The Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Oudtshoorn owes its origins to the renewal of the Afrikaans Apostolate that took place at the end of the eighties in the twentieth century.
In the fifties and sixties, of the twentieth century, the Catholic Church reached out to the Afrikaans speakers, particularly through the Dutch speaking priests of the Dominican Order. A Catholic Afrikaner Centre was opened in Pretoria and several publications were printed. Unfortunately, all the time and energy spent on this Apostolate resulted in a meagre harvest. Various reasons can be put forward for this: in some ways, the time was not right for a full scale conversion of Afrikaans speakers to Catholicism while the political climate had kept alive the traditional mistrust amongst Afrikaners against the “Roman Danger” and in some instances, it led to an increase of anti-Catholic sentiment, especially under the Afrikaners.
The Catholic Church’s increasing involvement in the struggle for social justice further hampered the position of white Afrikaners in the Church. Within a generation or two many white Afrikaans Catholic families had become Anglicised because they found it too difficult to keep their Afrikaner identity within the Church (seen in the light of what white Afrikaners were doing to the land) or practice their faith within the same Catholic community (where they were often denounced and ostracised as public enemies or even traitors). Funds which were originally meant for the Afrikaans Apostolate were often channelled to other projects which appeared more important at that time. Several of the Dutch priests who had been involved in the Afrikaans ministry had died or been transferred to other areas where Afrikaans was not used in the local church. Eventually publication of the outstanding Afrikaans monthly review, “Die Brug”, was stopped and the Catholic Afrikaner Centre closed its doors.
The Soweto uprising further stigmatised Afrikaans in the Church as the “white oppressor’s language”. A large drawback of the then Catholic Afrikaner Centre as well as the attitude of a large section of the Catholic community was that a very significant fact was totally ignored: the fact that over a period of more than a century an indigenous Afrikaans speaking Catholic community had developed and grown. In the Western and Northern Cape, as well as throughout Namibia, Afrikaans was and is the mother tongue of thousands of Catholics. In several Dioceses especially Keetmanshoop, Keimoes-Upington and Oudtshoorn, Afrikaans speakers are in the majority amongst the Catholic population. The Catholic Afrikaner Centre’s activities were mainly aimed at the conversion and serving of white Afrikaans speakers. The basis of many of the anti-Afrikaans elements in the Church was that Afrikaans was the language of the White Apartheid Regime only. The fact that there was already a lively Afrikaans Language Catholic culture amongst the Coloureds was acknowledged by few, within or outside the Church. An exemption was the German Pallotine priests, brothers and sisters who worked mainly in the Southern Cape, as well as the Oblates of St. Francis De Sales, who ministered almost exclusively in the Afrikaans language, to the Catholic communities in mainly the Northern Cape and Namibia.
After the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the use of the vernacular in the Liturgy and Church life became a fact of everyday life. The fact that basic Liturgical texts in Afrikaans were lacking was a problem that could no longer be ignored. Archbishop Emeritus Dennis Hurley of Durban (then the Chairman of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference) approached an Afrikaans speaking priest in his Diocese, Fr. J. N. Johnson, and asked him to convene a team to translate the Roman Altar Missal and Lectionary Volumes into Afrikaans. At that time Fr. Johnson was the Administrator of the Durban Cathedral and under his leadership an office with a full-time secretary (Me. T. Currin-Vieyra) was established there. The task that awaited them was difficult: within the Catholic circles there were few people who possessed the necessary language skills as well as knowledge of Catholic Church language (besides the source languages), while qualified translators from outside the Church could not possibly understand the specific needs and nuances that Church language poses. Despite all the aforementioned problems work progressed well. A very positive result of this undertaking was that Afrikaans speaking Catholics from a wide spectrum came to meet and know each other.
Eventually an Afrikaans Language Pastoral Region was established as a subsidiary of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. An executive committee was established under the chairmanship of Bishop Edward Adams of Oudtshoorn and regular meetings were held, at which Afrikaans Catholics from all over South Africa and Namibia and people concerned with the Afrikaans ministry came together. Many of these people wanted a new all-inclusive centre where besides translating, the centuries old Catholic religious life could be practised within the bounds of a community rhythm and lifestyle. This idea was the seed that led to the establishment of the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Oudtshoorn. Meanwhile the first Liturgical publications appeared: there was much pleasure when the Afrikaans Roman Altar Missal was published in 1989, followed by the first volume of a three volume Afrikaans Lectionary series in 1992.
On the 1st of July 1992, Frs. J. N. Johnson and P. F. Vietri, together with D. W. Dettmer, a seminarian, took up residence in Oudtshoorn and with permission from Bishop Adams, began to live the traditional community life of the Church. It had already been decided that the Congregation of the Oratory with its unique charisma would be the ideal community in which to form the core of the broader Afrikaans Language Apostolate. Interested people came and a few stayed. In 1993 L. D. Mostert and J. H. Boshoff joined the community which by then had obtained permission from the Procurator General, of the Confederation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, to function as a Proto-Oratory. This was a time of growing pains and feet finding. Progress was made with the translations and publication thereof (the second volume of the Lectionary in 1992 and the third volume in 1997) and as soon as was possible the community’s chapel would echo with the age-old prayers of the Church being prayed in Afrikaans.
On 15 August 1997 the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Oudtshoorn was canonically established. Fr. J. N. Johnson was elected as the first Provost and Fr. D. W. Dettmer as Vicar. The other founding members were Fathers P. F. Vietri and A. V. Cox, Brothers L.D. Mostert and V. D. M. Meyer (seminarians) and Brothers P. C. Shitima and J. H. Boshoff (lay brothers). Fr. Johnson’s term of office ended in 2002 and Fr. D. W. Dettmer was elected Provost.