Trappist Missions Tour through No-Mans’-Land.

July 15, 2016 Nicki von der Heyde
Church at Lourdes Trappist Mission
Church at Lourdes Mission

Anyone interested in countryside, architecture, stained glass, history or culture will enjoy a visit to the Trappist Missions in south eastern KwaZulu-Natal.  Magnificent cathedrals, each one an architectural masterpiece, loom unexpectedly out of remote and beautiful landscapes, the legacy of Trappist monks who built up more than 20 mission stations in the late 19th century.

Francis Pfanner

Francis Pfanner was the instigator; a red-headed maverick full of unstoppable energy, who became a tragic figure torn between two noble but incompatible ideals. There are tales of mystery, controversy and attempted murder as the Trappist monks attempted to tame rural Africa.

Church doors locked

It is essential to make prior arrangements for a Trappist missions tour, for without prior arrangement you risk arriving at a mission only to find the magnificent church doors firmly locked. The missions are no longer under the auspices of the Trappists but are run by Brothers and Sisters who all do wonderful work among the local community.

Roads and clearance

The roads are all suitable for a saloon car, although one with a reasonable clearance is preferable. In one day it is possible to visit as many as five mission stations, each with its own unique character and beauty.


A good place to begin is Centacow Mission, near Creighton. The tarred road winds dramatically down into the Umzimkulu River Valley and the mission is built on rising ground overlooking the river plain. The original church, built in 1888, has been lovingly restored and now houses a museum and an art gallery.

Mariannhill and Reichenau

Photographs of the first, mother-mission station at Mariannhill, are on display. Mariannhill near Pinetown was the farm where Pfanner built first a mill, and then a chapel, farm buildings and a schoolhouse. The size and reputation of the mission grew rapidly and soon there was a request from a Zulu chief near Underberg for a mission station, where his people could learn to read.

Pfanner obliged with the building of Reichenau. It was situated on the banks of the Pholela River and the waterfall was used to drive a mill to grind the maize. Soon a flourishing farm was operating as the Trappist Order was obliged to be self-sufficient.

Reichenau was a four-day journey from Mariannhill (on foot, with a pack-donkey). The Trappists were bound by their oath to pray every night in a church, and so Pfanner built a string of missions between Reichenau and Mariannhill, each one of them a day’s journey on foot. All developed into centres for learning and evangelising. More missions were built on fertile farmland, to provide food for the Trappists, their pupils and converts.

The Griquas

Your mission tour will take you from Centecow into an area that used to be known as ‘No-Mans’-Land.’  There is still controversy as to whether it should be part of the Eastern Cape or KwaZulu-Natal. It was the home of the Griqua people and contested by the Basuto, the Zulu and the British. This beautiful land, steeped in blood, was the arena for much of Francis Pfanner’s enormous endeavour. Lourdes Mission was his most ambitious project and the magnificent, ruined buildings are breathtaking even today.

Triumph and Tragedy

Pfanner’s life was one of both triumph and tragedy. His triumph lay in the number of huge, beautiful churches and thriving, successful mission stations he planted in a very short time. But tragedy lay in the conflict he caused within the Trappist order. The Trappist order was contemplative and monks were sworn to silence. Pfanner’s vision of education and transformation was not compatible with silence.


He was removed from office in 1892 and forced to live out the last seventeen years of his life at Emaus, a remote and arid place.

He was furthermore forbidden to have anything to do with his life-work, the missions. He built nonetheless a church and, beginning aged 68, hewed with a crowbar and a hoe a series of stairs up the steep mountain behind the church, interposed by the 12 Stations of the Cross.

On the summit he placed a life-size Crucifix. Don’t miss the opportunity to climb these stairs and stand at the cross to wonder at the passion and heartbreak of this colossal man. Contact to arrange a self-drive missions tour.

Emaus Trappist Mission, Umzimkulu
Emaus Mission, Umzimkulu