Durban - It is understandable that while meandering through Van Reenen’s pass, negotiating its dangerous terrain, a traveller is likely to miss a most superbly constructed church. Just a few hundred meters from the KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State border, perched on top of the plateau, is the smallest, most charming-world renowned church in the Southern hemisphere.
The Llandaff Oratory, as it is called, is a heritage landmark. It measures approximately 14.2m2 with four pews that seat eight people. It is considered the only privately-owned Catholic church in the world. This tiny church is a replica of a wing of the Cardiff Cathedral in Wales, United Kingdom.
There are many tiny churches in the world, each rooted in personal history. The Bremilham Church on the outskirts of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, measures approximately 13,28m2. Located on a farm in the village of Bremilham, it is Britain’s smallest church.
Cross Island Chapel in Oneida, New York, situated in the middle of a pond is known as the world’s smallest non-denominational Church. Built in 1989, it seats two people and measures approximately 2.6m2.
The Travellers Chapel, the Mai Mahiu Catholic Church in Kenya, which looks like a mosque, hence its Swahili nickname “Msikiti”, is one of the smallest churches in Africa. It was built on the slopes of the Rift Valley by Italian prisoners of war in 1942. It measures about 11m² and has the capacity to accommodate 12 people during mass.
What is the history of South Africa’s smallest church?
Maynard Mathews, a retired magistrate, was denied permission to erect a plaque in the Ladysmith Roman Catholic church to honour his 28-year-old son Llandaff who died in a mining accident. After saving eight colleagues from a coal mine disaster at the Burnside Colliery mine near Dundee on March 19, 1925, Llandaff went back to the coal mine to rescue other possible survivors trapped in the mine but did not emerge after a second rock fall. His body was never found.
Determined to honour his son for his selfless courage, Mathews built his own church, fully consecrated and was ordained a priest himself into the order of St Dominic in 1926.
The eight seats with four pews, represent the miners his son rescued.
The church was sold to a George Tierny after Mathew’s death and thereafter to a Mr Osborne. Osborne, a Protestant, did not change the Catholic denomination of the church.
In 1960 ownership of the church passed onto Charles West-Thomas. He re-married in 1974, and gave the church as a wedding gift to his wife Mims West-Thomas who died in 2015 at the age of 92.
Geraldine Johnson, Mims’ daughter, is the caretaker of the church and owns an adjoining tea garden, which was part of another church she bought 20 years ago.
As I spoke to Johnson, the splendid view of the Drakensberg range with the spectacular history of the Llandaff Oratory seemed inseparably infused with her heritage.
The Catholic Church, she said, holds a non-denominational service every Sunday, providing an all-inclusive community space.
The serenity and warmth of the church towers above the N3 national route that divided the village. Johnson is not perturbed by the proposed De Beers Pass expressway, which would provide an alternative route to the Van Reenen’ pass. The new route will divert travellers but the Llandaff Oratory will remain one of South Africa’s greatest landmarks.