Marianhill Monastery

I am standing in God’s country. While I know that I have used that powerful phrase before to describe the gorgeous landscape that surrounds Durban, this time I am being more literal, for the bright green field from which I am staring up at the blue heavens is part of the Marianhill Monastery.Less than a kilometre away from the industrial area of Westmead, the Monastery is at the same time centuries away. The fast-paced, high-tech, cost cutting processes that define industrial work are part of a very different world from the one that the monastery inhabits, and it’s strange to think that these worlds exist side-by-side.

Although a trip to Mariannhill, with its old buildings, peaceful landscape and gentle pace, is always good medicine for the soul, I have not come here with religious needs. Spiritual perhaps but only in the sense that consuming food that has been well prepared is a spiritual experience. I have come here to discover a bit more about the food that is produced on the monastery grounds.

First up is Brother Conrad, a dairy farmer. When I meet him, he is riding his motorbike along the dusty road that leads to his dairy from the central Monastery buildings. He is the very picture of lean and swarthy, looking more like a beatnik than a monk with his bike and his cool, sunburned demeanour.

I stop him and tell him that I’m a journalist and would like to ask him some questions. “What will be the consequences?” he asks. “Well, perhaps, you’ll get more visitors to your dairy, and you’ll sell more milk and yoghurt,” I reply. He gives a brief, contemplative grin, and says: “Follow me.”

Brother Conrad has been working at the monastery for 27 years. He came here in 1980 from Bavaria simply because he had always wanted to come to South Africa. While he shows me around the dairy in which he pasteurises the milk from his cows and makes yoghurt, he tells me a little about the history of the Monastery and the order of Mariannhill (as well as explaining the processes of pasteurisation and homogenisation).

The Monastery was founded in 1882 by Prior Franz Pfanner (who became Abbot three years later) after a failed mission in the Eastern Cape. Pfanner was, by all accounts, a powerful and charismatic figure, whose submission to the strict Trappist order of silence and fasting was absolute.

But everybody in the order didn’t appreciate his strict approach, particularly those monks who wanted to evangelise the local community, something that is particularly difficult when one has taken a vow of silence. Eventually, in 1892, an uprising of sorts took place, and the Catholic Church, which decided subsequently that the Monastery would no longer be Trappist, suspended Brother Francis from his position as Abbot. Instead, a new order was begun, the Order of Mariannhill, which placed more importance on evangelical work than on obligations to the canonical, contemplative life. Over the next century, the Order of Mariannhill established mission stations around the country and around the world.

In his brief history of the Monastery, Conrad also tells me that Mariannhill had substantial impact in opposing the actions of the apartheid government in the area, particularly the execution of the Group Areas Act. Over the decades, tens of thousands of people were spared the agonies of forced removals due to the intervention and firm resolve of the Order.
Conrad clearly places much importance on this fact. He also tells me that a century ago it would have taken a three-day horse ride to traverse the parameter of the Monastery grounds. Now just 35 acres remain, comprising fifteen acres of agricultural land, and twenty acres of forest.

Brother Conrad’s dairy is one of several small-scale food and farming projects that operate within the grounds. On the other side of the valley – in the convent which houses the Sisters of the Precious Blood – I drive down a sloping dust road that takes me down to another dairy. Here Sister Ludmilla operates a small cheese farm. Although Brother Conrad mentioned to me that the method he uses for milking his cows is not very modern, his dairy looks like a space station compared with Sister Ludmilla’s. There is something both timeworn and timeless about the space that Sister Ludmilla occupies, both physically and spiritually. Ludmilla, who came to South Africa from Austria, seems to spend nearly all her time in close proximity to her delicious cheese, which she stores in an old fridge, and weighs with a small digital scale, seemingly her single concession to the 21st century.

Unlike Conrad’s cows, which have demarcated grazing areas, Ludmilla’s cows spend their day traversing the road and the steep banks that surround the dairy.

Watching her cows grazing on banks that seem more suited to mountain goats, while Sister Ludmilla picks salad leaves from some small planter boxes, I am reminded of a quote that I read in the Monastery Tea Garden. “You’re closer to God’s heart in a garden than any place else on earth.” Like most aphorisms, it’s easy to dismiss, but in the agricultural heart of the monastery, the words have great resonance.

Ludmilla and Conrad both produce food that is free from the profit-maximising ingredients that define most modern farming. In other words, their milk, cheese and yoghurt, and the cows from which they came, are all organic. This is the central principle behind Monastery Veggies and Herbs, which supplies farm fresh organic salad leaves and herbs to restaurants all around Durban. Although run by a non-monk, Arnold van Ballegooyen, the organic approach ensures that the produce is as close as possible to how God, or nature, intended. Ballegooyen does acknowledge, however, that he can’t say for certain that his varied assortment of leaves is 100% organic since he doesn’t know what treatment the soil received before he started farming it. But you can rest assured that he hasn’t added anything chemical or artificial to the soil.

In the centre of the monastery, much of this farming comes together at the Monastery Tea Garden, which uses the bulk of the monastery produce, and whose delicious food is proof that you can also get pretty close to God in the kitchen. The Tea Garden is a family business run by Tracey and David Dougans as well as David and Jean De Villiers. It is the perfect place to get a really good meal, and at the same time escape the stresses and pressures of the secular world.

The Tea Garden also sells rye bread from the Jabulani self-help project, located just outside the Monastery. A fresh batch is made every Friday but it quickly sells out. The bakery also produces plain brown bread for sale to the local community. On your way from the Tea Garden to Sister Ludmilla, you’ll pass a wall of stone that separates the Monastery’s cemetery from the road. It is here that Abbot Franz Pfanner is buried.

While Pfanner might not have been pleased with the abandonment of the Trappist Order at Mariannhill, the Monastery nonetheless still stands as a monument to his strength and vision, more than a century after his death.
And it’s strange to think that were it not for his vision, many of Durban’s finest restaurants might not have organic ingredients in their salads.

Written by Peter Machen
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