Pella, Northern Cape
Pella is an oasis in Namakwa
Namakwa District Municipality
Namakwa is one of the 5 districts of the Northern Cape province of South Africa. The seat of Namakwa is Springbok and the region is also known as Little Namaqualand. The majority of its 108 118 people speak Afrikaans...

 (Bushmanland) in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Originally called Cammas Fonteyn, the spring was used by a nearby stronghold of San
The indigenous people of Southern Africa, whose territory spans most areas of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola, are variously referred to as Bushmen, San, Sho, Barwa, Kung, or Khwe...

people. Coenraad Feijt settled there in 1776 and lived in harmony with the San despite their fondness for raiding the cattle of the Dutch farmers in the Hantam.

Establishing the Mission Station

In 1814 Christian Albrecht moved with his converts to Cammas Fonteyn from Namibia where the Orlam Chief, Jager Afrikaner
Jager Afrikaner
Jager Afrikaner was the third Captain of the Orlam Afrikaners in South West Africa, succeeding his father Klaas Afrikaner at around 1800...

, was persecuting them. He founded a mission station and renamed it Pella
Pella, Jordan
Pella is a village and the site of ancient ruins in northwestern Jordan. It is half an hour by car from Irbid, in the north of the country....

 after the ancient town in that became a refuge for persecuted Christians from the Romans. Other famous missionaries that visited Pella during this time were John Campbell, Heinrich Schmelen
Heinrich Schmelen
Reverend Johann Heinrich Schmelen was a German missionary and linguist who worked in South Africa and South-West Africa. Traveling through the area of today's northern South Africa and central and southern Namibia he founded the mission stations at Bethanie and Steinkopf and discovered the natural...

 and Robert Moffat
Robert Moffat
Robert Moffat was a Scottish Congregationalist missionary to Africa, and father in law of David Livingstone....


The London Missionary Society’s
London Missionary Society
The London Missionary Society was a non-denominational missionary society formed in England in 1795 by evangelical Anglicans and Nonconformists, largely Congregationalist in outlook, with missions in the islands of the South Pacific and Africa...

(LMS) tenure at Pella was intermittent and the mission station was abandoned on numerous occasions. This was mostly because of the extremely harsh desert conditions where the mission station is situated, but on one occasion the LMS abandoned the mission station after one of the priests had been murdered by the San. During these periods of abandonment, the Basters and San continued to use the oasis.

George Thompson, the traveller from Cape Town, arrived in a distressed state at Pella in 1824 and found the mission deserted. His party had sufficient water but no food whatsoever. Luckily he discovered that Mr Bartlett, the resident missionary, had moved the mission station to t’Kams which was 32 kilometres to the west . Thompson travelled to t’Kams and was hospitably received.

Thompson reported that when the full congregation was collected at Pella, they amount to about 400 souls; but the severe droughts, and consequent failure of pasturage, force them occasionally to disperse themselves in divisions over the country wherever a spring of water exists with grass in the vicinity for their flocks. As soon as rain falls, the pastures at Pella will instantly spring up and the scattered divisions of the people will again be re-assembled.

In 1855 Moffat, the surveyor, found Francois Gabriel, a Frenchman married to a Baster living in the abandoned mission buildings. He subsequently moved away to Namaqualand
Namaqualand is an arid region of Namibia and South Africa, extending along the west coast over and covering a total area of 170,000 square miles/440,000 km². It is divided by the lower course of the Orange River into two portions - Little Namaqualand to the south and Great Namaqualand to the...

 to the west.

Dunn, the geologist, found it abandoned again in September 1871. He reported the charred remains of fires and the bleaching bones around the oasis – these were from the cattle raided by the San from the Hantam. The San, who were hunter gatherers, used to raid the pastoralists’ cattle and consequently were hunted like wild animals by the Dutch farmers, the Basters and the Khoikhoi
The Khoikhoi or Khoi, in standardised Khoekhoe/Nama orthography spelled Khoekhoe, are a historical division of the Khoisan ethnic group, the native people of southwestern Africa, closely related to the Bushmen . They had lived in southern Africa since the 5th century AD...


Building of the Church

In 1872 drought again forced the LMS to abandon Pella but this time it was for good. Pella was reoccupied in 1878 when Father Godelle, a Roman Catholic missionary from the Society of the Holy Ghost, settled at Pella. After some time, the intense heat and deprivation overwhelmed him and he returned to France.

Hearing of Father Godelle’s ordeal, a 23-year-old priest, Father JM Simon of the Order of St Francis De Sales
Salesians of Don Bosco
The Salesians of Don Bosco is a Roman Catholic religious order founded in the late nineteenth century by Saint John Bosco in an attempt, through works of charity, to care for the young and poor children of the industrial revolution...

, volunteered to make a fresh start at Pella. He arrived in 1882. He made friends with the San who were naturally wary of strangers. After struggling alone for two years, other priests joined Father Simon from France but the heat and the loneliness drove them all back to France until the arrival of Brother Leo Wolf in 1885. Together with Father Simon, he was to serve the community of Pella for more than fifty years.

Having established gardens and planted crops, they began to build a church. The task took them seven years. Not having any plans, they designed the church from a picture in a book. The building in the picture had flying buttresses
Flying buttress
A flying buttress is a specific form of buttressing most strongly associated with Gothic church architecture. The purpose of any buttress is to resist the lateral forces pushing a wall outwards by redirecting them to the ground...

, so their church had flying buttresses. Bricks were made 9 kilometres away at the Orange River and limestone was transported by ox wagon from 160 km away and slaked with the water from the oasis. Inexperienced at building, they learnt the trade as they built the church. Only the altar was imported. Even the ironwork for the staircase was forged by these two priests at Pella.
The church was consecrated in 1895 by Bishop Rooney of Cape Town.

By the end of the century, Father Simon had been consecrated as a bishop and was appointed the first Vicar Apostolic of the Orange River. Brother Wolf was ordained as a priest after many years service. In 1932 Bishop Simon celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his arrival. The celebration was too much for Bishop Simon and he died and was buried in the church that he had built. Father Wolf died in 1947 at the age of eighty one and was also buried in the church. The permanent community and their established farming of today are primarily attributable to these two men.


The oasis of Pella is only a few kilometres south of the Orange River
Orange River
The Orange River , Gariep River, Groote River or Senqu River is the longest river in South Africa. It rises in the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho, flowing westwards through South Africa to the Atlantic Ocean...

, a perennial river that flows towards the Atlantic Ocean in the west. It is situated at the base of the stark Great Pella Mountains and, although the desert is dry and dusty, the area is known for its gemstones such as malachite, jasper and rose quartz.

The cathedral is surrounded by palm trees from which dates with a unique and sought after taste are harvested. Though beautiful, life at Pella continues to be a struggle against the elements. In summer the average temperature is about 60ºC and it may not rain for years. The current settlement, which still largely consists of the descendants of the mission station converts that settled there in the nineteenth century, tend herds of goats and karakul sheep, as well as cultivating dates, sweet potatoes, figs and vines from which wine has been made.

As with all desert rain storms, when it does rain hard, flooding is likely to occur, and in 1984 flooding caused extensive damage to the church that Fathers Simon and Wolf had built. A number of supporting pillars collapsed and the building was in danger of being condemned. But, with the help of a local mining company, the building was restored. Evidence of the flooding can still be seen at waist height on the walls.
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