The journey from the Austrian Voralberg to Marianhill in Natal was a long one for the Roman Catholic Trappist monk Fr. Franz Pfanner. It was not until he was fifty-five years old that he set foot in South Africa. Previously, he had been a diocesan priest and an Austrian army chaplain. Pfanner always maintained a strong interest in missions and hoped to found one in Turkey, which proved too difficult, but he did build an abbey in Bosnia in 1879. In that year, he heard a Roman Catholic missionary bishop appeal for priests for South Africa, a call Pfanner heeded. After several years experimenting, he established a farm near Pinetown, Natal, where the monastery of Marianhill was eventually built with its procathedral, schools, farms, and vocational training programs. Pfanner also founded the Sisters of the Precious Blood to work with young African women, and soon their numbers totaled three hundred. Mostly the daughters of German farmers, the “Red Sisters” dressed in red skirts, black capes, and white blouses and veils. The Zulu called them “Amakosazana,” or “princesses.”
It is hard to be a contemplative Trappist monk and an action-oriented working priest at the same time, and this was Pfanner’s dilemma. He went to Africa as a contemplative, but soon the farmer’s son was into the fray. “Nobody has to work more than I do,” he said, recalling his own father’s words. While Boers and Protestant missionaries often left the work to Africans, Pfanner said, “No missionary, be he priest or superior, should despise manual work. He has to be a literal imitator of Jesus who first worked before he preached.” Pagans, Protestants, and Catholics were welcomed with no doctrinal tests in the schools he founded, and Pfanner was an early opponent of apartheid. Pfanner was suspended from his order when his European superiors concluded that his life was the reverse of the traditional ora and labora (pray and work) pattern of monastic life, representing *labora and ora *(work and pray) instead. In 1893, after thirteen years’ intense work, he retired to a mission station at Emaus, where he remained until his death in 1909. The main mission’s activities grew, and by the time of Pfanner’s death fifty-five priests, 223 lay brothers, and 326 nuns were at work in forty-two mission stations.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to your dawning brightness.
Arise, shine out, for your light has come;
the glory of the Lord is rising upon you.
Above you the Holy One appears, a nd above you God’s glory appears.
- “Francis Pfanner,” in Davies, Great South African Christians, 85-92.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.