Port Elizabeth of Yore: St Mary’s Church

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Given the situation that there are no longer any residents who live in close proximity to the church, there are few  parking facilities in the area and there are hardly any parishioners who attend regularly, what is the future prognosis of this icon of Port Elizabeth? Naturally, I am biased because my great great grandfather was its first pastor but is society in general not able to appreciate that this building is integral to the history of Port Elizabeth. 

It will serve Port Elizabeth well to remember that it is not a church, probably in dire financial difficulties, that has to be saved, but a treasure of the city itself. 

This blog is the history of this institution.

Main picture: St. Mary’s after being reconstructed in 1896 but before the construction of the UBS building in Main Street

Need for a church identified

Until the arrival of settlers in the early 1820’s, the spiritual needs of the British garrison at Port Elizabeth had been served by chaplains in passing ships.

By 1824 with a permanent white population according to the census of that year of only 190 people, the need had arisen for the establishment of a school and a church. To this end, a meeting of inhabitants was held on the 20th February 1824 in the Red Lion Tavern under the chairmanship of Capt. Evatt during which a memorandum was drafted motivating their request. The Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, replied in the affirmative as regards a school but cited budgetary constraints in not being able to accede to their second request – a church.

Captain Francis Evatt

Captain Francis Evatt

Notwithstanding this rebuff, a further meeting was held on the 26th April 1824 to address this issue at which it was resolved that a subscription be entered into immediately. A committee comprising Capt. Evatt, Thomas Pullen, John Damant, Thomas Williamson, Andrew Nicol, and with Benjamin Green as secretary, was set up.

The committee’s response was not dilatory. Far from it. Shortly afterwards, money and materials to the value of RxD 2052 had been subscribed. Furthermore, by dint of hard work in April 1825, a large plot of land was granted for the building of a church, paid for by public subscription and furthermore a chaplain had been obtained. The location was ideal as it was situated facing what was to become the focal point of the emerging town: Market Square.

Port Elizabeth in 1823

Port Elizabeth in 1823

Rev Francis McCleland appointed

The appointee as Chaplain was an Irishman in his early thirties who had spent the past 5 years of his life amongst the Irish 1820 Settlers in the far-off town of Clanwilliam situated in the Cedarberg Mountains of the Cape Colony. It had not been an agreeable existence. Far from it. The settlement had been rent with discord and acrimony, culminating in dissension. Even though the instigator of much of that enmity and disagreement had been the dominating, self-serving and megalomaniac party leader, William Parker himself, almost adding insult to injury, was the unedifying behaviour of their pastor, Reverend Francis McCleland. It would not be incorrect to label him as being disliked amongst his congregants.

Mount Synnot Clanwilliam

Clanwilliam area: View of Mount Synnot from Klein Valley. The immediate foreground gives some idea of the barren and inhospitable surroundings that the Settlers encountered on arrival

Given that the situation was untenable but also due to the paucity of congregants, it was agreed by the authorities that be that the Reverend be transferred to the Eastern Cape where it was envisaged that he would take up an appointment at one of the Anglican churches in the province.

According to St. Mary’s Registers, the Reverend Francis McCleland was appointed as Colonial Chaplain on the 1st October 1825 and the first church clerk, William Roxby Hilton was appointed on the 15th December 1825. During October of that year, the foundation stone of St. Mary’s Church was laid by Captain Evatt.

Portrait of the Reverend Francis McCleland

Like all new settlements, there was insufficient space available of whatever description to accommodate their needs until the church was erected. To this end, a prefabricated building was utilised as a temporary church.

Apart from construction of the church, Rev McCleland had a more immediate concern: personal accommodation. For this purpose, in November 1827, he selected a large rocky erf overlooking a equally rocky Kloof that was to become White’s Road in the 1850s. Due to the steep climb up from the foreshore, this building would remain a solitary landmark for many years. Even though initially the full extent of his plots incorporated the land up to the old Collegiate School in Bird Street, ultimately, only a sliver of this huge erf was to become the eventual No 7 Castle Hill.

Settlement at Algoa Bay

Settlement at Algoa Bay

Even though the foundation stone of the church building had been laid in 1825, the structure was not opened for worship until 1834. In the interim, the congregation met in a schoolroom near the present St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Prospect Hill. Then as now, some humans unfailingly raise complaints about spurious issues. In this case, some disaffected congregants uncharitably raised objections about why the Chaplain’s personal residence was completed before that of the church.

In 1830 while the walls of St. Mary’s were being erected, the congregation faced another challenge: their numbers had outgrown schoolroom that they were forced to use near St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church.

In order to fund the building project, the church was compelled to sell some of its assets. A Deed of Sale reveals that the Churchwardens sold three plots of church ground which included the whole of St. Mary’s Terrace for the sum of £ 33 to a Mr. W.M. Harries on 12th November 1833. Some thirty years later, portion of this land had to be repurchased.

Castle Hill

St. Mary’s Church operational

Finally, in January 1834 after what seemed like an eternity, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin was opened for worship. There was rejoicing and celebration as flags in the town and on the ship “Kate” lying at anchor in Algoa Bay, were flown. The church had even arranged a choir of 20 members which were accompanied by a violin, a cello and a flute. Rev Francis McCleland used as the text for the sermon, the first verse of 2nd Timothy: “This know also that in the last days, perilous times shall come.”

The initial structure was definitely not an object of beauty as it was a plain oblong building with a roof of local red tiles supported by teak pillars. In effect, St Mary’s was a work-in-progress. Within their limited means, the citizens of Port Elizabeth had created their first church.

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As money permitted, this plain structure would – over the succeeding years – be converted into something more graceful and dignified.

  • 1837 a new slate roof replaced the red tiles
  • 1844 – a gallery was added at a cost of £ 189 and a wooden belfry made by Mr W.G. Butt for £ 18, was erected to hold the new bell
  • 1847 – tenders were called for the building of a masonry tower

Yet again in 1835, another of the habitual Frontier Wars erupted like an unlanced boil. History would record this episode as the Sixth Frontier War. A Town Guard was formed and even a place of worship, St. Mary’s, was fortified for garrison purposes. Fortunately, Port Elizabeth was spared as the Xhosa tribesmen only reached as far as Sunday’s River.

St. Mary's Church on the right of the Commercial Hall

St. Mary’s Church on the right of the Commercial Hall

The original hideous red-tile roof had always been considered to be an eyesore. The identity of the architect who designed it will remain nameless, not to protect his integrity, but for the more mundane reason that its designer is now unknown as the all relevant documents were destroyed in the fire of 1895.

St Mary's Terrace in 1875

St Mary’s Terrace in 1875

Notwithstanding McCleland’s perceived injustice regarding his personal remuneration as not befitting his duties and responsibilities, Francis was equally firmly determined to do all in his power to raise funds for the church. His initial tack was to claim portion of the revenues from the salt pans in the Uitenhage district which had been granted for church purposes by the government.

Notwithstanding that understanding, the Dutch Reformed Kerkraad in Uitenhage had laid claim to it all. The tireless clergyman then began a prolific letter writing campaign, petitioning the harried authorities to acknowledge the right of St Mary’s Church to obtain their fair share of the revenue. Nonetheless, it was all to no avail.

St Mary's Church in 1853

St Mary’s Church in 1853

What would any modern day employee do when their superior does not accede to their request?

Even two centuries ago to bypass one’s superior when lodging a complaint would have been a career limiting move. McCleland’s superior in this matter would have been the Secretary for the Colonies at the time, Lord Stanley whose boss was the youthful Under-Colonial Secretary, William Gladstone, a future Prime Minister of Great Britain.

St Mary's Church after the sale of its Main Street frontage in 1843

St Mary’s Church after the sale of its Main Street frontage in 1843

Aware of his interest in church affairs, McCleland sent a letter to Gladstone raising his concerns, lamenting the lack of co-operation on the saltpan issue as well bewailing the fact that he was being required to travel hundreds of miles per annum in order to perform the rites of the church in the Dutch language. In effect, McCleland was conflating two issues: his remuneration or lack thereof & the financial situation vis-a-vis St. Mary’s Church.

St Mary's Church in 1876

St Mary’s Church in 1876

St Mary's Church in 1895, the morning after it was burnt down

St Mary’s Church in 1895, the morning after it was burnt down

St Mary's fire of 1895

St Mary’s fire of 1895

St Mary's Church in 1895, the destruction inside the church

St Mary’s Church in 1895, the destruction inside the church

During 1843, yet another blunder was committed, this time much more serious than the sale of the plots in St. Mary’s Terrace. The church property possessed some extremely valuable frontage to Main Street. In their infinite wisdom, the Select Vestry sold this to a Mr. W. Smith for the ridiculously paltry sum of £ 181. At that stage there was a servitude upon the property which prevented the stores built upon it from being raised high enough to block out St. Mary’s Church from the Main Street.

St. Mary's Church in 1921 before the construction of a building on the Main Street frontage

St. Mary’s Church in 1921 before the construction of a building on the Main Street frontage

The Rev Francis McCleland remained the resident Chaplain of St Mary’s Church for the next 27 years. From a desolate wind-swept village clinging for dear life on the wind-swept Algoa Bay littoral, in awe of its bigger siblings in Uitenhage and Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth grew into a strapping youth outgrowing both of its other siblings.

On 30th August 1850 during a visitation to Port Elizabeth, Robert Gray, Bishop of Cape Town consecrated both St. Mary’s Church and the cemetery in South End.

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Finally, on 10th July 1853, Francis McCleland was no more. The end of an era had drawn to a final close. McCleland’s huge legacy was not only St. Mary’s Church but also nurturing its offspring such as St Paul’s Anglican Church in Albany Road and Holy Trinity Church in Central Port Elizabeth. Moreover, he can stake his claim as being the midwife to the sister churches in Uitenhage and Sidbury.

A.T. Wirgman magnanimously described McCleland as follows: “Mr McCleland was an Irish clergyman with the strongly marked tendencies of the Irish clergy of his day. He showed much energy in forwarding the building of the church, and has left behind him the reputation of being a very able preacher as well as an organiser of no mean capacity.”

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During his tenure, McCleland had continually asserted his need for increased remuneration. None was ever forthcoming. In spite of all his pleas, they were all in vain. His salary was increased from £ 150 to £ 200 where it remained for his whole life. This issue became the bane of his life and probably all of those in authority who would be obliged to lend him an ear.

After McCleland’s death, the  parish was temporarily placed under Archdeacon Merriman until January 1854 when the Rev. W.H. Fowle arrived as his successor.

McCleland’s successor – Rev W.H. Fowle: 1854 – 1858

Francis’ successor to the vacant chaplaincy was the Rev. William Henry Fowle B.A. of Trinity College Oxford. Mr Fowle was a man of very decided Church views and of outspoken boldness in denouncing wrong-doing. Moreover, he was an able preacher and a ready controversialist. It was during his tenure from 1853 to 1858 that in 1856 St Mary’s Vestry pioneered the Diocesan Grammar School. It was already in existence but was held in a temporary building which was becoming inadequate for its intended purpose. The foundation stone for a permanent building was laid about Easter 1856, the site having been acquired in exchange for another on the hill.

Reverend W.H. Fowle

Reverend W.H. Fowle

At this time, St. Mary’s Church was only able to hold 330 persons. In October 1855, plans and estimates for the enlargement of St. Mary’s were presented. From some reason, probably due to lack of funds, this scheme was placed in abeyance in April 1856.

Rev. Edward Pickering: 1858 – 1874

In his stead, Rev. Edward Pickering M.A. (Oxon) held the reins from 1858 to 1874. Partly to mitigate the effect of what was undoubtedly an “ugly building” as Sir Charles Warren was to uncomplimentarily assert some years later in 1876, some alterations had to be made. Pickering was not indifferent to the building not possessing aesthetic appeal. A local newspaper, the Telegraph reported on 19th April 1860 that extensive alterations were planned to be made to St Mary’s Church

Reverend E. Pickering

Reverend E. Pickering

Not content to employ the services of a local architect, Pickering requested that the eminent English ecclesiastical architect, William Butterfield, to redesign the simple rectangular building to increase the seating capacity. Amongst others, Butterfield was the architect of the chapels at Rugby and the Oxford Colleges of Balliol and Keble. Butterfield was noted for his use of multi-coloured materials. Finally, on 20th September, the Telegraph reported that the alterations were nearly complete.

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As if a huge cost and inconvenience of the massive building alterations was insufficient, Pickering was, a few years later, involved in the acquisition of the first organ at St. Mary’s. During July 1866 the 32 year wait for an organ was over. It had been built by J.W. Walker and Sons of London.

Laying the Memorial Stone of the new St Mary's Church in 1895

Laying the Memorial Stone of the new St Mary’s Church in 1895

Rev A.T. Wirgman: 1874 – 1917

During August 1874, Pickering was forced to resign due to ill health. Reverend A.T. Wirgman, the Vice Principle of St. Andrew’s College in Grahamstown was selected to fill the vacancy. Wirgman was to serve as chaplain from 1874 to 1917.

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Disaster was to befall the venerable St. Mary’s Church on the night of 9th March 1895 when a pyromaniac by the name of Frances Livingstone set fire to the Church.  The whole church was consumed in the resulting conflagration. The first order of business for Wirgman was to obtain temporary accommodation while reconstruction was in progress. For this purpose, the Town Hall and school room was used for Sunday services from then onwards. The fine organ was also destroyed in the conflagration of 1895. A new one, a Walker organ, was purchased and finally installed in 1899. In 1977 after 78 years of service, it was rebuilt.

Page 1 of the reply by Gladstone to Francis McCleland

Page 1 of the reply by Gladstone to Francis McCleland

Fortune favoured St. Mary’s. Donations were received from far and wide. Even such luminaries as Paul Kruger and Cecil Rhodes contributing £5 & £250 respectively provided welcome donations. The rapid responses enabled the foundation stone to be laid on 12th September 1895 and a year later, on 6th September 1896, the church was opened for public worship with Bishop Webb consecrating the building on the 13th September.

St Mary's Church showing the new nave

St Mary’s Church showing the new nave

If there is one blessing from this fire, it could be that St Mary’s was constructed on a far more grander style more befitting its role as the mother Anglican Church in Port Elizabeth. The old walls of the nave were retained and strengthened but the choir was entirely rebuilt and enlarged in a local stone with a steeply-pitched arched-braced roof covered with slate. In addition, new cloisters, an organ chamber, a chapter room, choir vestries and a sacristy were built.

St Mary's Church circa 1940s

St Mary’s Church circa 1930s

As if one incident was insufficient, on 1st April 1897, Johnston again attempted to incinerate the church by setting fire to the altar. The foreman who was completing the top storey of the tower, noticed smoke issuing from the building. He promptly descended and found the altar in flames. He got his men to work with buckets of water. With this prompt action, the fire was quickly extinguished.

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On the following morning, Miss Frances Livingstone Johnston was apprehended by detectives when she was attempting to find a fresh point of attack to set fire to the building. On being sentenced to imprisonment, she was incarcerated on Robben Island where she almost succeeded in burning down the building.

Form of worship

In Mr McCleland’s time, St Mary’s was the only Anglican Church in Port Elizabeth. However when Mr Fowle took over and introduced a High Church form of worship, a number of parishioners, inclined to a more Evangelical style, withdrew in 1854 and formed their own congregation, eventually called Holy Trinity. This congregation initially worshipped at the bottom of Military Road, but at the urging of the bishop of the day, erected a building on Port Elizabeth’s Central Hill, well above but only a few blocks west of St Mary’s.

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In part thanks to the long ministry of Mr Wirgman – half a century – St Mary’s has remained faithful to the High Church style of worship.

Following the liturgical reforms of the 1970s and ’80s, when the order of service was substantially altered and modern English established as the language of worship, most Anglican congregations in South Africa have abandoned the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, which for centuries has defined Anglican worship. St Mary’s, however, has remained faithful to the old Prayer Book.

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Cumming-George 1933

This work consists principally of building a new nave to extend the church out to the frontage of Main Street, increasing the seating accommodation, and providing a much-needed access for the congregation from Main Street, and building in addition a new library for the church records. Owing to the site being on the side of the hill, and the church floor being some 15 ft. (4.57 m) above Main Street pavement, the space below the new nave has been utilised for letting purposes as a shop or offices with a large basement below, the revenue from which will considerably assist in paying for the additions.

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The total length of the church as completed, 160 ft. (48.8 m), makes it one of the largest Anglican parish churches in the Union. A novel feature is the raking floor in new nave to improve the line of sight to choir and altar.

A wide flight of easy steps leads up from the new gateway in Main Street to a porch, from which opens a lofty vaulted inner vestibule at the east corner of the north transept, giving access to the old transept and new nave.

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The interior of the new nave has been made to conform in a general way in the matter of height, roof treatment, floor tiling, colouring, etc., with the existing church, but with cast stone tracery and artificial stone dressings to the piers and windows, and ” broomed ” plastering to upper walls.

Owing to the fact that a new nine-storey building is now being erected on the adjoining corner site within about 4 ft. (1.2 m) of the new nave, it has been found necessary to enlarge the old windows in south transept and form a new wheel window in the north transept to improve the lighting of the crossing.

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Externally the new additions are carried out to harmonise with the period and materials of the Gothic work of the old church, except that the east elevation to Main Street has a little more elaboration in the Continental Gothic feeling. A reinforced concrete fleche covered with boarding and copper forms the finish of the main gable, the gunmetal cross at the apex being 108 feet (33 m) above the Main Street pavement.

The tracery and dressings are in cast stone and artificial stone and the main wall surfaces rough cast to match existing work. All the new roofing is of copper laid with gauntleted rolls.

The front to the shop or offices on Main Street has been deeply recessed behind a large arch, and has been designed to harmonise with the Gothic type of the church.

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Later events

From the inauguration of St Mary’s it had fallen under the Diocese of Grahamstown. At long last on 1st January 1970, Port Elizabeth was created as a separate Diocese. Following the establishment of the Diocese of Port Elizabeth in 1970, the first three bishops of the diocese felt that it was inadvisable to establish a cathedral, for reasons relating to the ethnic composition of the city and the diocese.

However the fourth bishop, Bethlehem Nopece, who took office in 2001, felt that there was a need for a cathedral and that St Mary’s was ideal for the purpose.

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At his insistence, the diocese also created, at its synod in July 2003, the office of Dean, the holder of which would not necessarily be the rector of the cathedral parish. Since the first Dean is not the rector, the incumbent rector has been elevated to Provost.

St Mary’s church building was formally consecrated a cathedral on 2 November 2003. The original the St Mary’s Collegiate Church had now been transformed into the Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin.

Sources:

Port Elizabeth: The Social Chronicle to the end of  1945 by Margaret Harradine

The Collegiate Church and Parish of St. Mary Port Elizabeth by A.T. Wirgman and C.E. Mayo

 

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