Given 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 for money to build a church and a school.
This former tavern had been built by Nicolaas Hitge on the site of what would become Woolworths. At the end of 1823, the building was taken over by the Government for use as a Customs House and Public Offices. In this case, it was being used for other civic purposes. One must tip one’s hat to Evatt for initiating this meeting. Such was the local enthusiasm by the time that the committee had drafted the letter, an amount totalling RxD2052 had already been promised either in money or in materials such as timber and lime.
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 request for a church.
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, in April 1825, the Governor of the Cape granted a large plot of land for the building of a church but the actual Deed of Transfer bears the date of 27th November 1827. The extent of the plot was 15 square roods and 60 square feet. It comprised the whole of St. Mary’s Terrace besides a valuable frontage in Main Street. Further good news was the announcement that a chaplain had been obtained. Apart from public subscriptions, Somerset donated RxD500 in his personal capacity towards its construction.
Rev Francis McCleland appointed
To expedite the church’s progress, Somerset appointed a disaffected priest from Clanwilliam as its chaplain in September 1825. The location of the church was ideal as it was situated facing what was to become the focal point of the emerging town: Market Square.
The appointee as Chaplain was an Irishman in his early thirties who had spent the past five 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 domineering, 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.
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 McCleland 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.
On 6th October of the same year, the Foundation Stone of the St. Mary’s Church was laid in the presence of the Government Resident at Algoa Bay, Captain Francis Evatt. In his address, Rev McCleland was effusive in his praise of Capt. Evatt when he gave heartfelt thanks to Evatt for he “originated the good work, and to your unremitting and undefatigible exertions”.
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.
Even though the foundation stone of the church building had been laid in 1825, the structure was not opened for worship until 1832. 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 questioned why the Chaplain’s personal residence was completed before of the church.
Building progress was glacial due to the lack of funds. Needless to say, Francis used his initiative by utilising the Cape Government Gazette as the platform for an appeal for financial assistance so that the roof could be constructed and the building put to use. 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 the future St. Augustine’s.
St. Mary’s Church Operational
The appeal succeeded and help was forthcoming, allowing St. Mary’s Church to be brought into use in 1931. Even though it was not ready for its official opening until 1834, at least the congregants could commence using the building. 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. William Matthew Harries on 12th November 1833. Some thirty years later, portion of this land had to be repurchased.
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 aligned north-south, with the entrance located where it now is. The roof was comprised of local red tiles supported by teak pillars. It contained high pews and the orthodox three-decker pulpit of the period. In effect, St Mary’s was a work-in-progress. Within their limited means, the citizens of Port Elizabeth had created their first church.
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 1834, 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 Sundays River.
The building was completed in 1842 but was not consecrated until 1850. 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 all the relevant documents were destroyed in the fire of 1895.
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.
Despite 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. However, it was all to no avail.
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.
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 of St. Mary’s 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 included some extremely valuable frontage on Main Street. In their infinite wisdom, the Select Vestry Committee 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.
In 1844 the church contained a gallery, possibly used by a small orchestra which accompanied the singing. In the same year the present bell was procured. Bishop Gray, the first Anglican Bishop in Southern Africa, visited the church and conducted the first Conformation Service in 1848. He made two subsequent visits in 1850 and 1858.
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 developed into a strapping youth outgrowing both of its older siblings.
On 30th August 1850 during a visit to Port Elizabeth, Robert Gray, the Bishop of Cape Town consecrated both St. Mary’s Church and the cemetery in South End.
Finally, on 10th July 1853, Francis McCleland was no more. The end of an era had drawn to a 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. 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.”
During his tenure, McCleland had continually asserted his need for increased remuneration. None was ever forthcoming. All his pleas were 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.
Diocesan Grammar School
The Anglican Church was always a pioneer in education. To further this mission, St. Mary’s Church began what became known as the Diocesan Grammar School under the auspices of St. Mary’s Vestry. The actual date of its establishment cannot be ascertained but according to W.F. Bunyan it must have been between the Bishop Gray’s first visit to Port Elizabeth in 1848 and his second visit in 1850 whereas Harradine states that it was founded in 1853. Bishop Gray was the first Anglican Bishop in Southern Africa. It was during Bishop Gray’s second visit that he discovered that the school had a membership of fifty scholars and three Masters. At this stage, the school was housed in temporary premises.
In 1853, the diocese of Grahamstown was formed out of the vast area which had been the oversight of Bishop Gray. The first Bishop of this new diocese was the Right Reverend J. Armstrong who in October 1855 laid the foundation stone of the Diocesan Grammar School. The site granted was that of the earlier Government School on the corner of Belmont Terrace and Western Road, the site having been acquired in exchange for another on the hill. Sophy Gray was said to have designed it. The Headmaster was H. Hardwicke. With the opening of the Grey Institute, support for the school dwindled and it was finally closed in 1862.
McCleland’s successor – Rev W.H. Fowle: 1854 – 1858
Francis’s 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 1854 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.
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 again due to lack of funds, this scheme was placed in abeyance in April 1856. As the seating capacity of 300 was inadequate for the growing congregation, in 1858 the church was enlarged.
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
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.
As if the 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.
Also installed during 1866 was gas for lighting.
There is evidence from old minutes, which refers to the purchase of musical instruments, that a small orchestra led the worship prior to this date. The presence of a choir goes back to the early days, for the choir of St Mary’s sang at the opening of St. Katherine’s Church in Uitenhage I 1867. The records reveal that a surplice choir was established in 1875, and from that time to the present day, the English cathedral standard of music and singing has been maintained. Moreover, St. Mary’s was the first church in the diocese to introduce and use Mass Vestments.
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.
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.
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. Rhodes’s generous donation enabled the cloisters to be rebuilt and a plaque reminds one of this fact. Plans to rebuild were started immediately and Sydney Stent, the Diocesan Architect was appointed. George William Smith of Port Elizabeth supervised the work while the contractors were Kohler and Ponsonby. Stent’s plans retained the existing walls.
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.
The foundation stone can be read in St. Mary’s Terrace. The citation commences with the word “Resurgam”, I shall rise again. Rev. Wirgman led the work of raising funds and replacing the church furnishings. 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.
A reredos is a large altarpiece, a screen, or decoration placed behind the altar in a church. It often includes religious images. The 1880 reredos was copied by Raphael Pennacchini. The altar plate and the Bishop’s staff survived the fire, though damaged, as did the cast iron eagle from the lectern. Happily, the registers in the safe were unharmed.
As far as the windows were concerned, the insurance coverage was only sufficient to replace the east window and two small ones on either side of the sanctuary. The rest of the 1896 windows were all gifts in memory of former parishioners and were the work of Heaton, Butler and Bayne of London. What is possibly the oldest stained glass in South Africa forms part of an old window, originally brought from Europe and placed in St. Michael’s, Highgate, London. When the window was removed from the church, a section of it was acquired for St. Mary’s Church and placed there in 1909. The St. George and St. Martin window was donated in 1922. The pulpit, carved in London to Victor Jones’s design, was installed in 1914.
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. Due to prompt action, the fire was quickly extinguished.
On the following morning, Miss Frances Livingstone Johnston was apprehended by detectives while 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.
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.
The new Nave
The tall building erected by the U.B.S. obscured the church from view but the money received enabled the church to construct an excellent nave on the remaining three-fifths. The new nave, designed by Jones and McWilliams, was dedicated on 18th December 1932 and the old western roof cross, which had survived the fire, was given a special place in it. Finally, as a memorial to Canon Mayo, the three stained glass windows in the nave were installed in 1936. The nave increased the seating accommodation, whilst also providing much-needed access for the congregation from Main Street, and a new library to house 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 the 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.
The total length of the church as completed was 160 ft. (48.8 m), making 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.
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 was 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.
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.
From its inauguration, St Mary’s has 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. 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 2nd November 2003. The original the St Mary’s Collegiate Church had now been transformed into the Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
“The Collegiate Church of Parish of St. Mary Port Elizabeth” by Archdeacon Wirgman & Canon Cuthbert Edward Mayo (1925, Longman Green & Co, London)
The Story of the Collegiate Church of S. Mary the Virgin, Port Elizabeth. Short History and Pictorial Record by The Venerable W.F. Bunyan, Vice-Provost and Rector
Port Elizabeth of Yore: New Church in Main Street
Rations, Rules and other Regulations aboard the Settler Ships
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Earliest Photographs
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Empire units in P.E. during the Boer War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Defences during the Boer War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Memorials to the Fallen in War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Fire Damage to the P.E. Advertiser in 1913
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Albany Road
Algoa Bay before the Settlers: Sojourn by Henry Lichtenstein in the Early 1800s
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Captain Jacob Glen Cuyler
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Growth of the Population
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Murders most Foul
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Echoes of a Far off War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Tram Era
Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Customs House
The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968
A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square
The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium
Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth:
The Shameful Torching of Port Elizabeth’s German Club in 1915:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cora Terrace:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grand Hotel:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Whaling in Algoa Bay:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: White’s Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Target Kloof: