Standing strong and significant, on the corner of Wanderers and De Villiers Streets, is the Anglican Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin. Once visually dominating the area, it is now surrounded by tall buildings and the busy traders and people of the inner city. Situated opposite the Johannesburg Station, and with the main entrance opening onto what is now a pedestrian mall with a bustling market bazaar, thousands of commuters pass by every day.
In 1887 the Revd John Darragh came to Johannesburg as Rector of the first St Mary’s Church. 1905 saw the purchase of a block of land bounded by Plein, de Villiers, Wanderers and Hoek Streets, and the chapel of St Chrysostom was built. Drawings were commissioned from the firm of Herbert Baker, and Frank Fleming became the architect in charge. In 1921 The All Souls Chapel was completed. The building of the main church commenced on Ascension Day, 13 May 1926, and it was consecrated on 29th September 1929, the Feast of St Michael and all Angels, also referred to as Michaelmas. In 1982 the Dean, Simeon Nkoane CR, arranged for restoration work to be carried out, and this was done under the guidance and direction of Mrs Erica Mitchell (the artist Erica Berry, whose husband was the South African cricketer Bruce Mitchell) and Mr Leonard Fleming.
The spacious interior is designed to capture the eye and lead it upwards from the parquet flooring and simple wooden seats, to the high alter with its soaring canopy, and on to the towering arches and striking stained-glass windows. The famous hanging rood above the chancel steps, which dominates the whole church, is an almost life size wood carving of the Crucifixion, proclaiming “Truly, this was the Son of God.” It was designed and constructed by Baden-Beadle, and hung in 1957 as a memorial to William Palmer, the Dean from 1924 to 1951. In the Chancel, at the east end of the Cathedral, the High Altar forms part of a memorial to John Darragh. There is, in addition, a magnificent pipe organ which is played every Sunday and during major services. It has drawn many organists ofworld-renown both to play and to give recitals.
The Cathedral has stood for the Light of Christ through the turbulent years of the city’s history. The side chapel holds sacred the names of some 8000 people who gave their lives during World War 1. It is well known for its stand against Apartheid and discrimination, and was for a number of years one of the few non-racial churches in the city. Three of the Deans went on to become Bishops of Johannesburg – including Timothy Bavin, Desmond Tutu and Duncan Buchanan. Desmond Tutu subsequently became Archbishop, and the current Archbishop, Thabo Makgoba, served as a curate at the Cathedral.
As befits its name, the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin is a very special and beautiful place of quietness and worship, in the midst of an emerging new nation. And, although the general congregations are not close to its capacity of over 2000 people, there are few experiences more uplifting than one of the major services. To be a part of a packed gathering, with the organ and choir in full and soaring flight, alternating with the rhythmic and harmonised worship of the exuberant parish choirs, is to be aware of some of the beauty of the Spirit-filled Body of Christ the Lord.