The descendants of the families who made up the congregation of the first official Slave Church in Long Street – now the South African Sendinggestig Museum – are on a mission to make the space a “live” museum, incorporating the stories of their families.
They also want to use the museum to bring the old congregation back to the city centre, to enjoy the building they once had to leave behind.
The South African Sendinggestig Museum, also known as the South African Missionary Meeting House or Slave Church, was built between 1802 and 1804, and is one of the oldest mission churches that still exists in its original structure.
It was founded by the African Missionary Society in 1799.
The church was predominantly used as a space to educate slaves and those identified as non-Christians in the Cape.
The church was later sold due to the poor state of the building and a new church was established in Belhar.
The journey began in 2014 when the now late Petronella Hendricks (Nee February), the last remaining member of the February family from Bo-Kaap, visited the church she worshipped in after she had been diagnosed with dementia.
Her daughter, Benita Alard, from Pinelands, said the family was disappointed by the absence of any acknowledgement of the significant role the February family and others played in the church.
“We raised these concerns with the curator and later researchers were appointed to interview us and we provided the museum with a number of pictures which included our parents signing the marriage register in front of the magnificent pulpit.
“We then organised a family reunion to gather information.”
One of the researchers was Aubrey Springveld, appointed by the museum to help trace the family roots at the archives in Roeland Street, Stellenbosch Church archives and Belhar Uniting Reformed Church, where they found the records of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths of their forebears.
Mr Springveld, who is from Claremont, said the church in Long Street was one of those affected by apartheid. The congregation was moved to get people of colour out of the city.
He said three years ago, he met Ms Alard after he helped people in the church to track their family trees.
He said this helped the families of the former congregants, who are now trying to create a space of healing in the building. “I’m excited about this, because these people are now encouraged not to dwell on the painful past, but to seek liberation and reconciliation.”
He said during the search for the family trees, they found church meeting documents and minutes, as well as records of the then church members. “It’s one of those stories where political interference caused chaos and the community is determined to work through the pain of the past.”
He said they had learnt that the February family came from up country for work and found their spiritual home in the church in Long Street – an alternative place of worship for the destitute.
She reached out to the families of the people of the old congregation, and found Henny Jarson, who used to serve on the church council, and Gloria Cloete, whose mother also attended the Long Street church, among others who, because of the forced removals, were scattered across the Cape Flats and communities of Cape Town.
Mr Jarson, who grew up in Beaufort West, was 16 when he became a member of the Sendinggestig Church after he came to Cape Town.
“I belonged to the youth of the church and I sang in the choir and became a member in 1969. The pastor at the time was Dawood Botha, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s and can’t give us history.”
Mr Jarson met with the late Willy February as youth leader and Norah February, the youth choir mistress.
Mr Jarson had worked as a gardener in Bishopscourt. He attended church on a Sunday morning, joined one of the families for lunch and then one of the women would provide him with a packed meal for supper.
Even after the forced removals and people being scattered across the Cape Flats, the congregation kept attending services in Long Street.
In 1971, the congregation left the building due to a crack in the wall, said Mr Jarson. The building was to be demolished – but this didn’t happen.
“When we left, it was like going to a funeral without the coffin. The members were quiet but there were tears. The older congregation were born and baptised and married there. We left a history behind that is now not even part of the church.”
He said as part of the church’s duties, he used to collect the tithes at people’s homes in the southern suburbs in Salt River, Woodstock and Observatory. “These were old congregants. They used to ask me: ’Where must we go now?’ and I didn’t have answers for them.
“The church was an active one. The founders made us feel happy, I am from up country and when we all looked for a church, they pointed us to the one in Long Street.
“I would like for the founders to get recognition for the congregation they built. If they can give the people the opportunity. There’s a list of names and lots of missing names. We would like for the museum to be a living one – have our congregants voices in there.”
The last congregation walked to the St Stephens Dutch Reformed Church on Riebeek Square in silence, said Ms Alard. “It left the young ones with questions. They were to worship at St Stephens for five years until a new building was built in Belhar.
“We were young but aware that they were not happy with how things turned out. We heard the discussions of Belhar being an uppity area for the educated coloureds. We heard that our uncle Willy objected because domestics had no means of attending church in Belhar and there were no buses or train services into the newly developed area.
“We heard that the building had been sold to the owner of the hotel next door, bought back five years later, restored and then became a museum.”
According to the South African Sendinggestig museum manager, Noluvo Toto, during 1954, only 520 members remained. As people moved away to suburbs to find work and due to urban racial segregation, distance and economic circumstances made it difficult for members to attend the church.
The board decided that the congregation be moved into a more suitable area on the Cape Flats, and, to finance this, the Sendinggestig would have had to be sold.
She said by the end of 1960, the building fell into disrepair, and there were misunderstandings between the church council and directors of the South African Mission society and uncertainty about Apartheid’s Group Areas Act.
The church (now Gordons hardware) and caretakers home were all sold to the Metropolitan Hotel in 1971 with provision that the congregation could use the church for another five years.
Thereafter, a committee was established to save the building from demolition and the provincial government, with the help of the committee, agreed to buy the church back.
In 1977, the SA Sendinggestig was declared a province-aided museum and during the winter of 1977, a storm caused serious damage to the already dilapidated building and part of its northern wall collapsed. The restoration work started in 1978 and the SA Sendinggestig Museum opened its doors in March 1979.
Ms Alard found it increasingly difficult to track the oral history, as the older generation were not eager to share stories, and most of the elders from the church in Long Street had either passed on, or were senile.
Even then, she did not give up and continued to reach out to try to piece together the history of her childhood church, while working to bring the older congregants who were still alive, as well as their families, back to the building in Long Street.
Then, on the eve of Heritage Day last month, the descendants of the Februarys, driven by Ms Alard, invited people who had been displaced during apartheid to return to the family church where they gathered to share stories, music, poetry, and songs in order to reclaim their lost heritage.
“The evening was filled with nostalgia as we created a live museum by honouring those who were pillars in this church. We put up pictures of them with their names on all the pillars of the building.”
Ms Alard said a photo of Norah February, a red rose and a candle was lit on the little organ to honour Norah, who played it when accompanying the youth choir.
“There were moments of fun and laughter in the homely atmosphere where the audience turned their hats back to front and when they gave feedback on sound effects. There was a photo booth where childhood friends could journey down memory lane and others took pictures together.”
Ms Cloete, from Gleemor in Athlone, spoke of her mother’s 420-year-old Bible, printed in 1601.
Speaking to the CapeTowner, she said she and Ms Alard were cousins, and they connected and decided to take the journey of uncovering the memories together.
She said the old Bible had travelled from the February family home in Bo-Kaap, and was left in her possession after her uncle died. “The Bible at the back has my mom’s handwriting from 1939 – which made her 14 years old at the time. The evening when we got together, I memorised one verse to share with the congregants.”
Ms Alard said while the journey was ongoing, the fact that, as the family of the founding members, they could go back to the church to honour the leaders was liberating.
She said while the past was a painful one, the visit to the church gave many communities the opportunity to connect, learn about themselves, and most importantly, find peace. “We worked through the anger and we want our children and families to wear their scars with pride.“
Ms Alard said they were now exploring the idea of having a Carols by Candlelight around Christmas, which will include fetching the old congregants, taking them on a tour around Bo-Kaap, to see the Adderley Street festive lights and then taking them back to the church for a networking session. “It feels like we’ve created new memories in lieu of the pain of them leaving.”
Ms Toto the project to extend their exhibition which connected them to these families and old congregants started before the Covid-19 lockdown, and due to the regulations, the project was put on hold until recently, on Heritage Day, when the families visited the museum.
“The project is not complete, but we are starting where we left off. We are in contact with some families who have shown so much interest in doing activities at the museum and making use of the museum as the beneficiaries.
“Most of these families feel that the story has not been told the way they know it and should be allowed for them to tell their story to heal from the past and unite.”
She said the Western Cape Government was providing funding to ensure that these families are brought together.
“We have arranged gatherings with the families already, which is something I feel will open old wounds, but at the same time, will help them to heal. Alot has happened during their time there, so there is much they want to share.”