VAN REENEN: THE LITTLEST CHURCH WITH A BIG STORY
WORDS AND IMAGES: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
The usual pit-stop when travelling between Durban and Johannesburg is a convenient petrol station complete with mass produced, franchised food. This time round, we decided to do things differently and went to visit what is claimed
to be the smallest Catholic church in the world as well as the smallest place of worship in the southern hemisphere at van Reenen.
It is as close to the highway as any 1 Stop – although not as well sign posted.
Expect a very little building with a serene presence and quite a big story as well as a quaint tea garden and shop filled with collectibles. The beautiful surrounds are really stunning with a view across the valley between Harrismith and Ladysmith.
During our visit, we were fortunate enough to be able to gaze out from the tea garden towards the Drakensberg mountains which were covered with snow.
But back to the church.
Modelled on a wing of the Cardiff Cathedral in Wales, the diminutive church was built by a grieving local father, Maynard Mathews, as a memorial to his son, Llandaff Mathews, who apparently died rescuing eight miners during a mining accident in March 1925.
It is officially known as the Llandaff Oratory and has eight seats which represent the miners who were rescued. The altar also has a few other tributes to significant others from the local community. It is apparently still actively used for Sunday services and, I am told, a few weddings.
A little research on my home coming suggested that, although the mining accident in the Dundee coal mine did take place, the actual details may be a little more blurred. There are even rumours of the unhappy father joining the Catholic church and presiding over the memorial, not to mention suggestions that he was extremely eccentric and lived out his years sunbathing in the nick on the beautiful property.
I loved that one – but considering it was the beginning of winter and the nearby snow had added a distinct chill to the air, we headed into the warm inside where a lovely fire was burning.
A brief aside though, given the view and the beautiful surrounds, I will be back to sit and look into the distance during the summer months when the gardens will be spectacular. There’s a book exchange to the side of the pathway and bowls of water for any pooches that might pass by!
We were welcomed by the most charming gent who warmly recommended the homemade scones, but I decided that a brief detour into the shop would be the preamble to our lunch date.
Filled with lovely bric ‘n brac, including old pictures, ornaments and plenty of old china and silverware, it is more than just charming. In fact, a quick peek at the price of one of the silver tea sets had me on the phone to my husband with a request that he began polishing the family silver!
A book nook in one corner has plenty of historical books, some on colonial wars and even natural history. I purchased one for my husband’s collection and headed off for my meal.
For me, lunch was smoked gammon topped with caramelised onions, poached apples and served with a salad. It is impossible to describe the difference that a home cooked meal makes – and the lovely whole grain mustard, which is one of the many pickles, sauces, preserves and jams in the shop, was added to the bill. It took many a braai to a whole new level.
The lady who now owns this delightful little spot told us that she makes most of the deli products in her working kitchen – not to mention, the tasty food.
Two delectable sounding soups were included on the menu as daily specials and I would have loved to have sampled them but that, too, is for another, day.
My mother settled for what turns out to be another local legend – the scones with cream and the ‘msobo’ jam! Again, the verdict was delicious and moreish!
But perhaps the most interesting meeting was with the local cat, Mayday. After, the little tabby announced her arrival with a very gruff meow, she jumped on to the table of our neighbours hinting at a quick snack. But she was quickly whisked off by our host and went to reside in her chair opposite the fire – a little wicker children’s chair complete with frilled cushion and a bowl of milk and cat food to one side. She was soon curled up and snoring away peacefully.
When I quizzed our host about her, I was told that she was a stray who had adopted the shop a few years ago. On the colder nights, she’d regularly broken into the shop for shelter, setting off the alarm and calling in the armed response! The name of the security company was Mayday and this little feline chancer not only adopted their name but landed in the lap of luxury!