Fr. Oswin Magrath will be remembered as a major figure in recent South African Catholic history for his contribution to mission work, seminary training, ecumenism and canon law. Deeply attached to the tradition of the church but with a strong sense of freedom, he never hesitated to take radical positions, particularly in the field of race relations.
He was born to a Catholic family in 1908 in England. “Some missionary direction existed in my home,” he wrote in an autobiographical note. He grew up around his parents’ bookshop, he further explained and, except for preschool, was not educated in Catholic schools. This led to considerable contact with non-Catholics. There were plenty of books at home which he was able to read even before going to school. He learned Latin, Greek and French and spent two months with a French family near Paris. All these experiences left him “open to wider aspects of the mission of the Church.”
He joined the Dominican Order in 1925 at the age of seventeen. In 1932, less than a year after his ordination, he was sent to Baghdad as secretary to the apostolic delegate. He arrived there, he later recalled, by traveling “across the Syrian desert in an old Ford taxi, a thirty-hour journey.” While doing this job, he pursued his studies and in 1933 went to the École Biblique, run by the French Dominicans, in Jerusalem for three months. His written thesis was entitled “The Doctrine of Original Sin in the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas.”
The apostolic delegate wanted to set up a centre for Islamic studies in Baghdad, but Magrath preferred to return to his province and volunteered to go to South Africa. After a journey via Beirut and Port Said by road, he took a steamship from Port Said to Durban, a three-week voyage, and arrived in South Africa on December 10th, 1934. There followed three years of pastoral work among whites in Potchefstroom.
In 1937, after a visit by the English provincial, he was sent to Stellenbosch where he remained for twenty years. There the house had been founded a few years before to become a centre of Afrikaans apostolate. “Political prejudice is even worse than religious,” he wrote on his arrival, “and there is a tendency to boycott all who are not pure Afrikaners. Immediate results cannot be hoped for.” Magrath registered at the local university and learned Afrikaans. It was at his initiative that Ida’s Valley, in the vicinity of Stellenbosch, became the first place in the Cape Town vicariate, after Koelenhof, where Afrikaans was spoken in church. In eight years the number of Catholics increased fivefold.
He also set out to study the doctrine of the Dutch Reformed Church. In doing so he manifested a spirit of ecumenism well before the Second Vatican Council. In 1943, he published a series of studies in Calvinist Theology in the Catholic Times of South Africa. “The exact position [of the Dutch Reformed Churches],” he wrote in the introductory article, “is often little known and worse understood by Catholics, and a better grasp of it will aid in discussion, and still more in establishing a better understanding between them and us.” It was this same interest in Afrikaner theology which had prompted him, a year before, to compile A First English-Afrikaans Vocabulary of Catholic Terms with the help of two professors from Stellenbosch University.
His studies of Reformed theology culminated in the publication of An Introduction to the Theology of the Dutch Reformed Churches in South Africa for Catholic students. This book was only published in a duplicated form. It received the imprimatur of the Dominican Order and of the church through Archbishop Owen McCann. But the apostolic delegate, Archbishop Martin Lucas, at whose request it had been written, declared that it contained “so much heresy that it should not be circulated indiscriminately.”
Magrath played a key role in the establishment of a philosophy course in Stellenbosch in 1943. The Dominican house grew into a full-fledged novitiate and study house with a community of over thirty at one time. While teaching various disciplines and missiology, he was for much of the time parish priest, and especially active in the Catholic mission. “It was in studying and teaching the papal missionary encyclicals,” he wrote in his autobiography, “that I became a strong advocate of the formation of the local church, of a local clergy especially, and of missionaries ready to hand over and move on.”
In 1956 the English Dominicans accepted to staff the St. Peter’s Seminary for black priests, founded by the Congregation of Mariannhill in the 1920s. Magrath was presented by his Order and appointed as rector by the Holy See. He took over in December 1957 and remained rector until November 1970. “This was in a missiological perspective a missionary task above all others,” he wrote, “and the English Province rose to the challenge. We succeeded in initiating a new outlook on the subject of African clergy, one not always congenial to missionaries.”
One of the new rector’s first tasks was to relocate the seminary from Pevensey in Natal to Hammanskraal, sixty kilometres north of Pretoria. Ironically, it was in 1963, the first year spent in the new premises, that St. Peter’s started experiencing what Magrath described, in a note sent to the bishops, as “problems of vocations.” In his view, this was connected, directly or indirectly, to the social situation. He found the students “politically disturbed and unsettled.” The growing tendency among white clergy to “accept separate development” compounded the problem. It seemed that the episcopal statements of the previous years were “valueless in the legal, social and cultural situation of the Union,” he wrote in another document in 1960, “it does not seem possible to do otherwise in practice than to have separate institutions for the various population groups. But it must be kept in mind that it is fundamentally in conflict with the nature of the Church whose unity is the local church and that it tends to disunity and possible schism.”
As tensions developed in the seminary, the rector and part of his staff opted for a more radical approach. They expressed increased sympathy towards Pan-Africanism, as the ideology prevailing among St. Peter’s students was then called, or Black Consciousness as it began to be called in the late 1960s under the influence of the black student organisation SASO. Magrath was instrumental in the establishment of St. Peter’s Old Boy Association (SPOBA), a black priests’ caucus which played a key role in the politicisation of St. Peter’s in the 1970s.
From 1969 to 1979 he was chairman of the Theological Advisory Commission of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He usually attended the plenary sessions. There was no episcopal chairman at that time.
In 1970, he withdrew from St. Peter’s Seminary and was given another missionary outlet in Swaziland. He was appointed Catholic chaplain and part-time lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of Swaziland which had just started. After attending the Synod of Bishops of 1971 (on “Priesthood and Justice in the World”) in Rome as adviser to the Southern African delegates, he went to Swaziland at the beginning of 1972. He was resident at the bishop’s house, and collaborated with the bishop in diocesan matters, especially during the four-year episcopate of Mandlenkosi Zwane, one of the seven of his former students who became bishops.
In 1987, after sixteen years in Swaziland, he became superior of the Dominican study house at Cedara, near Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for a year and a half. He then went to Woodlands Mission in the former Ciskei, near King William’s Town, for two years, using the Xhosa he had learned thirty years earlier. He spent the last years of his life with his brethren in the community of formation at Cedara. He died in Pietermaritzburg on Friday, November 6, 1998 at the age of ninety.
Philippe Denis, The Dominican Friars in South Africa. A Social History (1577-1990) (Leiden: Brill, 1998).
Fr. Magrath, interviewed by the author in King Williamstown on 11 April 1990, and at Cedara on 17 October 1992, 3 and 18 April 1996, 12 July 1997 and 19 February 1998.
This story, submitted in 2003, was researched and written by Prof. Philippe Denis, School of Theology, University of Natal.