St. Saviour's Catholic Cathedral
A brief history

The former St. Saviour's Cathedral a

Originally erected in 1860, the Catholic church of Oudtshoorn was the first sandstone building in this town. Today this historic site is home to the Catholic Cathedral of Oudtshoorn, the seat of the Bishop. The cornerstone of the original church was laid on 8 February 1860 by the Rev. Fr MacMahon under whose care the small Catholic community of Oudtshoorn was initially placed. After much work, the completed sandstone church could seat 250 parishioners. The first resident priest of Oudtshoorn was Fr. B. O’Reilly who took up his duties on 12 December 1862. These early priests were all of Irish, French, or German origins. In 1922 the then Central Prefecture (later it would become the Oudtshoorn Diocese) came under the care of the German Pallottinis. German Pallottini priests served the parish up until the end of 1992. The care of this parish was then transferred to the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri (South African priests. See For more than a hundred years the little sandstone church served the community of Oudtshoorn and the surrounding areas. This sandstone church with its beautiful stained glass windows was demolished in 1965 to make way for the present cathedral. The cathedral was built over a period of two and a half years under the guidance of the Pallottini Brothers who worked in the Oudtshoorn Diocese. The unusual construction of the cathedral makes it one of the most striking church buildings in the Southern Cape. The cathedral was consecrated on 6 August, 1967, on the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor. This feast day is still celebrated today as the patronal feast of the cathedral.

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The cathedral was designed by a Cape Town firm of architects, Bergamasco, Duncan, Hancock & James. It is a fine example of the so-called modern architecture of the sixties of the previous century and in particular reflects the renewal of the liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. The building is in the form of a crucifix with all four arms of the same length. This main construction rests solely on twenty four laminated parabolic bows (each bow is made from Meranti mahogany wood, shipped from Malaysia, and later assembled in Port Elizabeth). These wooden bows, at that stage the largest of its kind manufactured in South Africa, range in height from 40 to 70 feet above the floor. The largest of these wooden bows weighs close to 3000 lbs. It took a special heavy duty vehicle 15 hours to transport the wooden bows the 240 miles to Oudtshoorn from Port Elizabeth. A mobile crane (34 ton) was also brought from Port Elizabeth in order to hoist these half bows into position on the foundations, after which the rest of the pieces were bolted together. The parabolic bows meet at a central point where the four arms of the whole structure come together, providing support for the roof. At the top is a hollow tower with a 16 foot crucifix. Copper roofing was decided on to complete this structure, as it was believed able to withstand time and Oudtshoorn’s extreme temperatures.

aa The present St. Saviour's Cathedral building

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The massive stained glass windows found at the end of each of the four arms of the cruciform, as well as the four smaller stained glass windows of similar design, were manufactured by a six-hundred year old German company. The four large windows depict the Transfiguration of Christ, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and St. Vincent Pallotti. St. Vincent Pallotti was the founder of the Catholic Apostolate (S.A.C) known as the Pallottinis – the Pallottini priests were at that stage in charge of the Oudtshoorn Diocese and together with the brothers and sisters of the order they contributed greatly to the spiritual and social needs of the whole Southern Cape. Each of the large windows has a base measuring 32 feet wide and a height of 22 feet. The small stained glass windows to the right of the main entrance feature St. Anthony of Padua, St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Patrick. The window depicting St Patrick, markedly different in design from the others, is a preserved stained glass window from the old church. To the left of the main entrance the three stained glass windows portray St. Christopher, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Francis of Assisi (last mentioned window is also from  the old church).

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The four bells (originally placed within the bell tower until recently) were manufactured in the Netherlands. True to Catholic tradition each bell has a symbolic name: the first is Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the world); the second, Advocata Nostra (our Intercessor, in honour of the Mother of God); the third, Apostolatum Significer (Standard-bearer of the Word of the Lord); and the last, Protector Ecclesiae (Protector of the Church, in honour of St. Josef).

The sanctuary is octagonal in shape and its floor is the roof of the lower church, known as the crypt (which also houses the Black Madonna Chapel). The altar is at the central point of the cruciform building. Three arms of the cruciform provide seating for the community. The fourth arm accommodates the sacristy at the back of the sanctuary, beneath the choir gallery. The cathedra (bishop’s chair), donated by a benefactor from Knysna, is made from stinkwood and rests against the sacristy wall together with seating for the clerics on either side.

a The interior of the present Cathedral
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The eight burial crypts are separated from the chapel and altar by a beautiful stained glass window from the original church (where it stood behind the main altar). Bishop Bruno Hippel is so far the only bishop interred here. In 2003 the chapel was renovated to accommodate a copy of the icon of the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora (in Poland) and renamed the Black Madonna Chapel.

A fascinating and touching history lies behind this chapel. In 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked Poland, more than 1.7 million Poles were taken to Siberia as forced labour. In 1942 only 750 000 of these Poles were freed and allowed to cross the border into what was then Persia. Many of these people were orphans whose parents died in the terrible conditions in the Soviet labour camps. The allied forces took pity on the children and they were sent to various countries offering a safe haven. On 10 April 1943, a group of 500 Polish orphans arrived in Oudtshoorn and were given shelter in the old army barracks. The children were naturally all catholic and were accompanied by priests. The Catholic community of Oudtshoorn opened their hearts to the orphans and made them feel at home. After the war Poland fell under communist rule and most of the children remained in South Africa. In grateful memory of their stay in Oudtshoorn, commemorating the fiftieth year of their arrival in South Africa, they donated a very special copy of Poland’s most valued treasure – the icon of the Black Madonna found in the monastery of Jasna Gora in the city of Czestochowa – to the cathedral. Originally this painting was placed behind the baptismal font at the back of the cathedral. On  the sixtieth anniversary of their arrival in South Africa the former Polish orphans had the beautiful altar made for the Black Madonna and the chapel was jointly consecrated on 6 May 2003 by Bishop Edward Adams (Bishop of Oudtshoorn) and Archbishop Wesoly (Vatican envoy for the global Polish community).

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The original plan of the cathedral made provision for four side chapels that were planned for the spaces that the four arms of the cruciform would create. Initially only two side chapels were erected. To the right of the sanctum is the chapel of Christ the Saviour and to the left is the Blessed Sacrament chapel. The other two spaces were later used for statues of Our Lady with the Baby Jesus and St. Joseph (two beautiful hand-carved wooden statues from Switzerland). Left of the main entrance is the baptismal font, kept here from the original church. To the right hangs a painting of St. Marie-Marguerite Alocoque and her vision of the Holy Heart of Jesus - also with an interesting history.  In 2009 a major change was made within the walls of the cathedral. The Blessed Sacrament chapel was moved to the right hand side of the sanctum and its altar made resplendent with a beautifully carved wooden top piece originally from St. Conrad’s church in Dysselsdorp, surrounded by marble. The new Blessed Sacrament altar now indeed presents a fitting worthiness for our Lord’s resting place. The former Blessed Sacrament chapel is now the chapel of Christ the Saviour. A third side chapel was installed to the left of the main entrance and is dedicated to the Holy Family while the fourth side chapel on the right hand side of the main entrance is dedicated to St. Luigi Scrosoppi.

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The cathedral can seat six hundred people. The height of the building to the top of the crucifix on the bell tower is measured at 125 feet. The circular outside wall is made from terrazzo. All the woodwork inside (with the exception of the parabolic wooden bows) was made at the time by the Sacred Heart joinery at the old Catholic mission in North End. The building of the cathedral was begun by Br. Becker, S.A.C. who died before he could complete the building. His work was finished by Brs. Orlandi, S.A.C. and Weber, S.A.C.

St. Saviour’s cathedral is the church of the bishop of Oudtshoorn and the mother church of the whole diocese, stretching from Plettenberg Bay in the East, Victoria West in the North and Ceres in the West. The cathedral is a shining beacon for the whole of Oudtshoorn and a visible reminder of the fact that Christ is indeed the Saviour of the world.

a Crucifix at the main entrance to the Cathedral

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