It is almost impossible (in even a long-ish article such as this) to cover in depth the work of religious orders and congregations of Catholic women and men in South Africa. This is a brief overview that looks firstly, and primarily, at the establishment and some of the founding works of some of these orders. I shall then examine how these congregations engaged with segregation and apartheid, before looking finally at the current state of religious life today.

Religious congregations of men and women came to South Africa from the mid-19th Century. Based upon an overview of the dates of establishment I shall, for the sake giving form to an abundance of detail, divide this into four ‘eras’, the first two of which I consider most significant in creating the forms (mainly active, occasionally contemplative) and focuses (mission, pastoral, education, health care) of the practice of religious life in the country.
In roughly this first twenty-fives only a handful of orders, usually very small in number, arrived. Six Assumption Sisters and postulant, the very first order in the country, arrived in Grahamstown at the behest of Bishop Devereux specifically to set up a school for Catholic girls. The superior, Sister Marie-Gertrude, had grown up in Brussels’ high society before entering the convent, a major asset in Devereux’s eyes for creating educational excellence on the Cape frontier.
The second order to arrive were the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a congregation of priests destined for mission work and building up the Church in Natal. Once again, it was Devereux’s initiative. He had asked the Jesuits initially, and the Spiritans, but the former were already overstretched in their work – particularly since their restoration in 1814 they were trying to re-establish themselves in many of their earlier apostolates.
The Oblates response had a major impact on the growth of the Catholic Church in South Africa – and, indeed, on the history of the congregation itself. In the century and a half that followed South Africa would become one of the two biggest apostolic areas of the Oblates (the other was Canada), with the congregation spreading from Natal north and westwards through the Orange Free State, Lesotho, Transvaal and the Northern Cape. This area would be divided up into a number of provinces with hundreds and priests and brothers who would eclipse the other men’s orders – and diocesan clergy – by their sheer size. Despite the numerous other orders that would follow, in the Catholic popular imagination the ‘default’ for ‘Catholic priest’ would be ‘OMI’.
It was by no means easy. The early years in Natal were hard for the few Oblate priests and brothers who pioneered the way. Their superior, Bishop Jean Francois Allard OMI, in what became the Natal Vicariate in 1850, would have multiple worries, not least financial.
Following on the first religious congregations in this early phase were two congregations of Dominican Sisters (in 1863 and 1877), the Holy Family Sisters of Bordeaux (1864), the Loreto Sisters (1878), and the French-founded Marist Brothers (1867). What made these congregations distinctive was their common commitment to founding schools throughout the Cape Colony. The sisters also started up hospitals, particularly in small towns where public health care was limited or non-existent.
Following this pattern, the last religious community in this period, the Society of Jesus, also came to South Africa initially to start a school. Having turned down the opportunity to be the main missionaries to Natal, the Jesuits were recruited in 1875 to run St Aidan’s College, the Catholic diocesan boys’ school in Grahamstown. For the next 98 years there would be a contingent of Jesuits in Grahamstown, most of them teaching at St Aidan’s – which would also be a source of many if not most South African vocations to the Society. By the mid-1960s with the school financially strapped, a situation worsened by a rapid decline in vocations, the British Province decided to withdraw the Society from St Aidan’s. The Port Elizabeth diocese being unable to find a replacement congregation to staff it, the school closed.
In the next thirty years of religious congregation foundation in South Africa, similar patterns emerged. Sisters’ focused mainly on schools and nursing or working on new missions in southern Africa (including movement into Lesotho and the then Swaziland). Male congregations were primarily missionaries in the expanding territories that would in 1910 become the Union of South Africa and the British Protectorate States (Basutoland/Lesotho, Bechuanaland/Botswana and Swaziland/Eswatini). A few, like the Irish-founded Christian Brothers and the Salesians of Don Bosco focused on education and pastoral care, the Salesians placing particularly emphasis on mainly urban ministry focused on schools and skills training for boys from poorer backgrounds or coming from difficult home situations.
The role of the sisters – as teachers and in healthcare – is particularly significant in this period for a number of reasons. In the first instance, wherever the sisters went, whether Dominicans, Holy Family, Holy Cross, Nazareth, Augustinians, Ursulines, etc., the pattern was familiar: set up a community, build a school (the latter two sometimes simultaneously), and often set up a hospital or clinic. Oftentimes these would be set up adjacent or close to the local church – building up in the process a kind of Catholic ‘centre’ in places were Catholics were more often than not in a minority. Many of the schools were – at least in some times in the earlier era of the growth of Catholic schools – ‘open’ schools, where all races could attend. As time passed, as formal, legislated segregation grew and often as the sisters themselves were drawn into the colonial establishment, the sisters would set up satellite schools in the ‘locations’ or townships outside the white centre of the towns.
Another policy the sisters followed in schools was the frequent (often intentional) inclusion of non-Catholics. This openness to Protestants was often a powerful way for them to thaw the mutual tension between Protestant and Catholic. In some places where Catholicism was for parts of the 19th Century still a prohibited religion, like the early Transvaal Republic, Catholic schools (and sometimes hospitals) run by the sisters served to open up relations. The Dominican sisters’ school in Potchefstroom was initially viewed with deep suspicion by the Calvinist authorities but since it was about the only school in the country at one point, even dominees sent their children there. From a cool beginning, relations between the sisters and the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek warmed. And the toleration of Catholicism soon followed.
Similarly in medicine, many sisters’ congregations helped to improve health care – in missions and in towns. Mission hospitals developed from humble beginnings into major concerns. Perhaps the most significant in the 19th Century was the hospital the Holy Family Sisters started in Johannesburg, the mining camp that became a great city in a few years of gold rush. Medical facilities when they arrived was poor to almost non-existent. The first major hospital, in which these sisters cared for sick miners and their families without regard to race (to the shock of many a white observer), became the city’s first General Hospital. When the state took it over, there was however a shock in store of the Sisters: the government no longer accepted their French nursing qualifications, demanding instead training along British lines. Some sisters retrained; others were required – in a supreme irony for those who’d worked there for years – to become assistant nurses.
Despite this, nursing was a very common part of the formation of many sisters until well into the 20th Century. Some qualified sisters even got into the training of lay nurses – a thriving college of nursing was attached to Mariannhill Mission Hospital until well into the 1990s. Some sisters were even doctors, mostly having qualified before entering the convent.
The most significant event in this period for religious men began with a swop of a mission station that ultimately created South Africa’s first local men’s creation. 30 Trappist monks from Central Europe (Germany and Austria-Hungary), led by Abbot Franz Pfanner, set up a monastery and farm on the Sundays River near Port Elizabeth in 1880. When the Jesuit decided to extend their missionary work into southern Africa beyond the Transvaal Republic (where they were not welcome), the Trappists passed on the farm at Dunbrody to the Jesuits, who turned it into centre of formation and base for their ‘Zambezi Mission’. The Trappists moved to Natal, where Pfanner acquired land which he called Mariannhill (near Pinetown, outside Durban) and re-established the monastery.
While the Zambezi Mission ultimately led to a strong Jesuit presence in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Dunbrody was an ongoing disaster, leading to the Jesuits having to sell the land by the 1930s. Meanwhile at Mariannhill, Pfanner realised that the contemplative life could not be maintained amidst what he saw was the urgency of mission work among the amaZulu. The monks became missionaries, very successful missionaries, but the Trappist Order objected. In 1909 the monastery was turned by the Vatican into the Congregation of Missionaries of Mariannhill.
The third great phase of religious congregations in South Africa – from after 1902 to the 1960s – saw once again an influx of religious orders and communities of men and women. Many orders that are well-known throughout the Catholic world – the Redemptorists (1912),Dominicans (19717), Capuchins (1923), Franciscans (1930s), as well as two Benedictine monasteries (1904 and 1922) were among the male religious that arrived. The sisters were not to be outdone either: the Notre Dame (1907), Franciscan and Capuchin (1922, 1932, and 1955), Holy Cross (1937), Schoenstatt (1934) and other communities arrived. Contemplative Carmelite sisters also set up convents (from 1931) – and became the makers of altar breads not only for Catholics but ultimately for many Protestant churches. In the last phase in my structure, from the 1960s to present day), more communities followed, often highly specialised groups who were moving away from the conventional – mission and pastoral ministry (for men), education and health care (for women) – works. These conventional works were themselves shifting, no longer reflecting the tasks of a church being built but of a truly local church coming of age: from charity to development, from parish-based pastoral work for the most part to often specialised work with youth, students and from the 1980s onwards a mission overshadowed by the struggle against apartheid and the battle against HIV and AIDS. Even in the post-apartheid era (or least after 1994, if one is less sanguine about apartheid’s demise) new challenges – notably refugees and migrants – as well as perennial struggles about poverty and development occupied new congregations like the Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians (arrived 2001), Sisters of St Vincent de Paul (2004) and the Kiltegan Fathers (1989).

During the last period (1960s to present day) the religious orders and communities in South Africa grew increasingly aware – and by the 1960s started to respond – to the complex politics of a segregationist and apartheid state. Certainly from the 1960s onwards, and reaching its climax in the 1980s, Catholic men and women religious took a strong and courageous stand against apartheid, a point well-documented elsewhere and thoroughly acknowledged by religious and secular activists from a range of political persuasions in the ‘struggle’.
From Cosmas Desmond OFM, placed under house arrest in the 1970s for his stand against the state forced removals in Natal, through priests like Casimir Paulsen CMM and Theo Kneifel OMI exiled in the 1980s, to the many religious priests, brothers and sisters detained in the States of Emergency of the late 1980s, Catholic religious have suffered along with fellow anti-apartheid activists, spending time in hiding, a few even leaving the country. Some religious became prominent figures in national opposition, a few joining the underground resistance too. The more scholarly ones served as advisors to Catholic youth and student activists, or developed a local form of liberation theology. Religious communities hid activists and for their troubles were raided by the Security Police. White seminarians were active in the anti-conscription movement, some openly embracing conscientious objection. Among their white counterparts they were among the few who had in the course of their formation lived and studied with black people, been into townships and seen the black experience of apartheid on the ground. In short they lived in microcosm the future that 1994 promised (though admittedly has not fully delivered).
But this was not always the case.
Given the hostile anti-Catholic culture of 19th Century South Africa and the cultural assumptions of European superiority that permeated the Irish, Dutch, English, French and German home environments of the congregations that came to South Africa a certain degree of racism was inevitable. Social Darwinist theories of human evolution that presumed the supremacy of Europeans was common. Catholicism itself was not immune to any of this, despite official opposition to Darwinism and the presupposition that all baptised Catholics were equal in the sight of God.
Catholicism, like all other forms of Christianity in the colonies, was deeply rooted in European Greco-Roman philosophy – so much so that adaptation of the faith to non-European thought systems was unthinkable. Christianity had even distanced itself from its Jewish roots, thoroughly ‘othering’ the Jews in the process, giving rise to varying levels of anti-Semitism. This perhaps largely unconscious racism permeated the practice of religious orders and diocesan clergy in South Africa.
There was a presupposition that African Catholics were ‘new Christians’, still quite unlettered in the faith and needing firm guidance. This manifested itself in how rural missions and parishes in ‘locations’ were managed, in the manner in which students were taught in schools and in the early 20th Century how some missionaries, genuinely commitment to the development of African Catholics, steered them away from nationalist movements and trade unions towards ‘Catholic’ organisations that they could properly lead. The other current of thought was the difficulty Africans would have adjusting to the Church’s (Roman plus English, Irish, French, German or Dutch) culture – the idea that cultural adjustment could be mutual seemed unthinkable!
In terms of the congregations and dioceses themselves, it led to a decided unwillingness until the early 20th Century to consider admitting African vocations. The first generation of black diocesan priests (ordained around 1900) experienced profound difficulties with bishops and superiors. African women candidates were either dissuaded or sent to ‘diocesan congregations’ or orders formed by European sisters for the purpose of fostering local vocations. Among some men’s congregations – not all, one must note – would be priests were nudged towards the dioceses or admitted as brothers, then seen (quite contrary to any sound theology of vocation) as a ‘consolation prize’ for men who couldn’t quite make priesthood.
Though many of the orders made adjustments in the 20th Century, the damage was done. Many vocations were lost. As religious life globally started to decline from the late 1950s onwards and the supply of missionaries from the North started to dry up, many orders began having to close and consolidate communities, or even consider whether their presence was still viable.

I think it would not be an exaggeration or even as expression of pessimism to say that, as in most of the Catholic Church worldwide, religious life in South Africa is in decline. It would also be true to say that, compared to the Church elsewhere in Africa and the world, young men and women entering the priesthood and religious life was never high. Many factors account for this, apart from the tragic short-sightedness of many orders mentioned above. The commonly cited reason – celibacy – is not the only other major factor. Perhaps the kind of people most likely drawn to monasteries, convents and the apostolate, particularly those who had well-educated in Catholic schools, were the very people on whom parents and families depended. The sense of duty to family may have drawn many away.
Similarly the urgency of South Africa’s political situation, the struggle for liberation. Though it certainly drew some to religious life as an expression of service and the promotion of Christian values of justice, the struggle may have drawn others away – to living out the same values in trade unions and political movements, and ultimately in the new struggle for building democracy and a more unequal society.
Finally, I sense a certain anarchic quality in the South African psyche that makes the idea of obedience, even obedience rooted in dialogue and discernment with superiors, a little alien.
Whatever the case religious life in South Africa is, by anyone’s estimation, in general decline. There are fewer local priests, whether diocesan or religious, and still brothers and sisters. Most orders are aging. Many have had to close down works – handing over in many cases schools and hospitals to lay Catholics or the State. Some orders have done this while still having members on boards of governors and working to promote the original ‘ethos’.
While obviously traumatic, religious congregations have at their best seen this crisis as an opportunity: to get back to original charisms or to move into new apostolates, new responses to the signs of the times. During the time of missionary expansion, many congregations of priests became tied up with dioceses, serving territories sometimes as the only (or nearly the only) clergy there. There are still such areas and congregations that work in this apostolate. Other orders have withdrawn partly or fully from such work, discerning in the light of particular charisms where the needs of the times meets their founders’ visions.
New circumstances have created new works. Religious have been in the forefront of the Church’s work in HIV antiretroviral rollout and some communities have shifted focus from hospitals to home based care. Other religious communities have come to see the importance of communication, including new technologies, in evangelization. Within these circumstances, and faced with declining numbers, religious have more than ever to cooperate with lay people, with folk outside the Catholic Church – and even between religious congregations. Which points, ironically, to a renewal of religious life that though not fully envisioned by Vatican II call, expresses the essence of what Second Vatican Council called the whole church be.

Ricardo. Here endeth the article. Below I have a table one might like to adapt for our feature. (At very least it includes the names of the congregations that gave their details to the LCCL Executive!)

According to materials gathered by the Leadership Council for the Consecrated Life in South Africa (LCCL), the following are some of the religious congregations of men and women that arrived in South Africa in the wake of the formal foundation of a southern African Vicariate after 1838. (Note that although the first Catholic bishop for the region was appointed in 1818, the first resident bishop was Patrick Raymond Griffith OP, appointed in 1837. who arrived in Cape Town in 1838).
1849 Missionary Sisters of the Assumption F Schools, non-hospital care for sick and orphans
1852 Oblates of Mary Immaculate M Missionary evangelization of Natal, Free State, Transvaal and parts of Northern Cape
1863 Cabra Dominicans F Schools in western and eastern Cape, deaf schools, pastoral work
1864 Holy Family Sisters of Bordeaux F Started education, health & pastoral ministry in Lesotho; in South Africa: schools, health, pastoral and social ministry
1867 Marist Brothers M Teaching in schools, religious education.
1875 Society of Jesus M Teaching & Missions. Formation of clergy
1877 King William’s Town Dominicans F Schools, nursing, pastoral care, deaf ministry
1878 Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary Loreto Sisters F Education, health care, development, pastoral ministry
1882 Trappists – became Congregation of Missionaries of Mariannhill M Contemplatives, who became missionaries in Natal and transformed into CMM: pastoral mission, school, development work
1882 Congregation of Sisters of Nazareth F Education, nursing care mainly in Swaziland
1882 Oblates of St Francis de Sales M Missions in Northern Cape; parishes, teaching, health ministry
1883 Holy Cross Sisters F Education, health, pastoral care and social work
1885 Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood F Education, social ministry, health care
1889 Dominican Sisters of Oakford F Missions in Natal, Free State and Swaziland
1891 Augustinian Sisters F Nursing, teaching, youth work
1895 Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union F Education, catechesis, development work
1896 Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena of Newcastle, Natal F Schools, health care, training college, youth work
1896 Salesians of Don Bosco M Education of children in schools and skills training, especially poor and neglected communities; evangelization and catechesis
1897 Christian Brothers (Brothers of the Christian Schools) F Schools and work among the poor
1897 Sisters of Mercy F Pastoral care, schools
1902 Consolata Missionaries M Missionary work
1903 Franciscan Missionaries of Mary F Schools, hospitals, skills-training, catechesis
1904 Benedictines of Subiaco (Pietersburg/Polokwane M Monks, school, mission work
1907 Sisters of Notre Dame F Schools & education
1912 Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) M Parish renewal through missions, rural mission, communications
1917 Dominican Friars (Order of Preachers) M Pastoral Work (Stellenbosch, Johannesburg, Free State), theological education, social justice
1920 Palottines (Society of the Catholic Apostolate) M Missionary work, founded two dioceses, schools, work with the poor
1922 Benedictines of Inkamana (Natal) M Monks, missions
1922 Daughters of St Francis F Pastoral care, education, health, work with poor
1923 Capuchin Franciscans M Missionary work in Cape Town, parishes, schools.
1924 Comboni Missionaries M Missionary work, Bible translation work, media & communications
1925 Montebello Dominican Sisters F Education, health care, pastoral ministry to the poor
1927 Sisters of St Paul F Missions to Kroonstad townships
1927 Congregation of the Most Holy Spirit (Spiritans) M Missionary work in Bethlehem diocese
1931 Discalced Carmelite Sisters F Contemplative community; production of altar breads; hospitality to retreatant
1932 Capuchin Poor Clares F Retreat centre, contemplative ministry, altar breads and vestment production
1932 Sisters Servants of Mary F Health, education and catechesis in Swaziland
1933 Benedictine Sisters of Twasana F Education, health care, skills development
1934 Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary F Nursing, catechesis, work in seminaries, parish work, and Schoenstatt Shrines
1934 Ursuline Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary F Education and work with poor women & children; health care work, later HIV ministry
1937 Sisters of the Holy Cross F Education and pastoral care of youth
1938 Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart F School work, catechesis
1939 Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception F Catechesis, health, schools, skills training
1940 Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary F Education, health, pastoral care and religious formation
1949 Daughters of the immaculate Heart of Mary F Nursing, education, catechesis, old age care
1949 Consolata Missionaries M Missions, catechesis, HIV education, youth formation
1953 Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart F Missions – schools, clinics, hospitals – Limpopo
1954 Benedictine Sisters of St Alban M Education, care of elderly, youth work, prayer
1955 Franciscan Nardini Sisters F Children’s home, education, care for sick
1955 Companions of St Angela F Education of youth, social activism
1958 Sisters of St Brigid F Education, health and pastoral ministry
1959 Servants of the Holy Childhood of Jesus F Working with youth, schools, hospitals, children’s home
1961 Daughters of Mary Help of Christians (Salesian Sisters) F Education and youth ministries
1966 Sisters of Calvary F Education, health, pastoral ministry with small Christian communities
1989 St Patrick’s Missionary Society M Parishes, youth work, promotion of local vocations, renewal work
1994 Daughters of St Paul F Media work
2001 Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians F Family apostolate, ministry to children, education, care of HIV patients
2004 Sisters of St Vincent De Paul F Ministry to poor, especially women & children
2005 Sisters of Providence of St Cajetan of Thiene F Education and care of children and young adults
200??? Sisters Servants of Mary of Bomah F School, focus on education of girls
2013 Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus F
(Based mainly on information provide by LCCL)