“Our Lady of Bethlehem”
In April 1952 a Marian Congress was held in Durban, Natal, on the occasion of the centenary of the arrival in South Africa of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
At its conclusion, the then Apostolic Delegate to Southern Africa, Archbishop Martin H. Lucas SVD, proclaimed Mary Queen Assumed into Heaven the patroness of the Church in South Africa. Our country was the first to receive this honour, after the definition by Pope Pius XII of the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady on 1st November 1950.
On the same occasion, the South African bishops decided to build a national shrine in honour of our patroness in Pretoria. However, for various reasons this plan never materialized. For years the meagre funds which had been accumulated for the project lay dormant. In 1976 the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference decided to give these to a diocese desirous of constructing a Shrine in honour of the Blessed Virgin. Father Anton Wilden CSSp, who was Bethlehem’s Vicar Capitular at the time, put in a claim for Qwaqwa, where he had been pastor for many years, under bishop Peter Kelleter. However, also the Prefecture Apostolic of Rustenburg wanted the money, and so the matter remained unresolved.
In 1981 the Bishops’ Conference finally decided to divide the money between Bethlehem and Rustenburg. At the time our diocese was busy completing the church at Tsheseng in Qwaqwa. The sum of 3000 Rand received from the Bishops’ Conference was used a.o. to commission the Durban artist Dinah Cormick to make a relief of the Blessed Virgin which was installed in the northern wall of the church at Tsheseng .
The church received its blessing by the hands of Archbishop Edward Cassidy, the Apostolic Delegate at the time, on 11th September 1983. It was placed under the protection of Mary Immaculate, and in a letter to Archbishop Denis E. Hurley OMI – at the time he was President of the Bishops’ Conference – expressing my gratitude for the money received, I wrote: “We hope that in years to come this church will develop into a centre for pilgrimages, at least for Qwaqwa, if not for the whole diocese.”
But why was the church at Tsheseng chosen to become our Diocesan Marian Shrine?
Let me explain: Perhaps you remember that in 1981 I was for nearly five months the sole pastor of the whole of Qwaqwa. There were five places in the territory which had recently received a new church building, each still needing completion: Sehlajaneng, Poelong, Mangaung, Makeneng, and Tsheseng. In each of these places lived people who had streamed into Qwaqwa from many different areas in the Free State and who had to be formed into a real Christian comnunity. I found that the one place where this task seemed to be most difficult was Tsheseng.
One weekday in winter, with heavy snowflakes falling from the sky, I had to say Mass at Tsheseng in the morning. When I arrived at the church, there wasn’t a single soul. The huge building looked desolate, and I felt miserable. The thought came spontaneously to my mind that only Our Lady herself could help to change matters in Tsheseng. Instantly I vowed to dedicate the church – at that time still without official blessing – to the Immaculate Virgin, entrusting the formation of the Christian community there to her motherly care. I decided to say my office, and then, if there were still no people, to celebrate Holy Mass alone, offering it up in honour of the Immaculate Conception, pleading with the Blessed Virgin to accept this assignment at Tsheseng.
I had just finished the penitential rite, when a mother came into the church surrounded by numerous children. I told them what I had just decided to do, and invited t:hem to pray with me in that intention. Nobody else came to attend Holy Mass on that day, but the presence of this handful of Christians was a deep consolation to me, and like a token that Our Lady would accept my plea for her to become the protectress of the community at Tsheseng.
In November 1981 three White Fathers – Dave Mackay, Guido Bourgeois, and Jan De Groef – took over the pastoral care Qwaqwa. Due to their experience and zeal, there was soon a noticable improvement in the pastoral situation throughout the territory, but it was interesting to note that this was particularly true of Tsheseng.
In February 1986 the diocese succeeded in getting the help of a team of. Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate frorn Lesotho – Fathers Sylvester Pheku & Roland Chaka, and Bro.Martin Tlali – for the pastoral work in Qwaqwa. The territory was divided, and Tsheseng came under their care. They willingly and enthusiastically took up the idea to develop the site at Tsheseng into a proper Marian Shrine.
When the news went out in 1987 that Pope John Paul II would visit Southern Africa during the following year immediately following the conclusion of the Marian year of 1987/88 on 15 th August 1988 – I asked the Holy Father during our Ad Limina visit in 1987 whether he would bless a statue of Our Lady designated for our Marian Shrine at Tsheseng. He immediately and joyfully gave his agreement.
The rest of the story you have witnessed yourself: the dignified pilgrimage of the statue of Our Lady through our diocese, from parish to parish, last year;
then the Rosary Campaign this year.
Meanwhile a lot of work has been going on at Tsheseng , transforming the former wilderness there into a beautiful site which will make you say: “Is this possible?” when you see it. I have to express my deep-felt gratitude to many people for this:
Above all to Father Pheku and Brother Putsoa, for their enthusiasm and tireless efforts; to the congregations at Tsheseng, Makeneng, and Mangaung, for the many hours of voluntary work they performaed at Tsheseng, not seldom in adverse weather conditions; to the Sisters’ communities at Tsheseng and Mangaung, for their unstinting support of the project; to Mr. Mosala for his artwork, and to Father Klaus Lettner who discovered and inspired him; to Deacon Ted Tuson, for his extra push when time began to press on us; to the people in Altotting, the Marian Shrine in Bavaria which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year, for their generous contribution towards our shrine; to Father P. Mathuni OMI of the Austrian Marianisches Missionswerk der Oblaten for the help he gave to Fr. Pheku with a view to erecting the shrine; to the Qwaqwa Government for help rendered with their heavy equipment; to Mostert, van den Berg & de Leeuw/Consulting and Structural Engineers, for their generous financial contribution; and to the Contractors Messrs Mokoena and Thaba Construction, whose staff pressed on with the work, in spite of the rainy conditions which “Motlalepula” Pope John Paul II has left behind him as a reminder of his visit to our neighbours in Lesotho last year.
This rain drenched also the statue of Our Lady when we brought it back from Lesotho into our diocese, having been blessed by the Holy Father at Maseru on the 15th of September 1988, only a few hours after the beatification of Father Joseph Gerard at the race course.
“Ahe, Mma Pula, Our Lady of Tsheseng , bless the people or this diocese; their holmes, their communities, and their places of work!”
By Bishop Hubert Bucher – Bishop of Bethlehem
Further Milestones in the History of the Shrine
1989: On the Feast of the Holy Rosary (Saturday the 7th October), the diocesan shrine of Our Lady was blessed by the then Aposolic Delegate, Archbishop Ambrose de Paoli.
1993: On the 5th December a new statue of Our Lady was blessed by Bishop Bucher. It replaced the original one and had been donated by Cardinal Tomko, the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples. The statue had been carved in Ghana.
1999: On the 16th October the 10th Anniversary of the Blessing of the Shrine was celebrated. The Shrine being dedicated the the Blessed Virgin under the title of “Our Lady of Bethlehem”
2001: Fr. Pierre de la Croix, at the request of Bishop Bucher, decorated the wall behind the shrine altar with a mosaic depicting the nativity of Christ.