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Albert Danker

Albert Danker
b.1929
Roman Catholic Church
South Africa

Albert Danker was born in Greyville, Durban in 1929 of French and Mauritian ancestors. Most people in Mauritius are a mixture of different races. As his grandfather was an engineer , his grandparents came to South Africa to work on the sugar plantation. Since Mauritius was already a sugar producing island when his grandfather came to South Africa, he came to help establish the sugar industry. His mother worked at the Lion match factory in Durban.[1] Albert attended school at St. Augustine's, a school for so-called colored (people with mixed racial ancestry) children, run by the Holy Family sisters next to the Cathedral in Durban. From there he went to a high school until he completed his matric. During that time, he went to the cathedral for mass and belonged to a youth club. The parish priest was interested in trying to promote vocations among the youths.[2]

The Catholic Church at that time was divided along racial lines. For instance, the church Albert attended was almost exclusively for whites. Next door was another church that catered to black people. According to Albert, the reason given for the two churches was not based on race but on language: "The Zulu people wanted their own language and they sang their own hymns and so on. This church was later demolished when Denis Hurley became the archbishop of Durban." Albert also experienced racial segregation after completing standard six, when he wanted to enroll at a Catholic high school because he was interested in becoming a priest. The Catholic school for coloreds was in Ixopo, far from Durban, and was run by the Sisters of the Precious Blood (CPS). So Albert's mother took him to the Marist Brothers' college, a white school in Durban. The brothers told Albert that they had no place for him and he was refused entry. After Danker completed his matric, he joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) as a novice.[3] Before Danker, Dominic Khumalo and Jerome Mavundla had already joined the Oblates in South Africa. Albert attended their ordinations in 1946.

Danker made his final profession in 1951 and was ordained in 1955 as he says: "Having completed our novitiate in Germiston in February 1951, Cyril Carey, Charles Langlois and myself arrived at Cleland arrayed in clerical black, hats and clerical collars included, and not without some trepidation. We were only the second group of novices of color to be admitted to St. Joseph's. Pat Sibisi and Paul Mthembu had preceded us and thus prepared the way for an ethnically accepted scholasticate."[4]

He spent seven years in formation at Cedara. While at Cedara, he thoroughly enjoyed the community life with the other brothers: "We had a very happy community at Cedara. Living in community is part of our lives and our founder was keen on community life. We spent seven years together. I never visited my home and slept overnight in my bed during the time I was a student. We went on holiday together and also there was a missionary consciousness at that time. We had Fr. Reggie Webber who worked in the diocese of Johannesburg. He was extremely interested in the mission of church and he got us all interested."[5] Webber stressed the missionary aspect of the Oblates as Danker expands: "Webber, later to found a new missionary congregation, was a convert and would not allow us to forget that we were missionaries in the making. A 'location' was on our doorstep and the people there patiently accepted our missionary excursions and attempts at evangelization."[6]

The superior of Cedara community was a dynamic French missionary who had been a captain in the French Navy during the Second World War. He was in love with the Zulu people and that spirit came across all the time to the students. They were one community and they were missionaries. He noted: "A superior in Maurice Lener, always mindful of his Zulu mission experience instilled in us a zeal for Zulu which he taught himself."[7] The concept was grounded into them when they began their novitiate. When Danker joined the Oblates, he did not know that there were other kinds of priests because every priest he knew was an Oblate: "So I did not know that there were diocesan priests, I discovered that later on. I was very attracted to the Salesians,[8] they were working with young people doing vibrant work also."[9] Shortly after his ordination, his Oblate superiors asked him to attend a conference of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement in Rome, Italy. Afterwards, Danker started working with young Christian workers and student organizations:[10] "Following the meeting in Rome, he spent the next eighteen months in Paris, Belgium, and London, learning more about the movement for young workers. He carried that experience back to South Africa where he engaged in youth ministry in the 1950s and 1960s."[11] During the 1950s apartheid was introduced rapidly as Danker explains: "The fifties saw the onslaught of further oppression of minorities. The Group Areas Act brought fears that our community (Oblates) would be forcibly divided. We were racially classified."[12]

On his return to Durban he was appointed to the parish in Congella. There he set up a YCW branch where groups of young people would meet and "reflect on life in the light of the Gospel." His Sunday night "folk masses" were very popular with young and old alike.[13] As he notes: "When I was national chaplain, we were organizing study weeks with Youth Christian Workers. We could not meet in South Africa because it was a mixed group. So we used to go to Swaziland or Lesotho. We brought together boys and girls of all nationalities--it was considered subversive by the South African government. Particularly, when I came back from an international conference in 1969, they confiscated my passport for no reason.[14] So from 1969 to 1976, I had no passport and could not leave the country." [15] His passport was withdrawn for a considerable time and he was barred from leaving the country for six years. The apartheid years brought many problems for Danker's ministry. After taking part in anti-apartheid protests in Durban with Archbishop Denis Hurley he was harassed for having children of mixed races interacting socially.

The parish at Congella consisted of a church and a school. The apartheid government forcibly closed the school as it was in the white area. Danker became the regional and later national chaplain of the YCW. He was also in charge of vocations in the Oblate congregation as he recalled: "As director, I taught vocations workshops at Cedara. We had great success. At two workshops we had over 100 boys and many of these tried their vocations. At least, thirty-six became priests. It was a wonderful time."[16] His contribution to youth development was highlighted during his fifty-year priesthood Jubilee celebration in 2005: "He continued this work for fifteen years, assuming national responsibility for the YCW movement. He also encouraged boys to enter religious life and over the years, thirty-six entered the priesthood, with four becoming bishops. A fair number of girls joined various communities of nuns, too. He also arranged social activities for the youth. His 'discotheques' attracted as many as 400 young persons on any Saturday evening."[17]

In 1972, he resigned his position as the national chaplain to the YCW that he had held since 1957. He was then made parish priest of Assumption parish in Umbilo Street, Durban. This parish was predominantly white but there were about 200-300 Zulu speaking people who had their mass in the afternoons: "When I was appointed there, there was a delegation sent to the archbishop to protest my coming. I was not the right color. They did not say that directly, but they were saying that I had no experience although I had been a priest for some time by then. My marriage officer's license was restricted to blacks, colored and Indian people only. Certainly, you could not marry people across the color line." [18]

Anyhow, Danker spent four years in that parish and from the little animosity in the beginning they developed wonderful relationships. Danker did not believe in shouting at people: he talked to them gently and eventually they saw the terrible situation in the country. He still has good relationships with many people from that parish (2009). The black people were mostly domestic workers. In 1976, he was taken away from the Assumption parish and became the provincial of the Oblates in Natal.[19]

Amongst the Oblates, Danker was the first person of color to go to a white parish and become the first colored Oblate provincial. This was an interesting development considering that when Albert Danker, Charles Langlois, and Cyril Carey went to the novitiate in the 1950s, there was a lot of hesitancy from the superiors of the Oblates. [20] They did not know what they were going to do with the colored Oblates and where they were going to work. Danker was appointed provincial and his Charles Langlois was the vicar general to Archbishop Denis Hurley.

But these three colored Oblates had a lot to contribute to the church. [21] Danker was provincial for six years. The general of the Oblates in Rome wrote a letter to the South Africa government to release his passport. It was eventually returned in the post with no explanations: "I wanted to go to the Home Affairs department so that they could tell me what was in my file." [22] Danker initiated many projects as a provincial of the Oblates in Natal. One of the projects was to open up St. Joseph's theological institute to other religious orders and congregations because up to that moment it had been an exclusive Oblate training center. Currently, there are numerous religious congregation sending their students to the institute (2009).

After 1983, he became pastor at St. Anne's in Sydenham: "I came to Sydenham in 1983 and I have been here ever since. The parish is predominantly a colored parish but is increasingly a rainbow one." [23] In his twenty-two years there, he experienced great changes in South African society. "When I came here, people of color were still restricted in where they could live. Entertainment and recreation facilities were limited but a vibrant community spirit developed," he says. "Now, many have moved away to other areas, considerable numbers of especially young people have emigrated and mores have changed. Almost one in two babies I baptize is born out of wedlock."[24]

Other serious problems he mentioned were the increase of drug use and domestic problems. Nevertheless, he felt that the parish community was still very much alive with a generous, deep-seated faith. Large numbers of children and teenagers were involved in many kinds of parish activities.

In 2005, Danker celebrated his fiftieth anniversary in the priesthood. Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, OFM, the Archbishop of Durban, was among the guests who joined Fr. Albert Danker, OMI, to celebrate his jubilee at St. Anne's Church in Sydenham on December 9. On the following day, in honor of the jubilarian, a musical, Forever Home, had its premier performance. The original script and musical score were written by Fr. Danker's newly ordained Oblate assistant priest, Fr. Merlin Ince.

Danker has also been the coordinator of the Missionary Associates of Mary Immaculate (MAMI) for many years. MAMI is a voluntary organization of those who wish to collaborate and share in the spirit, life, and mission of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It is the extended family of the Oblate Congregation, supporting the missionary efforts and work of the Oblates by prayer and financial donations. MAMI has also supported the formation of Oblate priests and brothers for this missionary work, as well as encouraging vocations in general.

Required to resign as pastor when he turned seventy-five in 2005, Fr. Danker awaited the appointment of his replacement. As for himself, he did not see himself wasting the time he had left. He stated that he was going to enjoy gardening and caring for his pet dog: "The church may want to use me in some other way when I leave St. Anne's." [25]

George Sombe Mukuka


Notes:

1. Albert Danker, interview by author, September 18, 2000, Durban, tape recording.
2. Danker, same.
3. See www.wikipedia.com: The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) is a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church founded on January 25, 1816 by Saint Eugène de Mazenod, a French priest from Marseille. It was first recognized by Pope Leo XII on February 17, 1826. Originally established to revive the church after devastation by the French Revolution, the religious order now serves in various countries around the world. Though they originally focused on working with the poor, they became known as a missionary and teaching order as well. In 1938, Pope Pius XI called them "specialists in difficult missions."
4. Albert Danker, "Memories of the 50s" in We give thanks Ukwanda Kwaliwa Umthakathi: St Joseph's Theological Institute 1943-1993, ed. Sue Rakoczy (Cedara, Natal: St. Joseph's Theological Institute, 1993), 11.
5. Danker, same interview.
6. Albert Danker, "Memories of the 50s" in We give thanks Ukwanda Kwaliwa Umthakathi: St Joseph's Theological Institute 1943-1993, ed. Sue Rakoczy (Cedara, Natal: St. Joseph's Theological Institute, 1993), 11.
7. Albert Danker, "Memories of the 50s" in We give thanks Ukwanda Kwaliwa Umthakathi: St Joseph's Theological Institute 1943-1993, ed. Sue Rakoczy (Cedara, Natal: St. Joseph's Theological Institute, 1993), 11.
8. The Salesians were founded by Don Bosco, he gathered a number of priests and lay people together to form a religious congregation in the Catholic Church called the Salesian Society. It was named after St. Francis de Sales who was known for his kind and gentle manner, a trait which Don Bosco wanted his Salesians to acquire.
9. Danker, same interview.
10. See Durban's Daily News, November 29, 2005; Danker, same interview.
11. Hurley, E. Denis and Kearney, Paddy, Memories: The Memoirs of Archbishop Denis E. Hurley OMI (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2006), 139 and 148.
12. Albert Danker, "Memories of the 50s" in We give thanks: Ukwanda Kwaliwa Umthakathi: St Joseph's Theological Institute 1943-1993, ed. Sue Rakoczy (Cedara, Natal: St. Joseph's Theological Institute, 1993), 11.
13. See http://www.omi.org.za/natal/omi-update-v3i1.html (accessed January 30, 2009).
14. Report of the Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa. By General Assembly, United Nations General Assembly. Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa, Uddhav Deo Bhatt, Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa, United Nations. Published by United Nations, 1970, p. 74.
15. Danker, same interview.
16. Danker, same interview.
17. See http://www.omi.org.za/natal/omi-update-v3i1.html (accessed January 30, 2009).
18. Danker, same interview.
19. Danker, same interview.
20. Danker, same interview.
21. Fr. Cyril Carey worked in the missions also. He was sent to Wentworth to establish a new parish by the refinery. The area was rough and there was a lot of crime and drugs. Fr. Cyril was famous, he was a big man, and people were scared of him: "But then there was a wonderful spirit there. I think his funeral was one of the memorable occasions. I think it took four to five hours for people to pass by his coffin." (Danker, same interview). Charles became a remarkable priest and spent most of his life at Wentworth in Durban. The parish at Wentworth is still a model parish. Fr. Charles Langlois learned Zulu very well in the novitiate and then went to work at the diocesan minor seminary at Inanda. He was made vicar general and enjoyed great respect. He was an extremely efficient man: "He lived with Archbishop Hurley, then he had a heart attack and gradually his health declined. But even with the heart attack he went on to establish a new parish among Indian people and he built that from nothing. It is one of the nicest parishes, he died in 1998 (Danker, same interview).
22. Danker, same interview.
23. Danker, same interview; see also Arthur Goldstuck, The Ghost that Closed Down the Town: The Story of the Haunting of South Africa, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) p.228.
24. See http://www.omi.org.za/natal/omi-update-v3i1.html (accessed January 30, 2009).
25. See http://www.omi.org.za/natal/omi-update-v3i1.html (accessed January 30, 2009).

Bibliography:

Daily News. November 29, 2005.
Danker, Albert. Interview by author, September 18, 2000, Durban. Tape recording.
---------. "Memories of the 50s." In We give thanks Ukwanda Kwaliwa Umthakathi: St. Joseph's Theological Institute 1943-1993, ed. Sue Rakoczy. Cedara, Natal: St. Joseph's Theological Institute, 1993.
Denis, Hurley, E. and Kearney, Paddy. Memories: The Memoirs of Archbishop Denis E. Hurley. OMI. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2006.
Goldstuck, Arthur. The Ghost that Closed Down the Town: The Story of the Haunting of South Africa. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
OMI Natal Update. "Good News About People: Father Danker's 50th Year Of Priesthood. Vol. 3 Issue 1, January-February 2006. Http://www.omi.org.za/natal/omi-update-v3i1.html. Accessed January 30, 2009.
Report of the Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa. By General Assembly, United Nations General Assembly. Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa, Uddhav Deo Bhatt, Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa, United Nations. Published by United Nations, 1970.

This article, received in 2009, was written by Dr. George Sombe Mukuka, a faculty research manager at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, and 2008-2009 DACB Project Luke Fellow.