Forward Ever, Backward Never, Pella!!

Forward Ever, Backward Never, Pella!!

The sign which greets you as you enter the town of Pella.

South Africans, as a rule, LOVE to travel. Perhaps it is something passed down in our DNA from our wandering ancestors… Our land is a dry land – in fact approximately half of the country is classified as arid or semi-arid. When one stands back and considers how towns came to be where they are, it was always a choice governed by where water could be found. It was not possible (especially in those days) to have settlements which did not have an adequate water supply. And so, you will see an inordinately large number of towns/villages with the suffix “fontein” – which is obviously the Afrikaans word for fountain. One such place used to be known as Cammas Fonteyn – a spot which evolved into today’s “Pella” in the dry Northern Cape province.

The harsh terrain which surrounds Pella.

Once people were settled, the next consistent similarity was the need for a place of worship. Many, many towns are built around a church – which, to this day, is still the most significant building in the area. One could spend years traveling around South Africa and still not reach all the beautiful churches. Some are simply brick and mortar buildings where people worship, and others are works of art. Regardless of your belief system (or not), one can appreciate the exceptional effort that went into these buildings. 

The Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

On my travels, I have come across churches that have remained etched in my memory over the years. All are vastly different, and they are dotted all around South Africa. What they do have in common is that the moment I walked into the building, I was struck by profound peace. It felt as though people poured (and still pour) all that is good into their one place of gathering, as though the best and highest ideals of humanity reside within. The decor in each seems to highlight this – as if a higher calling of the locals is physically manifested in this art. Some churches are ornate and elegant and sumptuous. Others can only aspire to be, beyond their unbelievably humble circumstances. One such church is The Immaculate Conception Cathedral – a religious building in Pella belonging to the Roman Catholic Church.

“Copper Girl” with the palms reflected on her hood.

In 2015, I crossed the Namib desert for the first time. I did the journey in a beautiful Jeep Wrangler, who I fondly thought of as “Copper Girl”. I was alone on the trip (with the exception of the actual desert crossing), and drove loooong distances, both in South Africa and Namibia, without incident. The pure joy of the open road simply seeped into every inch of my being. Not for a single moment did I have any trepidation or concerns, despite travelling thousands of kilometers, both paved and unpaved – often not seeing another vehicle or sign of civilisation for hours and hours. On crossing the border back into South Africa I, with intent, found Pella and this church. I parked – and there were no signs of life. It was a feverishly hot day – and I went and sat of the steps of the church, knowing that someone would appear. Eventually a young boy materialised out of nowhere and asked me if I would like the resident nun to show me the interior of the church. As soon as I replied that I would love to see the interior, he once again disappeared. 

The beautiful nun wanted a photo next to “Copper Girl”.

Time passed slowly, with only the cicadas breaking the silence. Eventually an apparition appeared in the distance. A nun, dressed in the whitest habit I have ever seen, slowly walked towards me. Perhaps it was the heat, but I felt as though I was in a dream. She was tiny and smiling – with the most beautiful apricot-coloured skin. Perched on her nose were black “school marm” glasses. She gently introduced herself and opened the church. As I entered the cool interior, my eyes adjusted. It was, quite simply, exquisite – in a humble way that mirrored the local population. I spent an hour with the nun, as she carefully explained each and every detail within the church. As we were leaving, she asked if I would like a “blessing” for the road ahead. I said yes, and she promptly performed the little ceremony. For me, beyond a blessing for the road ahead, it also felt like I was saying “Thank You” for the incident-free trip up to that point…

The interior of the cathedral.

Pella is an oasis in the Namakwa region of the Northern Cape. Initially known as Cammas Fonteyn, the spring was used by a nearby settlement of San people. In 1776 a South African Dutch farmer called Coenraad Feijt settled there, living in harmony with the San people. In 1814 the missionary Christian Albrecht moved with his assistants and converts from Namibia (where they had been persecuted) to Cammas Fonteyn. He founded the mission station and renamed it Pella after the ancient town in Macedonia that became a refuge for persecuted Christians from the Romans. Various people came and went from Pella, and the mission station was abandoned numerous times due to the monumentally difficult environment and circumstances. Finally in 1872 a drought again forced the London Missionary Society out of Pella and they abandoned the mission station permanently. 

A statue of Jesus on the cross inside the cathedral.

In 1882 a 23-year-old priest, Father JM Simon of the Oblates of St Francis de Sales, volunteered to make a fresh start at Pella. He befriended the San, and eventually (after various others had come and gone), he was joined by Brother Leo Wolf in 1885. Together with Father Simon, he was to serve the community of Pella for more than fifty years. 

Having established gardens and planted crops, they eventually began to build a church. With no funds, they realized that the church would have had to be the fruit of their own labour. They had no building plans, nor did they have any knowledge of architecture or building. Luckily, they had a copy of the Encyclopedie des Arts et Metiers which had a chapter on bricklaying! They learnt the trade on the job as they built the church in its Roman and Gothic style. The tower clock, bell, main altar, as well as the altars for the two chapels were imported as gifts from Father Brisson, the founder of the Oblates of St Francis de Sales. Many wooden fittings, including the spiral staircase and large steeple crucifix, were painstakingly carved out of locally grown willow wood. Father Simon used his pocketknife to carefully carve a statue of the body of Christ, which was attached to a crucifix and still adorns the cathedral today. The church took to seven years to complete, and it was finally consecrated on 15th August 1895 by Bishop Rooney, the coadjutor of the Cape. There was a magnificent celebration – the size of which had never been seen or even imagined in that wilderness that was Pella at the time.

Note the beautifully carved wood…

In 1905 a large wooden cross was erected on the peak of each of the three mountain tops surrounding Pella by the priests and some of the congregation, which were subsequently replaced by aluminium crosses in 1975. They can still be seen today. In 1932, Bishop Simon celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival. The church’s steeple was renovated for the occasion and its wooden cross replaced with a metal cross. There was a large celebration which proved to be too much for Bishop Simon. He died and was buried in the church that he had built. Father Wolf died in 1947 at the age of eighty-one and was also buried in the church.

A beautifully decorated house in Pella. There wasn’t a single piece of litter anywhere…

Interestingly, there was a windmill near the church in the early days which pumped fresh water from the very high water table of the area, into a well.  The well was used as a supply for the local people to collect water for their households. The water was also pumped to the gardens of the Mission. As the infrastructure had improved, the windmill was removed and the well was filled up. In 1983, three of the columns towards the back of the church collapsed, together with a section of the roof which they supported. On inspection, engineers discovered a groundwater drainage system which had been installed when the church was built. By removing the windmill and the well, this drainage system had become dysfunctional. So, the water dammed up for years under the church, eventually creeping high into its structure – ultimately leading to the collapse. The Gold Fields Foundation very generously provided for the renovation of the entire building and reinstalled the underground water drainage system – now powered by a solar panel. The restored cathedral was reopened again in November 1985.

If you ever find yourself in the northern Cape, take the road less travelled and pop into Pella. 

It is one of those profoundly interesting small settlements that you will remember forever…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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