Talana Museum South Africa  

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Maria Ratchitz Mission

In 1882 a group of Trappist Missionaries under Father Franz Pfanner arrived in the Colony of Natal to establish a mission. Pfanner bought a farm near Durban and named it Marianhill. The Trappists, being an agricultural order, intended to train Zulu families living on the farm in agriculture, animal husbandry, bricklaying and other skills. Expansion from the base of Marianhill was rapid, several "daughter" houses, including Maria Ratschitz, on the farm Boschkloof in the Biggarsberg, were established.

An important aim of this missionary endeavour was to create productive agricultural communities of African converts. At Maria Ratschitz, this vision met with limited initial success : the local people were given land and were gradually introduced to the responsibilities of life as rent paying tenants. They were encouraged to move into a concentrated village and a school was opened which by 1907, boasted 112 pupils. By 1910 the first substantial church was built and the farm was developing according to plan, however, the long-term plan of a land ownership scheme met with several obstacles, the first of which came from within the church itself. The Natal Vicariate, under whose authority the mission fell, disapproved of the scheme. Negotiations continued, but the Land Act of 1936 put an end to this. Under the new Act, it was no longer possible to sell off sections of the farm to Africans, many of whom were forced to move to Limehill, 33km away. With the outbreak of the war, the German Trappists were interned and financial support from Germany came to an abrupt end. The Trappists never returned and the orders that replaced them (French Oblates and English Franciscans) lacked agricultural focus. During the 1940's and 50's the farm lost a lot of its manpower in the form of migrant labour to the cities. The land was steadily degraded and the mission was in serious financial trouble.

From 1965 – 1975 there was a brief respite in the form of the Church Agricultural Project (CAP). Neil Alcock, an accomplished stock farmer, observed that many potentially productive mission farms were lying fallow. If these farms could be rehabilitated, the people would be fed and their status would be changed from "squatter" to bone fide farm labourer, thus lessening the threat of forced eviction. However, this project also met with disaster due to external circumstances as well as internal conflicts. The failure of the CAP split the community, segments of which were alienated from the Church.

Political changes after 1991 renewed the possibility for meaningful development at Maria Ratschitz.  Land ownership is once more possible and the farm has potential for diverse activities. Maria Ratschitz has a dramatic setting at the base of the KwaHlatikulu Mountain and a remarkable cluster of 14 ecclessiastical buildings. It also has ecological importance as an area with diverse flora and fauna, natural forests and wetlands. It is estimated that 200 bird species, including breeding populations of endangered species such as the Cape vulture, the grass owl and the martial eagle are to be found on the property.

The restoration of the buildings and site have been remarkable over the past 20 years. Now an Aids hospice, a retirement home for nuns, a retreat and a remarkable site - peaceful, thought provoking and a visit that will remain in your minds and hearts for year's to come.