75TH ANNIVERSARY OF ST BERNADETTE’S PARISH
FEAST OF THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEDICATION OF ST BERNADETTE’S
8/9 OCTOBER 2022
What are we celebrating today? For many of you still in the parish today who were parishioners in the 1940s, you will remember that the Catholic community of Walmer predated this building. Mass was celebrated by the parish priest of Bl Oliver Plunket, South End, next door at No. 5 8th Ave in the small wood-and-iron house and it was this Catholic community that drove the establishment of the new parish of Walmer.
We are celebrating today liturgically as the anniversary of the dedication (or consecration) of this church – that time when the bishop came and anointed the altar and the walls of the church. However, this event only took place on 16 April 1954 as there is a rule that a church cannot be consecrated until all of the debt of the building is paid off.
What happened on 5 October 1947 was that this building, having been completed, was blessed and solemnly open for public worship, the parish of St Bernadette becoming independent from her mother church, and the Catholic community of Walmer having a permanent place for their worship.
So, today, we give thanks and glory to God for 75 years of St Bernadette’s parish and this beautiful church we have inherited from the generations that have preceded us. Today, I would like to focus of four lessons we can take from this wonderful occasion.
Firstly, the lesson of the importance of creating a worthy space set apart for the worship of God. This lesson flows from the story of Fr Little (who in fact was not-so-little), the parish priest of Bl Oliver Plunket and driver of the construction of the new church in Walmer, and of Mr Brandon Clinch, the architect of this church. Mr Clinch, an Irish architect based in Johannesburg, had built many churches before this one – Sacred Heart Cathedral in Pretoria, Immaculate Conception in Rosebank, Holy Trinity in Braamfontein. His style of architecture flowed from his devotion and faith. He burnt all of his notes after completing a project, so the a letter to him from Fr Little on behalf of the building committee is probably lost. However, his response to Fr Little is not, and exists in our archives.
This letter is a response to what must have been a letter of dissatisfaction with his proposed plans for the church on the part of the building committee of the Walmer Catholics. Perhaps they felt they were being given second rate work to the communities of the Transvaal. Nonetheless, Mr Clinch’s indignant response assured them that the revised plans he would later send would most certainly be of a superior dignity, and worthy of what they wanted to erect for the glory of God.
This lesson reminds us of the need this community felt to erect something beautiful and dignified for their worship of God – a building that would stand as a witness to the love of God that exists in their hearts and a beautiful reflection of the eternal mysteries that take place inside. Their desire to build up the Kingdom of God was resolute and determined. We must inherit this building as good stewards that maintain that attitude. We continue to beautify, clean, maintain and extend this centre of Catholic life as true witnesses that Christ holds first place and receives the first fruits of every part of us. This beauty continues to be possible through the work of those who commit to the beauty of the liturgy – the choirs, the sacristans, flower arrangers, and all who participate in a dignified and worthy manner in this congregation.
We also remember, however, that as permanent and lasting as we try to make our churches, they are still subject to the forces of nature and the world. This is evident, not least of all, in the destruction of our mother parish in South End by the malevolent political forces of the Group Areas Act. Despite our temporal infrastructure remaining subject to such forces, we are reminded in this that the Body of Christ continues unabated as she rebuilds, finds her lost sheep, gathers them, and continues her pilgrim journey.
The second lesson flows from this, as we hear the reminder that each generation must be good stewards. This story continues to follow (big) Fr Little. Back then, you couldn’t order marble on Amazon, so Fr Little had to travel to Italy to choose and transport the marble you see around this sanctuary for the steps, altar rails, altars, etc. He was travelling back from Italy and his ship docked in Cairo where he dropped dead suddenly. His grave is not here at St Dominic’s Priory but in Cairo, far from his home. The marble made its way back here and indeed was installed, but Fr Little, whose drive and choices lie behind much of what you see around you, never got to see his beautiful church finished. Indeed, it was probably his choice, and most wonderful gift to us, to ask St Bernadette to be our patroness and she has watched over us and prayed for us most powerfully since that dedication was made. Fr Little’s work, through the intercession of St Bernadette, has continued to bear fruit for the past 75 years.
This reminds us of the need to build for the future, not just for us. This parish, please God, will stand for thousands of years and each generation has its work to do. There are many details on the original plans for the church that have never been completed: the statues in the empty niches of the bell tower, the angels adorning the reredos aside the tabernacle, the empty niche that exists above the Lady Altar (perhaps St Philip Neri will stand there some day!), and the pipe organ that was never built (perhaps for our centery …. ???). And this work extends beyond the church building to the other facilities of our parish – currently we need to be more pragmatic and build a wall to keep the vandals at bay!
This stewardship also applies to our faith, virtue, and holiness. Likewise, we receive the example and fidelity of the faith from previous generations – the two thousand years of Body of the Christ – and pass it faithfully on as parents, grandparents, godparents, catechists and community to the generations that follow. May our fidelity to the faith we have received be evident in our lives of prayer and holiness as well.
The third lesson also has to do with the way we live. Christ commands us to love one another as he has loved us, and, indeed, to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick. The Corporal Works of Mercy have been lived out with great vigour in our parish over the past decades, not least of all in the many sodalities such as the CWL, SVDP, Knights of Da Gama, the Care Ministry, and the erstwhile Legion of Mary. The late Mr John Molyneaux whom many of you may still remember stands out in my mind as a symbolic example of these countless efforts of many individuals – as a young boy, I remember encountering him as a rather busy and a little eccentric man. He drove a “goggamobile” or three-wheel bubble car, and was always in a rush. Often the face of the SVDP, he went in to the Walmer Township before it was fashionable to do so, cared for the elderly and the hungry, constantly driving people up and down to Home Affairs and pouring out his energies in response to Christ’s command to love his neighbour. He is one among many who have done this work and continue to do this work in this parish. Indeed, may we be known as a community that is a stellar image of the compassion and love of Our Lord. May we hear his call and command to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. May we indeed love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
Lastly, I think of my own connection with this parish which has lasted all (almost) 42 years of my life. I was baptized here, made my first confession and communion here, I was confirmed and ordained here. This parish has been the backbone of my life, as indeed the sacraments should be for all of us. This is the place where so many of you have been baptized and confirmed. How many graces have flowed from the confessional where you and countless others have poured out their hearts and struggles and hear the comforting words of absolution and reconciliation? And so many of us have been consoled as we bid farewell and bury our loved ones from this altar. Indeed, the most important thing that happens here is the encounter with God in the sacraments. It is here at this altar that heaven meets earth, and the Saving Sacrifice of Our Lord is offered and received. In Word and Sacrament we meet Our Lord and are given grace and strength to be the living water that flows from this temple. With the grace that we receive in the many communions we make here, we are the Body of Christ and are able to be witnesses to and stewards of the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.