Ageing beauty still stands

This is the third in a series of articles about Grahamstown's religious history, written by Rhodes University students for the Post Graduate Diploma in Journalism course. Leigh Jarvis recounts some of the proud history of St Philips Church and raises concerns about its future.

A healthy brown cow grazes peacefully near the red brick pillars of St Philips Church, which has been serving the Fingo Village community for 150 years.

Its dignified cross and bell tower stand in silent tribute to British colonialists who built it for the largely refugee population known as 'Fingoes' that created the earliest black settlement on the outskirts of Grahamstown.

The church is bordered by the now unused railway tracks and the charred shell of its former school building.

The silence here is ethereal, but is soon broken as worshippers clad in their Sunday best and toting worn, leather Bibles, trickle in. They tread on threadbare red carpet.

Eerie, slender shafts of light filter through the shards of glass remaining in the high windows, illuminating columns of dust. An imposing statue of Jesus Christ, crucified, bears down on the congregation.

On a recent Sunday, parishioner SM Makashane greets worshippers, his warm smile welcoming all. He tells them that the reverend is away at a religious conference. This prompts at least one family to leave for St Augustine’s Anglican Church, but most choose to stay and worship through song and praise.

Melodious voices fill the church with song as the impromptu service begins. People occupy the front five pews of the church, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, hymn books in hand.

The wind howls outside, its cold fingers slipping through the open door of the church, but the service carries on.

Shadow of its former glory

Nearby, the burnt remains of St Philips hall can be seen with trees growing out of gaping holes that were once classroom windows. This scene serves as an ominous warning of the fate that could befall the church, which has been virtually untouched since its erection.

When asked about the upkeep of the church, “We don’t have the funds to renovate,” Makashane said. “There has been no change, no improvement, no development, it’s just stagnant.”

Later that week, italGrocott's Mail/ital got hold of Rev Mluleki Mize and he reminisced about the old burnt church hall and shared his concerns about the church's future.

“St Philips hall was built with the church and used to educate children. I grew up there and I attended that school,” he said, adding that his mother was also educated there. He explained that missionaries ran the schools before the government took over the education system.

The school once filled with busy teachers, pupils, desks, and school materials has become a blackened skeleton with weeds pouring out of its high windows. Graffiti mars the walls and the unpleasant stench of human faeces stings the nostrils.

“If the hall could be rebuilt it could give much-needed help to the church and community,” Mize said. He sees it as a place that could possibly be used for a public meetings or funerals for people without a church.
The church itself needs maintenance too, if it's to be kept, he said. But there is no money for maintenance.

“Funds raised come from people who are donating money, it comes from collections,” he said. “The church has to pay for electricity and water, wine, and an assessment to the diocesan office and there is nothing left for maintenance.”

Beautiful beginnings

St Philips stems from the formation of the Anglican bishopric in Cape Town in 1847, at the height of Anglican missionary zeal when there was competition among denominations to win the hearts and minds of the amaXhosa.

Bishop Robert Gray arrived in South Africa in February 1848, keen to erect Anglican churches with the ‘right’ architecture to entrench its influence. He brought church models provided by well-know British High Church architects William Butterfield and Henry Woodyer.

In 1854, the first Anglican Bishop of Grahamstown John Armstrong joined Gray, who was equally passionate about church architecture acting as a devotional aid. St Philips Church was erected in the 1860s as a clear tribute to the 19th century ideals.

Almost unaltered, it has been cited by a historian of religious architecture as one of few remaining examples of “high ecclesiastical art” of this type in South Africa.

But St Philips has always been an isiXhosa-medium church; its location and foundation being a physical expression of the social and racial segmentation of the past.

According to Mize, the Cathedral of St Michael and St George in town was for white English people, while St Philips was built to be closer to the black congregation from the township. “We used to worship alone but there were occasions which forced us to mix,” he said.

But the gap is closing. “St Philips is related to every church in Grahamstown as Christians,” Mize said. Now there is an abundance of shared worship at the cathedral, he said. “That is our mother home.”

St Philips falls under the Anglican diocese, as does the Cathedral of St Michael and St George, which was once seen as a church for the military, professionals and gentry, but now supports a wide range of worshippers.

St Bartholomew''s, once seen as a church for the white working class, also falls under the diocese, as well as Christ Church, St Augustine's and the chapels at St Andrew's College and the Diocesan School for Girls.
The College of the Transfiguration and the Monastery also belong to this empire built over the past 165 years.

Despite the injustices of separation in worshipping God and the legacy of British imperialism that founded St Philips, it is now a respected church of great significance to the community.

The only threats banging at its doors are the effects of ageing and how long it can survive without renovations.

To comment on this story, please contact the student's lecturer at anna@grocotts.co.za

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WEATHERED AND PROUD... St Philips Church has served the Fingo Village community since the late 1800s.
WEATHERED AND PROUD... St Philips Church has served the Fingo Village community since the late 1800s.
WORSHIP... Inside the church, sermons are still held in isiXhosa as they always have been. The church was initially built for non-white Christian converts when British missionaries came to Grahamstown in the 1800s.
WORSHIP... Inside the church, sermons are still held in isiXhosa as they always have been. The church was initially built for non-white Christian converts when British missionaries came to Grahamstown in the 1800s.
GHOST SCHOOL...This dilapidated building was once the St Philips hall - a missionary school where the church's current reverend, Mluleki Mize, received his basic education. A fire burnt out the building and lacking funds have prevented it - and the current church building - from being restored. Photo: Leigh Jarvis
GHOST SCHOOL...This dilapidated building was once the St Philips hall - a missionary school where the church's current reverend, Mluleki Mize, received his basic education. A fire burnt out the building and lacking funds have prevented it - and the current church building - from being restored. Photo: Leigh Jarvis