A difficult start
The Oblates arrived in Kwazulu-Natal on 19th March 1852 after a four month voyage by sea and land from Marseilles, France. By the end of April Fr Sabon was ill with malaria. Br Compin found the mission too difficult and returned to Europe within two months of his arrival. In September, Fr Dunne, the only member of the team proficient in English, likewise went back to Europe. Bishop Allard was left with one priest and one deacon. By Christmas of 1852 a chapel was built in Pietermaritzburg. The bishop himself took on the duties of parish priest and was assisted by Logegaray who was ordained a priest in September.
Bishop de Mazenod reacted immediately and in May 1853 dispatched three more young missionaries to fill out Allard’s team: a deacon, Joseph Gérard (22), Fr Justin Barret (28) and Br François Bernard (27). They arrived in Natal in January of the following year. Gérard was ordained a priest the next month and began learning English. By June he was proficient enough to preach in English.
Mission to the Zulus
Bishop de Mazenod had sent the Oblates to Natal primarily to minister to the Zulu people and he constantly reminded Bishop Allard of that fact. The Vicar Apostolic was instructed to concentrate on the evangelization of “the pagans” instead of allowing his efforts to be monopolized by a minority of more or less fallen-away Catholics. The arrival of these young men, made it possible for the small missionary band to turn its attention to this mission.
Repeated efforts to establish a mission among the Zulu resulted in no conversions. The Founder wrote to Fr.Gérard in September 1860 to encourage him. “After so many years not a single conversion. It is awful! You must not lose heart because of it. The time will come when the merciful grace of God will produce a sort of explosion and your Church will be formed.”
On to Lesotho
Hope of success was to rise soon. In November 1861, Bishop Allard and Fr.Gérard went to Bloemfontein and then to Lesotho. In February 1862 they were welcomed by the nation’s great chief, Moshoeshoe. He agreed to let them open a mission station and gave them a site. They returned to Natal to collect their belongings and later in 1862 made the fifty-four day journey back to establish themselves among the Basotho. This time their efforts bore fruit. The year 1865 saw the baptism of seven adults in the presence of Moshoeshoe himself. The “explosion of God’s merciful grace” was beginning. Today there is a dynamic Church in Lesotho, Joseph Gérard, deeply revered by the Basotho, has been declared Blessed, and the Oblate Province of Lesotho is the biggest in Southern Africa.
Oblate presence today
Today, 150 years later, the vision of St Eugene De Mazenod for Southern Africa is being realised. The Church in all the northern provinces of South Africa is thriving. The original "Apostolic Vicariate of Natal" under Bishop Allard and his small band of Oblates, has become numerous dioceses, each with their own bishops and priests. Eight of these bishops are Oblates. There are 248 Oblate priests, 29 brothers and 75 scholastics.
In 1957 Fr Philip Erasme, the then Provincial of the Transvaal Province of the Oblates, at the behest of Bishop O'Leary, the Bishop of Johannesburg and himself an Oblate, purchased land for a new school that is St.Benedict's today. Fr Hugh Dalton OMI was appointed its first headmaster and the school commenced on 22nd January 1958 with twenty-four Form I (Grade 8) pupils. The School has become another instance of "the explosion of God's merciful grace" and now provides Catholic education for 1 420 boys.