Before Pella was named, it was called Cammas Fonteyn. It was a place near a spring with abundant water where missionaries regularly preached to the Hottentot and Bushmen who lived in that wild stretch known as Bushmanland.
In 1814 the bloodthirsty Nama chief Jager Afrikaner attacked the mission at Warmbad in Great Namaqualand and its people fled south across the Orange River to Cammas Fonteyn. It was then that the resident minister of the London Missionary Society named it Pella, after the town in ancient Palestine which became a refuge for persecuted Christian fleeing across the Jordan river.
The Mission, however, was abandoned after the minister and his family were killed by Bushmen. The buildings were plundered and through the years used as overnight shelter by travellers.
During the late eighteen sixties when the border territories were under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Leonard of the Cape thought it prudent to evangelise the region. Father A. Gaudeul and Brother George were sent from France to establish a mission at the copper mine at Springbok, but shortly after they arrived the mine closed. Providential for the two abandoned missionaries just at that time a Catholic farmer, Mr John Hayes from near Aggenys, came to Springbok to have two of his daughters baptised. Learning of the priest’s predicament, he told Father Gaudeul of the deserted mission station near his farm. On it a rectory still stood as well as some other derelict buildings which could be renovated and put to almost immediate use.
After having visited the site and finding it indeed ideal for his purpose, Father Gaudeul wrote to the authorities in Cape Town, asking for permission to settle. His request was granted. The government retained ownership of the land but promised to reimburse them for all expenses incurred for any improvements made, should it ever have reason to revoke the Mission’s right of property. With a copy of this document in his possession, Father Gaudeul, together with Brother George, set out to establish the new Mission.
The Lutherans petitioned against it, but to no avail. At Pella the first Roman Catholic Mission in the territory was founded.
The two devoted missionaries lived in utter poverty with hardly any material possessions or comforts, and as their parishioners were as destitute, these could contribute nothing. But they worked hard in the interest of the Church and by 1878 the inhabitants of Pella numbered one hundred, half of which were Catholic.
It was not to last. The Society of African Missions of Lyons decided to recall its missionaries from the Cape border districts—Father Gaudeul and Brother George would have to go.
When the Vicar Apostolic of the Cape, Bishop Leonard, heard of this, he went to Europe to find a Congregation willing to take over the evangelisation of the region. He sought out the founder of the Oblates of Saint Francis de Sales, Father Louis Brisson, who reacted favourably.
On the 14th of July 1882 five missionaries left France to arrive at Pella on the 4th of September—Father Simon, Father Jouaux, Brother Giraud, Father Champlin, a priest from the Diocese of Dijon, and his brother, a sub-deacon. Three weeks later, on the 25th of September, Father Gaudeul and Brother George left Pella, never to return. Father Simon and the younger Champlin accompanied them.
Two weeks later Father Simon returned, eager to start work, but before long both Father Champlin and his brother, as well as Brother Giraud, lost heart at the squalor of their mission. They left and only Father Simon and Father Jouaux remained.
However, barely five months later Father Jouaux also had to leave due to ill-health and at the end of February 1883 returned to France.
Father Simon, twenty-four years old, was on his own.
After six months of solitude and privation with only Dawid Hollenbach, a young man in his service, for company, more missionaries arrived from France in O’okiep. Father Simon, eager to meet the newcomers, hurried over and immediately recognised Father Bécoulet, who had been a fellow student at the Seminary at Lyons. The others were unknown to him: Father Ceyte and three Oblate Sisters of Saint Francis de Sales, Sister Francoise-Marie, Sister Louise-Augustine and Sister Paul-Joseph. On 28th August 1883 they arrived at Pella—and were plunged into privation.
A four room house would be their home. The largest room, three metres square, was given to the Sisters, while the Fathers occupied two other rooms which together were barely as big as the first. The fourth room was the storeroom and workshop combined, as before.
As Sr Paul-Joseph could speak Dutch, she was put in charge of the Catechism class. Sr Louise-Augustine helped in school, and Sr Francoise-Marie, the Superior, took charge of cooking and cleaning. The Priests, therefore, had time to start building much-needed new quarters, ie a convent for the Sisters.
Father Bécoulet had brought with him the Encyclopédie des Arts et Métiers, from which they gleaned all the information they needed and through sheer perseverance two years later the building was complete, save for the plastering. They were determined not to plaster this new building, their very first, with a coating of manure as was customary in the region, and started looking for a nobler substance.
Father Simon had noticed rocks which were very similar to the limestone in France and they decided to burn some of them and see what happened. On a slope they made a hole in the ground and set iron bars inside to serve as a grate. They filled the hole with the stones and kept a good fire going under the grate for thirty-six hours. Two days later the contents of the improvised kiln were cooled and beautiful light-weight stones resulted. They would soon see if this was lime, for if it was, the stones would be reduced to a paste when sprinkled with water. They made the experiment, and waited in great expectation, but nothing happened. Greatly disappointed, they turned away.
Father Simon happened to have a sack in his hand. Without another thought than to get rid of it, he threw it on the worthless heap of stones and walked off. A few hours later he went back to get his sack and found to his utter delight that the stones he had inadvertently covered had turned into a fine powder. It was quicklime of the highest quality.
The manufacture of lime became an industry at Pella and it was sold as far away as Springbok and O’okiep at 75 cents per sack.
In September 1884 Bishop Leonard of the Cape visited Pella. He appreciated the work done by the Oblates of St Francis de Sales in the desolate territory which had been granted them on a trial basis for three years and at his recommendation, the Mission was proclaimed Prefecture Apostolic. This was a gesture of confidence and, to the missionaries, the first palpable proof of their permanent establishment in Bushmanland and Namaqualand.
Almost as important, the Bishop succeeded in having the school officially approved for day scholars and boarders. This meant a substantial increase in the funds allotted the Mission.
The following year twenty children who were partially subsidised by the Government and partially supported by their parents were enrolled in the school. Gradually the parents also settled at the Mission and in 1909 there were about five hundred people living at Pella while the school had a regular enrolment of sixty or seventy pupils.
By 1886 the old rectory which served as school and church had become inadequate for the increasing number of Catholics. Pella needed a proper church.
There were no funds to call in an architect or Master Builder. The priests would have to build it themselves and so the young missionaries Father Simon, Brother Leo Wolf, Brother Paul Rougelot, Father Fromentin and, later, Father Bécoulet, set to work.
Two hundred cartloads of sand for levelling the ground, four hundred wagon loads of stones for laying the foundation, five hundred journeys to the Orange River to haul back four hundred bricks at a time, three hundred and fifty bags of slaked lime for the mortar and finally two wagon loads a day of hard-won willow wood which Brother Leo swam through the treacherous Orange River - all to build a cathedral in the desert.
The rounded arch above the doorway was designed, the wedge-shaped bricks were made, a spiral staircase of which a professional would have been proud led up to a roomy gallery.
By 1893 the brickwork was completed and all that remained was to put on the roof and construct the spire.
For seven years they toiled until there, on the hot sands of the desert, stood the white cathedral, built in Roman and Gothic style. The large clock as well as the big bell were gifts from France.
The solemn blessing was to take place at Christmas time in 1894, but it was postponed because of a devastating drought (which was to last until 1897). Eventually the ceremony took place on 15th August 1895, with Bishop Rooney, Coadjutor Bishop of the Cape, presiding. About eight hundred people attended.
Today Pella, although small, is a veritable oasis in the arid Bushmanland and a welcome stopover to both tourists and travellers.