With its distinctive white-washed gables and pillared arch enclosing the church bell, the historic Uniting Reform Church, which took over from the Rhenish Mission church, is a landmark in Sarepta.
Last year, it marked its 160th anniversary, celebrating a colourful history spanning decades that encompass both the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and the fall of apartheid.
It has united the community, created friendships and forged faith in both former and contemporary times. On the day I visited it, a week before Heritage Day, on Saturday September 24, it reminded me that old buildings need to be maintained, revered and, above all, used for them be “living parts of history”.
The first Rhenish missionaries were ordained and sent off to South Africa toward the end of 1828 where they started work in various towns, helping and converting communities to Christianity in the hinterland and on the coastal plains.
In 1829, the first congregation of the Rhenish Mission was established in Stellenbosch with Reverend Paul Daniel Luckhoff serving as its first minister.
Many of the congregants were former slaves who had been freed in 1838 and lived in the dunes surrounding Kuils River. According to Stephen Fortuin, a church member and the author of a booklet on the church and co-author of the anniversary book which was published last year, written with Phil Robinson and Derrick Pieterse, one of the former slaves was Jana van den Berg, who, like many others, converted to Christianity.
“She became one of the first members of the new congregation and travelled the distance to Stellenbosch, often taking more than five hours to walk to the town as there was no other church in Sarepta. Jana, or Moeder Jana as she was known, helped the missionaries and accompanied them on home visits,” said Mr Fortuin.
The distance to Stellenbosch was becoming an increasing problem with the growing number of congregants and the Rhenish Missionary Society decided it was important to have a church in Sarepta. Work started on it in 1841 and amid much celebration the cornerstone of the church was laid in 1842.
According to Mr Fortuin, “It is important to note that at the time many other missionary societies were active in southern Africa and, like in other areas where they started congregations, it was important for them to make Sarepta a Rhenish Mission.”
He said: “Reverend Luckhoff was the first Rhenish missionary who visited Kuils River and started with church services in the area on a farm belonging to a certain Mr Bosman from 1833 until 1841. Reverend Francois Esselen took over from Mr Luckhoff , and when the Rhenish Missionary Society decided to build the church in Sarepta, Reverend Esselen took it upon himself to collect money from friends and in the greater Cape Town area. He oversaw the erection of the church building.”
The church continued as a Rhenish Mission church for more than a century, changing over to the Uniting Reform Church in 1994.
Mr Fortuin says, “ ‘Uniting’ points to the unity that must still happen among the four Dutch Reformed churches in South Africa. The Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa was formed in 1994 when the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa became one.”
Several years later, much-needed restoration began on the church in 2001, which was carried out in phases. “In October of that year, the hall was in use again. The roof of the church was replaced in 2003 and improvements in the church building were done after 2003. At the time of the improvements in the church, services were held in the church hall. The actual church building was put back in use in 2005.”
Reverend Peter Grove is the current church pastor and the church’s revenue comes from the proceeds of funds from functions and collections on Sundays and monies generated in the different church wards.
Mr Fortuin says the congregation plays an important role in the community in offering soup kitchens and donations of food parcels to the needy in the Sarepta area as well as doing other outreach work. He adds, “The young children are involved spiritually by singing in the church choir and also take part in folk dances.”