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Br. Christopher Zimmerman, Southern Africa

 

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More than two decades helping those most in need in the Eastern Cape Province

03/07/2019: South Africa

After almost 22 years of missionary and educational work with the most needy in Uitenhage, South Africa, Br. Christopher Zimmermann returned to the Marist community in Johannesburg in mid-June of this year.

Since his arrival in Uitenhage in 1996, Brother Chris has fostered the educational development and nutrition of tens of thousands of underprivileged families. We then share with you his life witness.

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“At the Provincial Chapter in 1976 the then South African Province decided on a two thronged thrust for its future:

(1) To open leadership posts in our schools to Lay people and to organise programs that would assist Lay Marists to deepen their understanding and appreciation of St. Marcellin and their Marist Vocation. To this end a Marist Schools’ Council was set up to lead the schools, and various ways of sharing Our Call as Marists were introduced – e.g. workshops, pilgrimages for lay Marists to Rome and Champagnat Country, activities involving the 5 Marist Schools in South Africa.

(2) Becoming more involved with the poor. To this end Brothers went to work in the Transkei (Umthata), Soweto, Slough (Bophutatswana), the Cape Flats.

Open Schools and Apartheid

The Apartheid Government legislated that there must be separate schools for the different race groups. Catholic teaching saw all human beings as members of one family, children of the same Father. As far back as 1957 The Southern African Bishops’ Conference made the following statement: “The practice of segregation, though officially not recognised in our churches, characterises nevertheless many of our church societies, our schools, our seminaries, convents, hospitals and the social life of our people. In the light of Christ’s teaching this cannot be tolerated forever.” In the 1980’s the Catholic schools and hospitals began to defy this segregation and people of all races were accepted. The State did it’s best to stop this. Br. Jude played an important role in this battle between Church and state and it is part of the background of my move to Uitenhage in 1996.

The Apartheid Government legislated that there must be separate schools for the different race groups. Catholic teaching saw all human beings as members of one family, children of the same Father. As far back as 1957 The Southern African Bishops’ Conference made the following statement: “The practice of segregation, though officially not recognised in our churches, characterises nevertheless many of our church societies, our schools, our seminaries , convents, hospitals and the social life of our people. In the light of Christ’s teaching this cannot be tolerated forever.” In the 1980’s the Catholic schools and hospitals began to defy this segregation and people of all races were accepted. The State did it’s best to stop this. Br. Jude played an important role in this battle between Church and state and it is part of the background of my move to Uitenhage in 1996.

Marists back to Uitenhage

When the Brothers withdrew from the mission in Slough it was decided to find another mission. Uitenhage, in the diocese of Port Elizabeth, was chosen. The points mentioned above had much to do with this choice, but it also had a special significance. The Brothers had a school in Uitenhage from 1884 to 1954. When South Africa became a Marist Province, the Provincial house was in Uitenhage. There are 22 Brothers buried in the Uitenhage cemetery. The Brothers rented the former community house of the Dominican Sisters on 12 Baird Street. It was part of the Convent Primary School. The move to Uitenhage took place in 1996.

The new Uitenhage community was also to be a postulancy house. The community members were Br Vincent and myself, together with two young brothers, Br. Timothy Rennick and Br. Nimrod Diamond. Brothers Vincent, Timothy and Nimrod Taught at the nearby Dominican Schools, Marymount and Convent Primary. These schools served the local Xhosa community.

I was involved with the Postulants and recruiting and started working with the four church owned farm schools in the Sundays River Valley and schools In Grahamstown and King Williamstown. I was appointed the Bishop’s representative on the governing bodies of these schools.  This involved working with the staffs of the schools (Courses in Catechetics, Scripture, management and personal growth), building additional classrooms and putting up fences. Sr. Laurentia OSM helped with the courses. The Irish Embassy, Stichting Porticus, Br. Neil’s Culture of Learning, local Citrus Companies and the Catholic Diocese of Port Elizabeth (Then under Bishop Michael Coleman) were very generous in providing funds. Four classrooms for reception classes, two general purpose classrooms and 11 ordinary classrooms were built. At in the Valley schools football fields were levelled, grassed and irrigation systems were installed. The ongoing challenge is to maintain the buildings and fields.

Partnership with Mercy Sisters

 In March 2006 the Mercy Sisters, (Martha, Breda and Mary), came to Addo. It was the beginning of a wonderful experience of men and women religious working together to build the Kingdom of God. Some of the fruits of this work are the Place of Mercy (Valencia, an early childhood education centre catering for 150 children), computer labs in each of the 4 schools and a lab for over 20 adults at St.Colmcils(Kirkwood), a sewing group (Addo Township Designs), a pre-school (Lwazi Creche. Dunbrody), 10 soup kitchens.

Marist care and the Camp

Thanks above all to Jason Grieve, a former student of St. Henry’s Marist School, Durban, the head boy and head girl of each of the five Marist Schools in South Africa help to run a camp every year for poor children in Langbos, an informal settlement near Addo. Over 300 children are involved. Marist Care, with the help of Stichting Porticus, built a community centre there and it is the centre of the camp every year. Getting these leaders to the camp every year entails a lot of travelling and the South African Sector of the Southern African Marist Province helps to fund this.

One of the fruits of these activities is that many people have become aware of how the poor in South Africa, a country with one of the biggest gaps between rich and poor, live. For me to be able to share in these activities has been a privilege and a very enriching experience, for which I am very grateful.”

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