Roman Catholic Church: Monte Cassino Mission

Roman Catholic Church

Monte Cassino Mission

The “Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance,” commonly known as Trappist Monks, arrived in Natal, South Africa (now KwaZulu-Natal), in 1882 under the leadership of Rev. Francis Pfanner.  Fr. Pfanner and a group of 31 volunteers settled on a farm near the village of Pinetown and set to work building a monastery they would name Mariannhill.

Soon after arriving, the monks were approached by the local chief who asked that the brothers “teach my people the book.”  This would set in motion the unlikely prospect of the contemplative monks embarking on a path of missionary activity that would eventually bring them to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

In 1896, after receiving permission from the Jesuit prefect of the Zambezi Mission (responsible for Catholic missionary activity in Rhodesia), four Trappist monks from Mariannhill set off for Rhodesia to open the Triashill mission in the eastern highlands near Rusape.  This first attempt soon failed due to an uprising of the local VaShona.

The Trappists returned to Rhodesia in 1902. This time they selected a farm near the Macheke Siding, which was more accessible than Triashill, where they established the Monte Cassino Mission. The young mission faced many challenges including drought, disease, fire and death.

However, despite the challenges, the Trappists persevered.  A day and boarding school for boys was opened in 1908.  In that year, the monks also occupied and re-opened the Triashill Mission.  By 1910, several outstations and out-schools had been opened within a 40 mile radius of Monte Cassino, including St. Barbara, St. Michael, St. Anthony and St. Boniface. Operation of the schools was undertaken by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, a branch of missionary sisters founded by Fr. Pfanner at Mariannhill in 1885.

The missionary zeal of the Trappists eventually brought them into conflict with their strict Order and monastic superiors in Rome. In 1909, Pope Pius X approved a separation from the Cistercian Order and established the monks as a new order in their own right – the Missionary Order of Mariannhill (which still exists today).

In the post-WWI years, the Mariannhill monks continued to operate at the mission until despite the mainly German monks being expelled and interred in South Africa post-WWI. However, during the 1920’s, tensions arose between the Mariannhillers and the Jesuits which eventually led to the Jesuits taking possession of Monte Cassino in 1929 while the Mariannhillers received responsibility for other missions located nearer to Bulawayo.

Today the mission site is home to the Monte Cassino Girls High School. The Sisters of the Precious Blood returned and assumed administration of the school in the 1960’s.  And in 1996, Ampleforth monks from the English Benedictine Congregation arrived at the mission and established the Monastery of Christ the Word.

Adapted from article published in Forerunners, No. 87, Vol. XXX, No. 2, November 2016-February 2017, pp. 43-44



  • Mark Loomis