St Benedict’s House, Rosettenville past and present
Yesterday I went with Fr Elias (Palmos) to visit St Benedict’s House in Rosettenville, Johannesburg.
St Benedict’s is an Anglican retreat house, and I was reminded of it by meeting Kathy Barrable last month, on a radio programme in which we both participated. She is the director of both St Benedict’s House and St Peter’s Lodge, a conference centre across the road. Fr Elias was involved in the development of the Monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in Gerardville, and I wanted to show him St Benedict’s House, partly as an architectural model for a retreat house, and partly to assess its suitability for retreats, conferences and training courses until we have such a centre of our own.
Kathy Barrable agreed to show us around, and it was a journey to the past for both of us, as it turned out that Kathy had been Fr Elias’s English teacher in high school. And Fr Michael Lapsley, who had just held a Healing of Memories Workshop at St Benedict’s, was also there, and we met Fr Joseph of the Camboni Fathers, which made an interesting tea-time gathering.
My memories of St Benedict’s, however, go back more than fifty years.
I went to a retreat there with my mother in February 1959, at the urging of a friend of my mother’s, who said that a retreat was a marvellous spiritual experience.
In those days many of the Anglican parishes and organisations in and around Johannesburg had an annual retreat at St Benedict’s, and they all followed the same pattern. The conductor of the retreat was usually a priest. People would arrive at tea time on a Friday afternoon. St Benedict’s was run by the sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete (OHP), who had their mother house at Whitby in England, and they lived above the kitchen and dining room. St Benedict’s was, in effect, also their monastery, so going on retreat was like entering the monastic life for a weekend.
Tea was followed by Evensong, and an introduction by the retreat conductor, after which everyone went into silence. People would be asked to book time for a meeting with the retreat conductor by filling in time slots with a C (for confession) or an I (for interview). Apart from the services, these were the only times that one spoke. At supper one of the sisters would read from a book, usually a devotional work, but on one occasion I remember one of them reading from Winnie the Pooh. Supper was followed by a devotional address, and then Compline and bed. The bedrooms were comfortable, but sparsely furnished, like monastic cells.
There was Mass in the morning, followed by breakfast, also in silence, with one of the sisters reading. At 9:00 am there would be a devotional address by the retreat conductor, and followed by tea, and then free time for reading or prayer or meditation, while the conductor would hear confessions or have interviews as requested. There would then be another address followed by intercessions, before lunch. The afternoon followed the pattern of the previous day, and it was repeated for the Sunday, with silence ending at afternoon tea. On the first retreat I went on, I found I was reluctant to break silence, and had little to say at afternoon tea. We had latched on to a retreat organised by another parish, where we didn’t know anyone anyway.
Six months later I went on another retreat, this time organised by the Anglican Society at Wits University, so they were all people that I knew. St Benedict’s, with its enclosed courtyard (not a proper cloister, as there was no walkway round the inside) and walled garden, was a haven of peace in a busy suburb, and its architecture impressed me as the ideal place for such a retreat. I have been to retreats at other places since, but after St Benedict’s, they didn’t feel quite authentic.
Another activity that took place at St Benedict’s was Shoe Parties. These took place once a month on Wednesday evenings. Someone would speak on a particular topic, and people would come from all over Johannesburg and beyond. It would be followed by tea. These were so popular that there was hardly room for all the people, and someone remarked that they were reminded of the nursery rhyme of the old woman who lived in a shoe, and had so many children she didn’t know what to do, and after that they became known as Shoe Parties.
Among those who usually attended were the students from St Peter’s Theological College across the road.
Here are a few of the Shoe Party topics that I recorded in my diary:
- 23 Sep 1959 — Fr Francis, SSF, spoke on “The Franciscan Revival in the Anglican Church”. At tea afterwards I chatted to Desmond Tutu and some of the other students from St Peter’s (the seminary across the road)
- 9 Dec 1959 — The Archbishop of Cape Town (Joost de Blank) was supposed to have spoken on “The Church in Africa”, but he was ill, so the local bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves, filled in for him and spoke on “Nuclear fission”
- 21 Mar 1960 — Fr Hugh Bishop, of the Community of the Resurrection (CR), spoke on enclosed religious communities, and especially the newly-founded Society of the Precious Blood at Masite in Lesotho. Rosemary Barron, one of the members of the parish we belonged to then (St Augustine’s, Orange Grove), later went to join the Society of the Precious Blood. It was also the day of the Sharpeville massacre, and at the tea afterwards there was some discussion, as some had heard stories of the shooting, but there was no definite news. One of the students at St Peter’s College, Benjamin Photolo, was from Sharpeville.
- 6 Sep 1960 — the new Bishop of Pretoria, Edward Knapp-Fisher, who before being elected bishop had been principal of Cuddeston Theological College, spoke about ordination training and ministry in industrialised society. I talked to some of the students from St Peter’s afterwards, including Benjamin Photolo.
- 17 Nov 1960 — Someone spoke on Indians in South Africa — it was the centenary of the arrival of the 1860 settlers in Natal.
- 16 Dec 1960 — Bishop De Mel, of Ceylon, spoke on the Church in Ceylon. He was a very impressive bishop.
- 31 Jan 1961 — Fr Leo Rakale CR spoke on his trip to Tanganyika to attend the consecration of Fr Trevor Huddleston, CR, as Bishop of Masasi.
- 27 Feb 1961 — Canon Milford spoke on freedom.
- 4 Dec 1961 — Fr Brabant spoke on Creation
- 1 Oct 1962 — Brother Roger, CR, spoke on Beat Generation literature, and St Francis of Assisi as an early dropout. How Beat was St Francis, and how Franciscan are the Beats.
- 9 Dec 1963 — Fr Clement Sergel spoke on Confession.
I am not sure when the Shoe Parties stopped happening, and when we were discussing them with Kathy Barrable, and wondering if they could be revived, she said that people in Johannesburg don’t like going out at night. I can think of three factors that might be responsible for that:
- The steep rise in the petrol price after 1973
- The introduction of television in 1975
- The increase in car hijacking in the 1980s
I can understand that when television was a novelty — but restaurants seem to have recovered from that since then, and seem to do good business, so why could shoe parties not be revived?
I suppose that another factor is that back in the early 1960s the core of the Rosettenville Anglican community in Rosettenville was the two monasteries, male and female — the Priory of the Community of the Resurrection (CR, male), and the Order of the Holy Paraclete (OHP, female). The CR fathers ran St Peter’s College, but in 1963 it was forced to move to Alice in the Eastern Cape because of the Group Areas Act, and half the CR members moved with it. They had originally run St Peter’s School as well, but that had been forced to close some years earlier as a result of the Bantu Education Act. It was reopened as St Martin’s, a white school, but under secular management, and still continues on the same premises, but is now, of course, non-racial.
All this meant that the CR scaled down their presence at Rosettenville, and later moved away to Turffontein, and eventually left South Africa altogether. The OHP sisters built a new convent next-door to St Benedict’s, which moved their activity away from the retreat house, and later they withdrew from South Africa altogether. They were replaced by sisters of the Community of the Holy Name (CHN) from Zululand, who had no tradition of involvement in St Benedict’s, and whose ministry outside the monastery seems to be mainly among local people in the neighbourhood.
Kathy Barrable is battling to get people to make full use of the facilities at the centre, and I suspect that one of the reasons for this is the loss of the monastic core. The CR brethren, in particular, visited many Johannesburg parishes as guest preachers, and their ministry became fairly widely known.
Fr Elias has a vision for an Orthodox monastery in South Africa, which I think in some ways might be similar to the Anglican setup in Rosettenville in its heyday, with male and female monasteries, a seminary, a retreat and conference centre and so on. I too would like to see such a centre, and have a similar vision for it. Without monasteries Orthodoxy is weak and there are no Orthodox monasteries in southern Africa. It would not work in exactly the same way as the Rosettenville setup, but I think there are valuable lessons we can learn from it. And I would like to see an Orthodox version of St Benedict’s House, and it would be good to see more Anglicans using the one they already have.