Propaganda Fide decide to create the Apostolic Vicariate of Mariannhill, with territory taken from the Vicariate of Natal and including part of Transkei (today Eastern Cape Province) evangelised since the missionaries’ arrival in 1882. With a decree dated 13 March 1923, Fr Fleischer was appointed Bishop and first Apostolic Vicar. He was ordained a bishop on 15th August 1922 in St Joseph’s Church which for the occasion for elevated as the cathedral of the new Vicariate. At that time the Institute had: 52 priests, 3 lay consecrated Africans, 150 monks, 294 women religious, 155 teachers, 72 catechists, 8000 catechumens and 36,000 baptised Africans. There were 28main mission stations, 198 affiliations, 91 churches and chapels, 113 schools and 5,000 pupils, 2 teachers training colleges and 270 aspirant teachers.

In the 1920s the Institute became more decentralised and international. It was decided that students of philosophy and theology should be formed in mission territories and a chapter general in 1926 moved the Mother House and seminary to Würzburg, Germany. Moreover other houses were opened in Germany (1923) and in the United States (1924).

At the same time the Bishop and Superior Fleischer devoted much energy to promoting the formation of local clergy at Mariannhill founding two religious congregations, the Daughters of St


Francis of Assisi, and the Congregation of St Joseph, which accepted the first aspirants in 1924-26. In the same period a Vocation Centre for Africans was opened at Mariathal, and later moved to the new seminary Santa Maria Sedes Sapientiae (1930) which had become a reference point for all Zulu and Xhosa natives of South Africaj aspiring to the priesthood. The Congregation of Mariannhill provided the managing and teaching staff.

The first two ordinations to the priesthood took place in 1936-37 (one of the new priests was Bonaventura Dlamini, future first bishop of Umzimkulu) and another 14 Africans had completed their studies by the end of 1946. That year the major seminary was moved to Reichenau and an officially recognised school known as Aloysianum was placed alongside Santa Maria. Between 1960-70 the complex came under the Group Area’s Act, which banned blacks from using structures in white areas, but the new Bishop Alphonse Streit (Mariannhill provincial and new Vicar Apostolic since 1951) strongly objected and obtained a derogation from the home minister for an undetermined period of time. By 1965 the seminary had given 39 native priests to the Vicariate under the jurisdiction of Mariannhill.

The Sisters of the Precious Blood, founded in 1885 by Fr Pfanner to assist and form young Zulu women, furthered the Africanisation of female religious institutes. From 1922 onwards the Sisters formed the Daughters of St Francis of Assisi accepting the first young African women into the community. In 1932 the local congregation was affiliated to the Red Sisters with the name African Congregation of the Precious Blood. In 1959, with a unanimous secret ballot the African sisters voted for full incorporation. Between 1961 and 1981 the Sisters increased from 89 to 148 in Transkei alone.