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IIn most churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and cathedrals in South Africa there is a deeply rooted relationship between religion and politics.

Designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Frank Fleming, the Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin hardly shied away from joining a growing hymn of resistance against the system of racial segregation and discrimination.

It was one of the first few racially integrated churches during the 1950s in central Johannesburg, and in 1975, the cathedral appointed Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its first black dean.

Did You Know?
RReverend John Darragh was the first rector of St Mary's Cathedral (which was St Mary’s Church at the time).

UUnder Tutu’s leadership, the adjoining Darragh House – which was owned by the church – became a cradle of democracy that housed some of the work, meetings and services that went into dismantling the shackles of apartheid.

St Mary’s Cathedral

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BBeyers Naudé, a South African cleric, theologian and a leading Afrikaaner anti-apartheid activist also served at the helm of the church at one point. Befitting its historical significance, the cathedral served as an ideal place to host Helen Joseph’s funeral in 1993, where Nelson Mandela gave a heartfelt speech.

Helen, who Mandela described as “a figure who has helped to shape our destiny and an indelible part of our history", dedicated herself single-mindedly to opposing apartheid – a commitment that earned her the ANC's highest award, the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Medal. In the same year, family members, friends and dignitaries gathered at the cathedral to pay their last respects to former president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo while his body lay in state.

SStanding boldly on the corner of Wanderers and De Villiers streets and in the heart of the inner city, the five-storey cathedral is still as charming as it was when it was consecrated in 1929.

Its visually-appealing Romanesque-Italian architecture is complemented by the spectacular works of art displayed across three chapels: the chapel of St John Chrysostom; All Souls Chapel – which pays tribute to the fallen South African soldiers in The Great War; and the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle.

At the entrance of the All Souls Chapel is one of two statues of the Madonna, called Mamasoabi (Our Lady of Sorrows) while the other one stands quaintly next to the pulpit.

At the east end of the cathedral, a life-size wood carving of the Crucifixion, designed by Baden Beadle, hangs in a commanding position above the chancel steps. The great rood, bearing the Latin inscription Vere Filius Dei Erat Iste (translated loosely to "This Truly was the Son of God") features a carving of Jesus, flanked by images of a sorrowing Mary, St John, a Roman soldier and Mary Magdalene.

According to the Joburg Tourism website, the church’s morning services currently attract approximately 500 congregants from the inner city, Soweto and the East Rand.

Every Sunday, they are treated to an eyeful of white-plastered columns and arches, glossy parquet floors, enchanting stained glass windows and antique benches, which boast a total capacity of 2000 people seated. More impressively, they are serenaded by resonant melodies from a majestic pipe organ filling all ears.

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