Parishioners from the France Township, South Africa

Fr Anthony Chantry, Missio’s National Director, shares with us the memory of his former parish of St Francis in South Africa. 

I arrived in South Africa in 2001, and was made parish priest of three parishes. One of these was the new parish of St Francis in a township called France, on the outskirts of Sasolburg town.

The township of France was created in 1998 to house the poor and homeless of the area. Approximately 16,000 people lived there, of whom approximately 1,600 (10%) were Catholic. Each family had a plot of land with water and basic sanitation. Most had built their own ‘shacks’ out of corrugated iron and wood.

The nearest Catholic Church was more than three miles away, so Mass was celebrated once a month in the home of a Catholic family – 80 people crammed into a small shack. These shacks were freezing cold in the winter and roasting hot in the summer, but still more and more people came to join us each month.

‘We want to build our own church! We can do it together!’

Digging foundations for St Francis Church, France Township
Digging foundations for St Francis Church

In 2000, the parish applied to the local government for a plot of land to build a church. After much insistence and a considerable amount of pressure, we got a piece of land at the end of 2002. It was a small plot, overgrown, covered with rubbish and occupied by a large community of rats. In April 2003, the parishioners came together and cleared the land. Fundraising also began soon after. The community organised a parish bazaar: it was a sell-out and raised £110.

We erected a strong perimeter fence, and a small temporary church where we could celebrate Mass while the foundation of the Church was being laid. On 3 June 2003, we celebrated the first Mass, with no roof, under the glorious winter sun.

Next came the ‘ best toilets in France!’ the people boasted, and next to them, a small house for the resident catechist.

Now we turned all our attention towards building St Francis’ Church. The work to lay the foundations started on 3 November 2003 and finished by Christmas. And so did the money! ‘Now what shall we do?’ we all asked.

‘A legacy to the church he loved, in an area of great need’

Arriving for Mass
Arriving for Mass

I was sure something would happen eventually – it always does. And to my amazement, a few days later I received a letter from a very caring Catholic family in Cape Town. They’d heard of our project, and our plight, and immediately offered to help us by sponsoring the construction of the church in memory of their father who had recently died.

‘It would be his legacy to the Church he loved, in an area of great need,’ they explained.  Thus, once again, the Lord had provided for his people. Within six months the walls were up and the roof was on.

On Easter Sunday 2004, we celebrated our first Mass in the unfinished church, because we couldn’t all fit into our temporary church any more. An early morning winter mist and the dust of dancing feet, mingled with clouds of incense, reduced visibility to only a few yards.

On Sunday 3 October 2004, the day before the Feast of St Francis, we offered a prayer of thanksgiving in the temporary church and then processed to our brand new Church of St Francis for Mass. The psalm of the day said it all: ‘Sing a new song to the Lord, for he has worked wonders!’

The Church was consecrated on 12 February 2005. On that day, we gave thanks to God for the great joy that legacy had brought the people of France township. Truly, the Lord had worked wonders through his people.

Parishes like St Francis are possible because of your prayers and donations. Your support helps communities build new Church families in some of the world’s poorest countries. Please help us to be there for the Church where it is young, poor or in turmoil.