In a far-off country lies hidden one of the most remarkable, yet little-known stories in the history of the Church. It’s the story of Father Francis Pfanner and his order of Trappist monks in Natal, now KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa. 

It begins in 1879 at the General Chapter of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, named Trappists after their headquarters at the Abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe in Normandy. In response to a request to send missionaries to the colony of Natal, all the gathered abbots sat in surprised silence at the unlikely appeal. 

Except Father Pfanner, the vigorous, ruddy-haired prior of the Monastery of Mariastern in Bosnia, who rose to his feet and said: “If no one else will go, I will go.”So began the extraordinary venture that would leave a network of 22 monasteries strung out like the precious gems of a necklace across Southeast Africa.  

It was a venture that would inevitably prove a failure, but a “glorious failure,” that changed local African culture and the Trappist order forever.  

Robed strangers 

This remarkable experiment in transplanting medieval European monasticism to Africa saw Father Pfanner and a group of 31 volunteers eventually settle near the village of Pinetown in Natal in 1882. The farm Father Pfanner bought provided everything the brothers needed: rich, agricultural land and a river as a reliable water source. 

On the opposite bank of the river lay the ultimate object of their intentions: a settlement of potential African converts. 

The brothers set to work building a cloister and eventually a church, an imposing towering red-brick structure that still stands, home to a lively local parish. 

As with all the monasteries he founded, Father Pfanner named the new monastery after the Virgin Mary: Mariannhill. It was not long before the indigenous Zulus on the other side of the river became interested in the strange white men in their long habits. The robed strangers were completely different from any European they had encountered before: Just like the locals, the monks toiled under the fierce sun and sometimes sang their daily offices out in the fields. 

Trappist mission trail 

Mariannhill’s success was sealed when the local chief appealed to the brothers to “teach my people the book.” What he meant is unknown, but the chief’s request set off a chain of events that forms the heart of the tourist Trappist Mission Trail that visitors can follow today. 

Since the brothers were under a vow of perpetual silence and forbidden from any teaching activity, the chief’s petition presented Father Pfanner with a dilemma: How could he begin the work of evangelism for which the monks had come?  

Despite his order’s prohibition against any contact with women, and the local bishop’s veto, Father Pfanner brought a group of five women, mostly the daughters of German farmers, to Mariannhill to establish a school. He eventually formed them into an order: the Sisters of the Precious Blood — known at that time as the “Red Sisters” on account of their red skirts. They studied the language and culture of the African people and were charged with teaching catechism classes. The sisters are still active and have their mother house at Mariannhill. 

News of the activity at Mariannhill spread into the interior, and in 1886 Father Pfanner received another request to “teach the book” from a second chief. The ever-inventive prior was by now accustomed to finding ways to get around the contradictory nature of evangelism and contemplative life. To ensure that his monks were able to worship and sleep under a Trappist roof every evening, he set up a network of outstations one day’s ride away from each other. So, even 130 miles away at the new outstation of Centocow near Creighton, or at one of the four in between, they were technically still at Mariannhill.  

Fulfilled vision 

Between 1882 and 1890 the brothers established 22 missions, the furthest 260 miles away at Mariazell. All of them still stand, attesting to the determined energy and vision of Father Pfanner. The glory of this astounding legacy is, however, tinged with failure. 

The Mariannhill experiment inevitably brought many conflicts: between Father Pfanner and the Church, missionary brothers and traditional contemplatives within the order, and between medieval Euro-pean Christianity and traditional African culture. 

When the general council of the order realized the full extent of the changes Abbot Pfanner had made to the Trappist Rule and way of life by writing dispensations to accommodate missionary activity, it removed him from office and exiled him to a distant outstation.  

Father Pfanner spent the last years of his life at Emmaus, waiting for assurance that his life’s work would not be lost.  

During that time the main mission’s activities grew to include 223 lay brothers and 326 nuns at 42 mission stations.  

Shortly before his death in 1909, Father Pfanner received the affirmation he had been awaiting when the Mariannhill Trappists were made a separate order, the Missionary Congregation of Mariannhill, whose priests are still active today.

Julia Denny-Dimitriou writes from South Africa.