Hammanskraal is situated outside Pretoria, and is a huge sprawling informal settlement covering many square miles. Most people are very poor and live in ‘shacks’ or corrugated iron shanties. We have three parishes serving this vast area, and St Matthews is the oldest, started by Fr Jaconiah Thopola when he left mainstream Anglicanism in the early 1990s.
Fr Jaconiah Thopola
Fr Thopola is now an elderly man, and a pensioner, but he has put everything into building St Matthew’s into a centre for the people of Hammanskraal. He welded old buses together to form the framework for a crèche, built a kitchen for a feeding scheme and a church that seats approximately 100 people, all with his own money and more impressively, with his own hands!
Fr Thopola was a choir master for many years and has a beautiful voice. He loves to sing and praise God. He is a delightful person and a faithful Priest of the Lord.
A month ago, a fire broke out in his feeding scheme kitchen. It spread rapidly and destroyed the crèche and Fr Thopola’s living quarters and did serious damage to the church, melting the plastic chairs and doing much other damage, until it was finally put out by the Fire Brigade. It is amazing the Fire Brigade came at all, as municipal service delivery in the area is notoriously poor. At the end of it all, Fr Thopola’s life’s work lay in ruins.
Fr Thopola arrived, dirty and shaken, at the Confirmation in nearby Mamelodi on the Sunday after the fire, and broke down in tears as he told us of his experience.
Fr Martin Magoleng, Fr John Mashiane and Bishop Michael went out to see what had happened. He had already cleared up some of the damage, but the photographs below show the facility in its current condition.
A before and after of St Matthew’s church. Some of the ladies of the parish in the kitchen before the fire (one can see the roofs of the old buses, welded together by Fr Thopola to give some shelter). Some of the crèche material lost in the fire Fr Thopola, Fr Mashiane and Fr Magoleng in the ruins of the crèche. The crockery cupboard in the feeding scheme kitchen. Fr Thopola with parish records! His destroyed fax machine and computer. I was terribly upset to discover that Fr Thopola was sleeping in the church in order to stop any looting of the facility. He was placing 6 chairs together to make up a bed at night! I have arranged a proper bed for him, but he is an elderly person and should not be in such a sooty environment. This was the only solution he could think of at the time, as his living quarters had been completely destroyed.
In the fire, Fr Thopola lost literally everything he owned, his ID Document, Pension Card, all his clothing and all his clerical robes. He was left with what he was wearing at the time.
On Sunday, 5th September, at a lovely Confirmation Mass in St Peter’s, Mathibestad, Bishop Michael and the clergy of the region were able to give Fr Thopola replacements for all his robes, a cassock, a surplice, alb, amice and girdle, together with chasubles and stoles. Fr Thopola cried with gratitude and sang a song of rejoicing to the people, joined in by the whole congregation. It was a good thing to have done and he felt as if people cared about his situation. We are glad that he can function once again in his ministry as a Priest at the Altar of the Lord.
Fr Magoleng and Bishop Michael present a delighted Fr Thopola with his new robes.
We would like to request any assistance possible to restore this ministry of care to the community to Fr Thopola. The least damaged area is the church itself, and so we will probably begin there, but we will need to re-plaster, repaint and refurnish the church before it can be used again.
The crèche and kitchen are too damaged to repair and will have to be demolished and rebuilt. This will be time-consuming and costly, but, as you have already seen, Fr Thopola is not shy to work hard. He has already purchased corrugated sheeting to replace part of the roof from his own State pension money (R900 per month, just over $120.00 per month). His energy and determination are astounding and humbling, especially considering the shock he has been through and his age.
Please pray for the Priest and people of St Matthew’s, Hammanskraal.
+Michael Gill, Southern Africa