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Henry Oscar

[1*]

Ceremony at St. Mary's
The opening ceremony at St. Mary's Minor Seminary. African bishops in the front row (left to right): Biyase, Butelezi , Dlamini, and Khumalo. [2*]
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St. Mary's Minor Seminary
St. Mary's Minor Seminary [3*]
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Oscar, Henry
1920 to 1998
Roman Catholic Church
South Africa

Oscar was born in 1921 close to Mariannhill mission in Pinetown. His parents were Catholics. He entered the minor seminary at the age of fourteen after passing standard five--quite an achievement since most of the children in standard five at that time, especially boys, were around the ages of nineteen and twenty. Many boys started school when they were old mainly because when they were younger they looked after the family cattle. This was a common practice. When a boy was considered old enough, the parents then sent him to school, with the belief that he was now mature enough to face the demands of the world and, in this case, the requirements of education. The only reason Oscar was able to go to school earlier was because his parents did not own any cattle. Oscar decided to be a priest when he entered the minor seminary, as he said:
When I entered the minor seminary, I was already aiming to becoming a priest one day. I can say that I was encouraged by my connection with the priests which started when I became an altar server at the age of twelve. I was mostly impressed by the priests of the time who were from overseas. It was a kind of hero-worshipping some of them especially when they were dressed in their priestly vestments and the way they would conduct themselves during mass celebration. I just wanted to be like some of them. [1]
His family easily accepted his decision to become a priest because they were already Christians. However, some neighbors thought that he was not serious and they questioned the wisdom of his parents as to why they would allow their first born son to become a priest and not raise a family like everyone else.

While at the minor seminary Oscar's life was generally good. Occasionally students who misbehaved were expelled for unacceptable behavior, such as leaving the premises without the necessary permission, drinking Zulu beer or getting involved with women. Students were also asked to leave when they did not cope well with their studies.

When he joined the minor seminary Oscar was not aware that priests belonged to different groups within the Catholic Church, as he stated: "The fact that there were different religious priests and even diocesan priests was unknown to most of us young seminarians and no one explained anything to us." [2] In 1942, he then went to the major seminary where he studied philosophy and theology for six years. He recalled: "The first four years I spent at St. Mary's in Ixopo where I studied philosophy for the first two years and then theology for another two years. The last two years of my theological studies I spent at St. Peter's seminary and was ordained in 1947." [3]

After Oscar's ordination, he was sent to teach at the minor seminary to teach where he spent the next eighteen years teaching science subjects like biology, botany, physical science, and gardening. At the seminary, he was the only black member of staff for at least eighteen years, as he stated: "I was there and the reason for this was that since the majority of the staff were German speaking, they could not teach physical science properly in English except myself. Although some black priests used to come and teach at the seminary for some time, they never stayed longer than three years. They would spend one to three years teaching and then be sent to the missions." [4] The seminary had been formed some twenty years earlier after a conference of vicars and prefects apostolic of South Africa in Kimberley in July 1924. Their discussion had centered on the urgent desire of the church to establish a native clergy in the mission countries and to build native seminaries. The meeting was held under the presidency of the apostolic delegate, Archbishop J. B. Gijlswijk.

Pope Pius XI had supported the establishment of native priest seminaries. The prelates gathered at the Kimberley conference and, following the example of other mission countries, decided to erect a regional seminary for South Africa. They believed that this seminary would help in propagating and preserving the faith among the natives and the young men who felt called to be priests could to go there for training.

At the meeting, however, none of the prelates felt ready to undertake the task. So, the building of the seminary was entrusted to Bishop Adalbero Fleischer of Mariannhill. He took the matter in hand at once and wrote circular letters and pastorals appealing to the clergy and faithful to pray for God's grace on the work he was about to embark on, and to implant in the hearts of the young "the call to the Holy Priesthood." Earlier the Mariannhillers had started a seminary for their students from Germany at Mariathal mission station. Bishop Fleischer chose this mission for the native seminary. The work started at once and very soon a little brick building was erected that was to become the future seminary for priests. On January 31, 1925, in a very impressive ceremony, the blessing and opening of Mariathal Latin-School (as it was called) took place. On the Feast of Our Lady, February 2, 1925, Father Prefect and some seventeen students began their work. Subjects taught included religion, Latin, English, arithmetic, history and geography. It was a simple time table, but the seminary had been established. [5]

By 1926 the number of students had increased steadily and more teachers were appointed. Soon the buildings they used proved to be too small and this led Bishop Fleischer to erect a new seminary. He appealed to the clergy and the faithful for spiritual and financial help and was also encouraged and supported by the pontifical work of the Society of St. Peter the Apostle. On November 30, 1928, he invited Archbishop Gijlswijk, the apostolic delegate, to bless and lay the foundation stone for the new building. At this ceremony several dignitaries were present including bishops, priests, brothers, sisters and lay people, both black and white. There were thirty-three students with six professors, three priests and three native teachers who are not mentioned by name. [6] The seminary was built in two and a half years by the brothers of Mariannhill.

On June 29, 1931, the Feast of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, the apostolic delegate, Gijlswijk opened the seminary. At this ceremony there were thirteen bishops and prelates, thirty priests from different vicariates and prefectures, and over 2000 native people who witnessed the occasion. The seminary was dedicated to Our Lady Sedi Sapientiae and the Blessed Martyrs of Uganda. At the time of the opening there were thirty-five students in the minor seminary and four in the major seminary. They were taught by five professors, three priests and two natives (not named). The studies given at the seminary were more or less similar, with the syllabus prescribed by the Education Department for the high schools in the country. The church wanted the seminarians to be on the same level as other students in the country. Other subjects were also included: religion, church history and Latin, the language of the church at that time. [7]

Two years later, on December 6, the first students of the seminary received the tonsure at the hands of the apostolic delegate whom Bishop Fleischer had invited to officiate. Then followed ordinations in succession--minor orders and major orders. The first student to be ordained was Malachias Mkwane on December 10, 1936. [8] He was followed by Bonaventure Dlamini in November 1937, and, in early 1939, by Fidelis Ngobese and Killian Samakande. On December 3, 1939, Patrick Mbhele, Solanus Ndlovu, and Paulus Ngobese were ordained. [9]

The major and minor seminaries were located in one building until 1946, after which they were separated. As Henry Oscar pointed out: "At this stage, when I started in the seminary, both the minor seminary and the major seminary were in the same place, that is, at St. Mary's in Ixopo. However, in 1946, the two seminaries were separated so that, from then on, each began to function as an independent institute." [10] The rector of St. Mary's also wrote that, "The former rector of this seminary here went with the students of the major seminary to the new place, called St. Peter's Seminary. I myself … was appointed as the new rector of this seminary here in January." [11]

The above mentioned seminaries were meant for black people at that time. However, at various times, one could find some colored and Indian students though they did not stay for too long. Furthermore, a new seminary was also established in Aliwal North catering to colored seminarians so colored candidates were sent there. At no time did white seminarians study with black seminarians at these institutes. The seminaries were run by the Congregation of Mariannhill Missionaries (CMM) and Fr. Marion Hollander from England was the rector. With regard to discrimination at the seminary Oscar explained:
I personally never experienced any discrimination within the seminary. There was a common culture within the seminary of treating all its inhabitants in the same manner. The South African discriminatory laws could not make any difference within the seminary itself. There is only one thing I could mention in this regard, that we students were treated as young school children, which was also the case in other education institutions of the time. [12]
Oscar then worked at Mariathal Mission situated next to what was then the major seminary for nine years. At this mission he found that the people he was working with liked black priests very much and, in fact, he was not the first black priest to have worked there, as Fr. Mnganga, the first black Catholic priest in South Africa had worked, died, and is buried at Mariathal. So the local people were very much supportive of black clergy, as Oscar affirmed: "I remember that I worked there for a long time being supported by the local people instead of asking support from the bishop. The food I ate was provided for by the people and I used to receive chicken, mielies [corn] and many other food stuffs to keep me alive." [13]

After working at Mariathal, he went back to the seminary from 1973 to 1974 where he was appointed rector. He was then sent to Umzinto where he became the parish priest in Melville. During this time he was involved with the committee responsible for the implementation of liturgical changes taking place within the church while Archibishop Denis Hurley of Durban was chairman of this committee. He then worked at Kwa Gomane mission in Impendle for eleven years before being appointed parish priest of the Mariannhill Cathedral from October 1992 on.

With two of his formers students as bishops--Bishop Mngoma (Mariannhill) and Bishop Mansuet Biyase (Eshowe)--Oscar felt that he had accomplished a lot. He had also taught numerous priests working in the many parts of the country, as he mentioned:
I think these priests and bishops are a great inspiration and a good example to the young people coming after them. This is not all, I myself after forty-seven years as parish priest, am still strong enough to work as an active priest for the diocese which I joined as a young boy of fourteen years. If I cannot be satisfied with this contribution God has helped me to make to the church, then nothing will ever satisfy me in my life. I have no complaint. [14]
With regard to inculturation within the Catholic church, Oscar said that in the early periods of priesthood training, seminarians were taught in such a way that they took everything that was from Europe as being excellent and all that was not from Europe as utter rubbish, as he recalled: "so that even a European monkey was considered far better than African monkey" [15] However, Oscar was of the opinion that useful cultural practices can be adopted in liturgical celebrations and those that are not good enough should be not be used, as in most cases they sometimes go against African culture itself. Oscar elaborated:
Consider the liturgy of the Word, for instance. Most people today come to the church with their own missals so that when a lector is reading they would be looking on their missal as well. However, the culture of our people says that whenever there is a gathering of local people in the chiefs' kraal for instance, as soon as the chief starts talking, every person present would pay full attention listening attentively in a respectful manner. Now at mass during the liturgy of the Word, God, the King of Kings and all chiefs, is speaking to his people, but then some are not listening, instead they are reading from their own books, and maybe they are even reading faster than the lector, and yet they refer to themselves as cultured people. Well, for me this is disrespect and I am sure that people who know African culture very well can agree with me in this respect. [16]
Oscar died in 1998 after a short illness. He is considered among the clergy as one of the pioneering black priests in South Africa. His legacy will still remain among the black priests and bishops as he taught most of them when they went to the minor seminary in Ixopo.

George Sombe Mukuka


Notes:

1. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
2. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
3. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
4. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
5. "St. Mary's Clerical Seminary: Native Priest - Seminary erected in the Vicariate Apostolic of Mariannhill, Natal, S. Africa: Historical sketch." (A two-page letter, probably written for benefactors, found at St. Mary's Minor Seminary Ixopo, under the file of Benefactors) Undated. Archives of St. Mary's Minor Seminary.
6. "Grundeinlegung des Eingeborenen - Priesterseminars in Mariathal," in Vergissmeinnicht, 1929, pp.98-100. Archives of Mariannhill Monastery.
7. "St. Mary's Clerical Seminary: Native Priest - Seminary erected in the Vicariate Apostolic of Mariannhill, Natal, S. Africa: Historical sketch." (A two-page letter, probably written for benefactors, found at St. Mary's Minor Seminary Ixopo, under the file of Benefactors.) Undated. Archives of St. Mary's Minor Seminary.
8. On other ordinations see "Otto Heberling "Mariannhiller missions - neueste nachrichten aus Südafrika" in Vergissmeinnicht, 1937, p.9. Archives of Mariannhill Monastery.
9. "Mariannhiller eingeborene Priester" in Vergissmeinnicht, no.63, 1945, p.218. Archives of Mariannhill Monastery. See also Letter to the Benefactors from the Rector of St. Mary's Minor Seminary, 1939. Archives of St. Mary's Minor Seminary.
10. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
11. Fr. Paulinus Müeller, Rector, "Letter to Friends and Benefactors," June 14, 1946. Archives of St. Mary's Minor Seminary.
12. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
13. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
14. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
15. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.
16. Henry Oscar, interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994, Mariannhill, tape recording.

Bibliography:

"Grundeinlegung des Eingeborenen -- Priesterseminars in Mariathal," in Vergissmeinnicht, 1929. Archives of Mariannhill Monastery.
Heberling, Otto, "Mariannhiller missions - neueste nachrichten aus Südafrika" in Vergissmeinnicht, 1937. Archives of Mariannhill Monastery.
"Mariannhiller eingeborene Priester" in Vergissmeinnicht, no.63, 1945. Archives of Mariannhill Monastery.
Oscar, Henry. Interview by Sipho Ngcobo on September 6, 1994. Mariannhill. Tape recording.
"St. Mary's Clerical Seminary: Native Priest - Seminary erected in the Vicariate Apostolic of Mariannhill, Natal, S. Africa: Historical sketch." (A two-page letter, probably written for benefactors, found at St. Mary's Minor Seminary Ixopo, under the file of Benefactors) Undated. Archives of St. Mary's Minor Seminary.

Photo:

[1*] Photo from St. Mary's Minor Seminary Archives, Mariathal, Ixopo.
[2*] The opening ceremony at St. Mary's Minor Seminary. African bishops in the front row (left to right): Biyase, Butelezi, Dlamini, and Khumalo. Photo from St. Mary's Minor Seminary Archives, Mariathal, Ixopo.
[3*] St. Mary's Minor Seminary. Photo from St. Mary's Minor Seminary Archives, Mariathal, Ixopo.

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.