History of St. Martin de Porres, Orlando West

Orlando West has its origins in the “Orlando Shanty Town” that grew up during the Second World War when the black population of Johannesburg grew in leaps and bounds.  The Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Orlando East saw the need for another parish for these estimated 20 000 people who were paying five shillings a month for temporary accommodation make of clinker bricks on either side of the Klipspruit River.

Father Albert Vandenbussche OMI established the “Blessed Martin” parish in 1946.  A foundation stone was laid by Bishop O’Leary on the feast of the Assumption that same year.  That building served as a school during the week, and as a Mass centre on Sundays.  Now the school offices, computer centre and library, it remains as one of the oldest buildings in Orlando West.  The Marist Brothers were the first teachers at this school, followed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. 

Father Vandenbussche was a very saintly man, but did not enjoy good health and passed away in 1953.  He was succeeded by his assistant, Father Daniel Verstraete OMI, later Bishop of Klerksdorp.  Father Verstraete oversaw the building of a parish hall and a church.  Much of the work was done by the priest and people themselves using bricks from buildings demolished in town.  The land was levelled by the use of ash, paper and rubbish collected from the neighbourhood on a wagon with a span of sixteen oxen!  This was amongst the earliest church buildings to consciously use African art and crafts in the interior design.  Sadly, much of this was later removed from the building.  The Stations of the Cross, for example were taken to Hammanskraal, and then later to Garsfontein.  A renewal of the African themes was carried out at a much later date.

By the mid 1950s, the school went up to standard six.  One thousand children were taught in two shifts – the first ending at 1pm, and the second around 5.30pm.  These children were fed too.  In the 1960s the Sisters cooked each day in an enormous cauldron over an open fire. Today the school has become a high school with just under 600 students.  The staff is entirely of lay people.  St. Martin’s boasts among its alumni Bishop Mvemve and Tokyo Sexwale.

Ten OMI priests served the people of Orlando West over the years, most notably Father Augustine Makhokolo who was parish priest for fourteen years (1972-1984).  They never lived at St. Martin’s, but were in community at other places in Soweto.  There was, however, a “priest’s hole” under the sacristy where a white priest might hide at night during the time when the Group Areas Act and curfews were being strictly enforced.  In 1985 the Jesuits came to the parish and set about building a presbytery which has also served as a Jesuit residence for others working elsewhere.  The school and parish were not immune from the violent upheavals between 1976 and 1993.  The late Father Xolile Keteyi SJ had a special affinity with the youth and accompanied many through the harrowing times that followed the declaration of a state of emergency in 1986.

After the advent of democracy in South Africa people soon began settling into a calmer pattern of life and looked to the future.  In the late 1990s the parishioners began collecting money so as to extend the church building.  The new church was dedicated by Archbishop Tlhagale in November 2003.  The most exciting feature is the baptismal pool that allows for adult baptisms by immersion at the Easter Vigil.  The implementation of the full RCIA programme has seen the number of converts increase every year.

St. Martin de Porres Parish continues to be place in flux.  Like with many local parishes, some of our parishioners have moved out of Soweto, but return for Mass each Sunday so as to pray with their friends and relations.  There are currently seven sections (or zones) and fifteen different groups and sodalities operating in the parish.  The little campus is now rather tight for both school and church!  We pray for God’s continued blessings and the kind intercession of our dear patron, St. Martin.

Rev. Fr. Thomas Plastow, S.J.

February 2008