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The Design Train blogs are a series of articles researched and written by Andrew Knapp for submission to various publications and sites. The articles cover a wide range of topics and can be adapted and edited for use in various styles of media application.

  • Writer's pictureAndrew Knapp

Sandstone Churches in the Eastern Free State

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Sandstone has played a major role in the history of the Eastern Free State which can be seen in the number of sandstone buildings found throughout the area. The popularity of sandstone started in the 1870’s through to the 1940’s and this can be seen in the many beautiful sandstone churches that became the centerpieces in the newly developing settlements and villages. Eastern Free State sandstone is of the Molteno formation and is of the best quality found throughout South Africa. The stone, used to build many national monuments, including the Union Buildings in Pretoria, was quarried in the Ficksburg area. Here we take you through a small selection of the 70 sandstone churches that can be found in this fascinating corner of the country.

56km north of Harrismith lies Warden. It deserves mention as it houses one of the largest Dutch Reformed churches in South Africa. It was built in 1917, but only completed in 1923 after the local farmers sold off 600 sheep and 1500 head of cattle to subsidize its completion. The Church is larger than the Sydney Opera House with seating for 1,750 persons. It is said that the sandstone contains various fossils like shell and little sea creatures proving that the area was under sea water at some stage. It has a 42 meter tower, and Romanesque and Gothic elements can be discerned in the architecture. It was designed by F Hesse and built by members of the local congregation.

In Harrismith we find the Anglican Chapel of St John the Baptist.

The history of the Anglican community n Harrismith dates to 1850. At the time there were only 6 buildings in the new settlement, with the first church constructed in 1874. The Duke of Conaught and Strathearn laid the cornerstone of the present church in 1906 when it was consecrated.

Along with the Town Hall, it is the oldest building in Harrismith.

Kestell boasts the second largest church in the Free State.The magnificent building stands in the middle of town and was designed by the famous architect Gerard Moerdijk, best known for his design of the Voortrekker Monument. It seats 1,000 people.

The classic porch and columns coupled with the Roman arches and door openings lend to its impressive facade. The Church celebrated its 85th birthday on the 31st March 2013. The Church had opened its doors in the beautiful sandstone building in 1928.

In Clarens we find the St Hilda’s. Although the first Anglican and Methodist services were held from 1885, the present church on the corner of Bester & Roos Streets was built in 1936 and serves both the Anglican and Methodist communities.

The Dutch Reformed Church services had been held prior to 1920, but it was in that year that the first wood and iron church was built on the corner of main & Naude Street (now Rosewood Corner guest house).

The large sandstone church that visitors now admire was built in 1940/1, with the cornerstone being unveiled by Ds JJ Le Roux on 24th February 1940. The ‘pastorie’ was designed by Gerald Moerdijk in 1946.

Interestingly the church tower was originally capped by a Swiss-style 'onion' dome but was replaced by the clock tower you see today as many felt that the dome made the church look like a Mosque!

The Bethlehem Nederduitse Gereformeerde Mother Church on Church Square is a showpiece of sandstone architecture. With its Byzantine /Roman style, the building has an striking facade and spectacular interior with a domed ceiling and an intricately carved pulpit was quarried from stone from Versirskerf, the farm close to Ficksburg..

It was designed by Hawke, McKinley & White of Bloemfontein, the cornerstone laid 1910 and inaugurated 1911.

St Augustine Methodist Church (Louw Str) was designed by CJC Barnard . Bishop Carey consecrated the church in 1928.

St Andrews Presbyterian (Pres. Boshoff & Cambridge Street). This sandstone building is typical of the English church architecture found earlier in most Free State towns.

The cornerstone laid in 1911 Mr J Strapp, head of an influential family in the town.

In Fouriesburg, The NG Kerk: (Brand Street) The church was built on the site of the graves of those who fought alongside Paul Kruger during the Basotho Wars.The cornerstone was laid in 1892 although the inscription states 1893 and inaugurated in 1894. After suffering damage during the Anglo Boer War the church was enlarged in 1908. The present building has been used since 1909.

St Mary’s is a beautiful old sandstone church was built 1911 and the cornerstone laid by Ms. C E Middleton, who also launched the fund raising campaign to have the church built. The first service was held on the 16th April 1912. Interestingly the church was used in the filming of the popular TV series, Meesters. It is now the home to the Fouriesburg United Church serving the residents of the town.

Rosendal , the quaint little town north of Ficksburg was only laid out in 1911. Shortly after the new village was declared a municipality in 1914, the residents called for a church to be built. The imposing church was designed by W Donaldson & Son and built by Clyde Construction Company.

The cornerstone was laid in 1914 by Ds. A J Troskie.

Paul Roux is situated on the N5 south of Bethlehem and boasts a spectacular Dutch Reformed church. As is recounted in the web-page: A Mr Okert van Schalwyk was awarded the tender as the building manager and contractor for the building of the church. The corner stone of the church was laid on 13th of May 1914 by Rev. CP Theron.

The congregation was established on Thursday 25th of June; at that time the walls of the church were 11 ft high. Unfortunately, the building work had to halt during the rebellion at which time grass grew against the walls because clay had been used to hold the bricks together. After the rebellion, the building manager worked quickly and the church building was handed over to the congregation in September 1915. The inauguration took place on 10th February 1917, although the pews were only installed in November 1917.

Ficksburg’s Dutch Reformed Church has a history of community involvement that is inspiring. Ds. JD Kestell was confirmed as the community’s new minister in 1903. He had served as chaplain to General C J de Wet during the Anglo-Boer War. It was decided to build this Romanesque styled church to honour the Boers who had died in the conflict. The site had to be excavated to a depth of 4m to reach bedrock, but remarkably only took 3 years to complete the building.

It was consecrated on 12th April 1907 and is an example of the community spirit of the time. Every member of the congregation worked toward raising funds for project. The women undertook to supply the impressive organ and lights for the building, the young people collected for the bell and the clock which was made by J Smith & Sons of England. Remarkably, even after all this time, it only loses 2 minutes in a week. Even the children of the community were involved, and responsible for the pulpit.

The total cost for the building and furnishing this National Monument was £17 526.00, and is now insured at over R5 million.

Close to Clocolan is the Prynnsberg Estate where an Anglican chapel can be found. This private chapel was designed by the renowned Sir Herbert Baker and built by Sir Charled Newberry, owner of the estate. It is a small chapel of rough-hewn sandstone ashlar with smooth dressed reveals, and features. The Apse is roofed in a timber fan-array of exposed trusses.

Depictions of Newberry's four daughters as angels flank the central stained-glass window of the apse. The church has an English Hillier pipe organ.

Ladybrand’s Dutch Reformed Mother Church was built in 1890 and has a long history. The cornerstone of the first church was laid in 1870. Between 1872 and 1877 a building fund was established for a church construction. The completed building was celebrated in 1891 at a cost of £14,000.00.

In 1906 the organ in the church was installed at a cost of £ 1000. The Jubilee church hall was built during the great depression with the aim of providing work to the many unemployed

There are many more remarkable churches in the region which are worth exploring. While curating the information from various tourism related sites on the internet it became apparent that very little information is available about the history of these buildings. Maybe a project for someone with an interest in our local architecture - maybe even me...I see road trips in the near future!

This article was originally published on the Clarens Butterfly Beds blog page.

Permission for reasonable use can be requested from the author.

Andrew Knapp - The Design Train

© Andrew Knapp 2018

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