A brief history of Carmel in Rivonia and Benoni 1931-2021

In 1927 two South African women, Inez Etheridge and Natalie Schroeder, entered Darlington Carmel, England with the hopes of one day ‘coming home’ on a foundation. Four years later their dream came true and in the company of four professed sisters and a young lay sister, they set sail from England bound for Johannesburg. On the boat with them was Hilary Rowland, another South African who had come to Darlington with the intention of joining Carmel. She put on her postulant’s dress when the group reached Durban

Bishop O’Leary of Johannesburg had informed the sisters that he had found a property for them in La Rochelle, so the South Africans were astonished when on arrival, the Bishop drove them north rather than south … for in the meantime, the Bishop had acquired an insolvent tea garden “Wagstaff’s” in Rivonia. This would become Carmel’s home for 60 years.

The Community grew rapidly in those early years. Almost immediately the sisters began baking altar breads over a small primus stove, securing a steady income which still sustains the community to this day. A building project was embarked upon – a second story added and cloisters designed. In 1934 Bishop Arnoz of Bulawayo invited the sisters to bring Carmel to his diocese. St Mary’s Carmel, Hillside, Bulawayo was begun by five sisters from Rivonia, but it was too soon for such a venture and the Carmel closed in 1936

In 1952, four sisters founded the Carmel of Wynberg in Cape Town. In 1965, Sisters from Rivonia would also help with the establishment of Carmel in Lubumbashi, DRC. These were indeed years of flourishing, and growth.

Mother Dorothy Mary was first elected prioress after the Wynberg foundation, and would hold this office many times during her long life (1899-1986). She was a well-known figure in the diocese, spiritual guide to many priests and friend and confident to countless lay people. Under her direction, a group of Secular Carmelites was begun

With so many vocations, a new novitiate wing was built and the Chapel renovated in the early 1960s, and finally, with all debts paid – the Chapel was solemnly dedicated on 24th May, 1969. However, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a crisis in the community led to the departure from the Order of seven solemnly professed sisters. The community never really recovered from the loss of these gifted women in their 40s and 50s, but continued its life of prayer, faithful observance and austerity. Meantime rural Rivonia had developed into a busy commercial centre, the high walls of the Carmel protected the sisters’ enclosed life as South Africa lived through the years of apartheid, the violent protests and struggles of the people.

Sr Marie Thérèse had entered Rivonia in 1961 and was Novice Mistress for many years, helping those entrusted to her care to deepen their contemplative commitment and enter fully into the joys and sorrows of community life. In 1980 Sr Thérèse from Zimbabwe, entered Rivonia, she was the last to stay and made solemn profession there in 1986. By this time the community faced the challenge of many elderly sisters, lack of vocations and a building which showed the effects of age. The wiring system alone was a serious fire hazard. In 1990 Fr Camilo Maccise, General of the Order visited the community and for the first time the suggestion was made to move from Rivonia.

It was a tough and difficult decision, but after celebrating 60 years in Rivonia, and under the guidance of Sr Anne Cunningham who had joined the community in 1989 after the closure of Presteigne Carmel, Wales, the community agreed to move to a former Portuguese Convent in Brentwood Park. Bishop Orsmond celebrated the last Sunday Mass in Rivonia on 26th July, 1992. At a subsequent visitation in 1993, it was decided that the community should be dispersed, several elderly sisters needed assistance and were lovingly cared for by the Holy Cross Sisters, Holy Family Sisters, and in Nazareth House. The other sisters found homes in Darlington, Mauritius, Mafikeng, and Wynberg Carmels.

After the trauma of the dispersal, Sr Anne and Sr Thérèse, were asked by the Superior General of the Order to remain in Johannesburg in order to visit and attend to the needs of the elderly sisters in care homes. The community was augmented by the arrival of Sr Joan from Sclerder, England and Sr Sally from Nairobi Carmel. Sr Anne was also asked to work for the re-establishment of Carmel in the diocese. Lubumbashi Carmel in DRC had told us – you build the monastery, we will send the sisters. A property was found in Benoni North and Carmel’s new home became a reality. Lubumbashi’s offer of sisters did not quite happen as planned, but Benoni Carmel became a place of welcome to many sisters from Carmels in Rwanda, Kenya and Congo who needed medical treatment and rest. Rwandan Sr Benedicta joined the community from her exile in France in May 1997, and Sr Marie and Sr Louise from Lubumbashi, arrived a month later. In 1999 a crisis in Mafikeng Carmel led to four professed sisters joining Benoni. Sr Jacinta, Sr Bernadette, Sr Marie Thérèse and Sr Lucia all had connections with Rivonia and together a new community was formed.

Sr Louise made her Solemn Profession in March 2000 amid great joy. Her funeral took place six months later, after a brave struggle with kidney failure. Sr Chawezi joined the community in 2005 and made Solemn Vows in 2010. And so the years have slipped by, the garden and trees grew beautiful, providing an oasis of peace in a changing environment of property development around us. Sr Anne, Sr Joan and Sr Jacinta returned to Carmels in Ireland and Scotland in 2011, their mission in Africa completed. 2017 saw the arrival of new fully automatic baking machines from Italy, a big advance on the primitive hand cutters and tiny irons of the early years.

Once again the community stands at a crossroad, few in number, aging, in a time of pandemic, and yet still committed to live out the charism of prayer entrusted to us. As in Rivonia so in Benoni, wonderful friends support and value Carmel’s presence. What the future holds we do not know, but we do know that in everything God works for good with those who love God (cf Romans 8:28). So in quiet trust we wait for the God of surprises to make all things new.