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Farewell to Koinonia

Tapestry: The Risen Christ

Tapestry: Madonna with Child

View from the garden

Lady of Koinonia

Rosary window

At this stage we do not have our own Sisters to manage the facility. But we note with gratitude the contribution made to the Oakford mission and the life of the Church by the Sisters who lived and worked at Koinonia over its years of service. Over the past twenty years the name almost synonymous with Koinonia is Sr Jacqueline.

We have been involved at Koinonia, originally known as Mazenod, for about 90 years when the Sisters were first invited to manage a hostel for the Catholic Women’s League of Johannesburg.  Within a few years our Congregation purchased the property from the Catholic Women’s League, continuing to provide accommodation to young women living away from home and working in the growing city.

The name of Mother Angela was a household name in the days when the Oakford Congregation managed several hostels for young women in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban.  Some of the young residents joined the Congregation, and some residents continued to live with the Sisters even when they were no longer young!

In the early 1970s the national headquarters of the Christian Life Movement and of Christian Life Groups was set up at Koinonia.  And so began a new focus on Jesuit-inspired retreat work with school groups, parish groups, and university and student groups.

Young people gathered for weekend and longer retreats, some of them at Koinonia and others at different venues across the country.  The retreat directors and facilitators were drawn from among the members of different Religious Congregations working in Southern Africa.

They in turn had access to schools and parishes in the areas in which their Congregations lived and worked.  Significantly for apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, the staff were drawn from different racial groups as were the participants in the retreats, which were known as “koinonumens”. Koinonia became in fact a place of interest for the security police, given the different people who lived at, worked at and visited the property!

Later Koinonia began operating as a retreat and conference centre, and over time its patrons were drawn from different churches and non- governmental organisations, providing a wonderful venue for day groups as well as for people wanting workshops, training sessions, congregational chapters or a quiet time of prayer. Some of the Oakford Sisters studying at various institutions in Johannesburg or working somewhere in the city joined the community at different times.

Koinonia has an interesting architectural history.  It appears that the original building was built in 1902.  One story goes that it was owned by the embassy of Austria at one point, another that it was owned by a doctor. Certainly, in the dining room there is a medical emblem over what was once a fireplace.

Over the years, verandas were enclosed and bigger rooms sub-divided into smaller ones to allow for more bedrooms rather than dormitories. The chapel built in the early 1950s was itself altered in the wake of the second Vatican Council. At the time that Koinonia was set up on what had been the Mazenod property, a hall and additional bedrooms were built over what had been a tennis court.  The Sisters themselves moved from a dormitory into small bedrooms in the convent section of the house.

Changes happened also in the neighbourhood of Bezuidenhout Valley and Judith’s Paarl, the two adjoining townships into which Koinonia falls. At the turn of the 20th century when the Johannesburg mining town was growing and expanding, the area was occupied by people trying to make their fortunes from gold. 

There are still some beautiful houses from this era, but many others have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. The demographics of the neighbourhood changed, and many Chinese and Portuguese families moved in, some of them shopkeepers, artisans and market gardeners.  The local parish church, Holy Angels, just up the road from Koinonia, counted many Chinese and Portuguese families among its parishioners.

Even before the end of apartheid, the neighbourhood became a so-called ‘grey area’, which meant that people formerly confined to township areas outside the Johannesburg city boundaries gradually moved in. Once the borders of South Africa were opened after 1994 refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from all over Africa and from elsewhere arrived.  The area around Koinonia is now home to people from all around South Africa and from all over Africa.

We are happy that most of the furniture and much else has gone to the Diocese of Dundee to help furnish the new Pax Christi Pastoral Centre. The striking tapestries by Ernest and Jo Ullmann, which have graced Koinonia hall since its opening, and the “Lady of Koinonia”, created by Sr Liboria Menke, will find a new home in the Marian Shrine in Magaliesburg in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg.

Sr Alison Munro, OP

March 2020

Here is how a course participant evaluated her experience at Koinonia:

“Beautiful Retreat Centre! Exceptional hospitality, care and attention to details. The meals were amazing! The chapel spectacular....(We) had a wonderful time of blessing and anointing! Thank you Sr. Jacqui and your team.”

As a congregation, we thank all the sisters who have prayed and worked in Koinonia for over 90 years. We are grateful for the good that has happened here even in difficult times and pray that the seed will continue to bear good fruit.

Adieu, Koinonia!