Designed by Sir Herbert Baker and once led by the legendary Archbishop Desmond Tutu, St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town is a strong symbol of democracy in South Africa. Not only does it have fine music and bell-ringing traditions, but it was once also an inspiring bulwark against the forces of apartheid.

Did you know?

The original St George’s Church followed the Gothic style of St Pancras Church in London.

The oldest Anglican cathedral in southern Africa is the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr in Wale Street, central Cape Town.

You might pop in of a Sunday night and hear the excellent St George’s Choir in full throat at Evensong, a tradition of music service that has been going here since 1857.

You could also hear the ‘greats’ being performed: Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Stravinsky. By now, it is as if the stone walls of this beloved ‘people’s cathedral’ have been infused with voice and fine music.

Why ‘people’s cathedral’? That’s mainly because of what happened on 13 September 1989, more than four years before the democratic South African elections of 27 April 1994.

More than 30 000 people drawn from all the race and culture groups of Cape Town were led in a mass protest march from St George’s Cathedral by, among others, the legendary Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

It was as if South Africa had ‘had enough’ of apartheid, and would no longer tolerate the current State of Emergency, enforced racial segregation and the long years of political violence.

The march went off peacefully and the authorities remained at bay. There was no confrontation, because even the powers of the day could see the writing on the wall. Change was coming to South Africa.

It is also believed that Tutu coined an important phrase connected to that event: ‘And so we came to the cathedral to pray, Muslim, Jew, Christian, black, white – our rainbow nation – and as we walked out into the streets of Cape Town it was exhilarating to be joined by thousands, swept along in the realisation of the dream that freedom is possible,’ he said afterwards.

St George’s Cathedral had by then become a refuge for the downtrodden and politically oppressed. And even though they’ve been trying to complete final construction of the cathedral since 1847, its spiritual significance to the people of Cape Town – and South Africa at large – is strong.

Its glorious stained glass windows include a white Christ and a black Christ.

Before 1834, when St George’s Church was opened, Capetonian Anglicans worshipped at the Castle and at the giant Groote Kerk at the top of Adderley Street. The church officially became a cathedral on 25 June 1847, and when Bishop George Gray arrived to take up his post the next year, he was unimpressed with the building. He wanted a grander one.

The foundation stone of the new cathedral was only laid on 22 August, 1901 – and the building was designed by the famous Sir Herbert Baker. Although as a visitor you might not notice it, the cathedral is still a work in progress.

Another great feature of St George’s Cathedral is the set of 10 ringing bells. The faithful band of cathedral ringers are on duty every Sunday and they regularly host ringing groups from around the world, and invite them to chime in at both weekend services.

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