Motorists, driving on the winding R617 between Underberg and Bulwer, may be forgiven for overlooking an old and forlorn group of buildings on the banks of the Polela River. Looking very much like the many farm building and sheds that dot the landscape, the sight of a church spire however suggests otherwise. The complex is in fact the Reichenau Mission.
Established in 1896, Reichenau was the Marianhill Mission’s first inland satellite station. Led by Abbot Francis Pfanner, a group of hardy and self sufficient monks built the complex which included a church, school, mill, butchery, bakery, store and forge.
A short detour off the main road rewards the intrepid traveler with and extraordinary scene. Like a mediaeval European village, the sprawling mission complex overlooks the Polela River and surrounding farmlands. But the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Church. Constructed in the Neo Gothic architectural style, this magnificent building was essentially built from local stone and timber. The masonry work, interior woodwork, stained glass windows and elaborate decoration bears testimony to a level of dedication and craftsmanship not often found today.
Regardless of one’s religious convictions, a visit to the church is an awe inspiring and spiritual experience. It is difficult to imagine the conditions which the monks must have had to endure whilst creating this lasting structure – rain, snow, heat and drought would have imposed severe challenges to both physical well being and general morale. (On a lighter note, being a silent order, I can imagine Abbot Pfanner dropping his paint brush from the high scaffolding. No calling out for someone to retrieve it – he would have had to climb down and fetch it himself. Or the carpenter hitting his finger with a hammer and having to suffer in silence #$?^%?!)
Time and the elements have not been kind to Reichenau. Peeling paint, loose plaster and fading murals are sad reminders that loving care and restoration is urgently required. Recent murmurs of a financial grant are most encouraging and would go a long way in ensuring that this important part of our national heritage is preserved for future generations.
An excursion to Reichenau Mission is certainly rewarding and should be on everyone’s list of places to visit.