Last April I received an email from Fr Piotr Kalcinski inviting me to attend the Golden Jubilee of "Holy Cross Parish" in Piet Retief (South Africa):
"The Holy Cross Catholic Parish has been erected on the 30th August 1964. The former African Methodist place of worship was solemnly blessed and opened by His Lordship, Right Rev. Mgr. Christopher Ulyatt OFM, Prefect of Apostolic Prefecture of Volskrust.
Our Holy Cross Church was purchased by the Prefecture after negotiations between Monsignor and the Methodist Superintendent. The church was renovated and redecorated before official opening. Father Celsus Longland OFM was the first Parish Priest of the Holy Cross appointed by Prefect of Volskrust. This year 2014 we are celebrating 50th anniversary of our Holy Cross Parish."
The reason for the invitation is that I am one of the former "priest-in-charge" of the parish/mission. "Holy Cross Parish" (or "Piet Retief Mission" as we used to call it) was my very first appointment in South Africa at the end of 1994 and I served in the area until the end of 1999.
But there is more than that.
The Consolata Missionaries arrived in South Africa in 1948. They were based in Cape Town where young priests would be sent to get a degree and later on teach in Kenya and Tanzania.
It was only in the late 1960's when it was decided to have a missionary presence in the country. The choice was the then "Prefecture of Volskrust" (it would become the "Diocese of Dundee" years' later).
The first two missionaries to arrive for this new service were Fr John Bertè IMC and Fr Jack Viscardi IMC. After some months learning Zulu, they were sent to their first appointment: Piet Retief Mission replacing the Franciscan Friars who had been serving the place since 1964.
Piet Retief remains in our history as "our first missionary home" in South Africa. We served there for 30 years. I believe that most of the twelve outstations of the parish were born out of our missionary work. It was therefore a great joy for me to be able to join them and represent the many missionaries from Europe, South America and Africa that served those communities.
Thanks to the good research of Fr Piotr, the names of all the Franciscan Friars, Consolata Missionaries and Diocesan priests who served between 1964 and 2014 were remembered at the celebration, together with the Mercy Sisters who lived in Piet Retief until 1995.
It was a "parish celebration" and people from the different outstations joyfully joined the local community. The usual "50 minute Mass" in English became a two hour celebration in English and Zulu.
Before the final blessing, bishops and priests present were given a "Jubilee candle" and were asked to pray for these communities. Bp Graham Rose (bishop of the Diocese of Dundee who presided Mass) noted that the bishops' candles were "much bigger" than the ones given to the priests. "Maybe we are being asked to pray more..." he noted.