St. Mary’s Cathedral: A Secret Church in Downtown Joburg

by | May 9, 2024 | Johannesburg, Johannesburg City Centre, Museums and Buildings, Tours | 25 comments

Every time I think I’ve visited all the historic churches in downtown Joburg, another one pops out of the woodwork. My latest “discovery” is the spectacular Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, or St. Mary’s Cathedral, on Wanderers Street in the Joburg CBD.

Looking down on the central section of St. Mary's Cathedral in downtown Joburg
Looking down from the gallery in St. Mary’s Cathedral, an enormous Anglican cathedral with seating for more than 2,000 people.
Sketch of St, Mary's Cathedral
Sketch of St. Mary’s by Thorsten, a.k.a. @theThinking_Hand, who “discovered” St. Mary’s with me.

I put the word “discovered” in quotes because I really mean “discovered by me”. St. Mary’s Cathedral is not actually a secret; it’s enormous, as you can see, and extremely historic and culturally significant.

St. Mary’s Cathedral was built between 1926 and 1929, although the congregation was established far earlier in 1887. Like St. Alban’s Cathedral downtown and Christ the King Anglican Church in Sophiatown, St. Mary’s was designed by architect Frank Fleming (who worked with Herbert Baker). St. Mary’s was one of downtown Joburg’s first racially integrated churches and played a big role in the struggle against apartheid. Desmond Tutu, who was appointed the first Black dean of the cathedral in 1975, considered St. Mary’s his spiritual home. Today St. Mary’s is still meticulously maintained and has a small yet active congregation.

However, due to its location in one of the most intimidating sections of downtown Joburg, I had never seen nor heard of St. Mary’s until I participated in a recent tour of the church by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.

Outside St. Mary's Cathedral
St. Mary’s is in a densely populated, high-traffic area across from Park Station, Joburg’s biggest transport hub. The scene outside is chaotic, to put it mildly. The high-rise building in the background, Darragh House, is an apartment building and retail center that is also owned by the church.
Outisde St. Mary's
Another look at the outside of the church.

Archbishop Tutu, who died in December 2021 at the age of 90, had hoped to have his funeral at St. Mary’s Cathedral and be buried there. Sadly, due to the decline of the area around St. Mary’s, Tutu’s funeral and burial took place at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.

Our Tour of St. Mary’s Cathedral

Our tour took place the day after Freedom Day, the public holiday marking South Africa’s first democratic elections and the 30th anniversary of democracy in South Africa. The group met in front of Park Station and walked through the busy station, back out across De Villiers Street to the cathedral. We entered the church through the unobtrusive doors at the back, which double as an entrance to Darragh House.

Entrance to St. Mary's Cathedral and Darragh House
Darragh House is named for John Darragh, the first rector of St. Mary’s.

Once inside, I was awestruck by the sudden transition from dense, chaotic city madness to soaring, silent cathedral.

The chancel (front section) of the church. I was enthralled by the stained-glass windows and the rood — an almost life-sized sculpture of Christ’s crucifixion — hanging from the ceiling.
Closeup of the rood in St. Mary's
A closer look at the rood.
Looking back at the main entrance to St. Mary's
Looking back toward the main entrance and upstairs galleries.
All Souls Chapel in St. Mary's
The cathedral’s smaller All Souls Chapel, which honors South Africans killed during World War I.
Pretty shadows in a church passage
Pretty shadows in a church passage.
Architect Kgao Mashego
Joburg architect Kgao Mashego, one of our guides for the tour, gives us some background on the church. Kgao recently worked on an amazing revitalization plan for the area around St. Mary’s, which he is extremely passionate about, but that plan has now been indefinitely shelved. (If you know anything about the current state of the Johannesburg City government, you’ll understand why. It’s very sad but I’ll try to focus on the positives.)

The highlight of our visit was a brief organ recital by Sidney Place, who has been the St. Mary’s organist for the past 31 years.

Sidney Place, organist at St. Mary's
Sidney Place gives us a brief talk about the organ before his performance.
Organ at St. Mary's
Not sure why I photographed the huge organ pipes from such a weird angle. Anyway, they are impressive — there are more than 4,800 pipes (don’t ask me how this is even possible) and the tallest pipe is about 10 meters (32 feet) tall.
Sidney Place playing the organ
I’ve never looked this closely at a church organ before. It’s a crazy instrument and the performance was wonderful — I wish my pictures could play music.
Organ knobs
The organ has many, many knobs with charming yet inscrutable names.

Thank you to the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation (JHF) for introducing me to yet another hidden (in plain sight) downtown Joburg church. If you’re not a JHF member yet, I highly recommend becoming one — they are doing essential work to preserve the fragile heritage of this city. Also becoming a member gives you a discount on JHF tours.

Church sketch by @TheThinking_Hand
One last church sketch by @TheThinking_Hand.

25 Comments

  1. timmee

    “I wish my pictures could play music” – LOL

    Take some video with your phone next time <3

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Hahaha, well of course I did that. But you know I’m way too lazy to create videos that are decent enough to put on my blog (and to figure out how to put videos on my blog at all).

      Reply
      • Lynda Polkinghorne

        My late husband and I were married in the cathedral 6th of June 1970 my husband and I were wanting to visit the Cathedral but may husband passed away on the 4th of January this year so I would love to go on a tour sometime

        Reply
        • 2summers

          Thank you so much for sharing, Lynda. And I’m very sorry for your loss.

          Reply
    • Elizabeth King

      Sixty years ago I was married in the.smsll Chapel of St Mary’s Cathedral by Dean Barron.
      For many years Richard Cock was choir master at St Mary’s.
      That beautiful Cathedral.holds many fond memories for me.
      Harry Oppenheimer’s daughter Mary was also married there, as was Rev Michael Faure.

      Reply
      • 2summers

        Thanks for sharing, Elizabeth. We heard on the tour that Mary Oppenheimer’s wedding was quite the event!

        Reply
    • Michele Ferreira

      Many memories. Was confirmed in St Mary’s and grew up under the Hon. Rev. Desmond Tutus watchful eye from the pulpit. What a wonderful blog.

      Reply
      • 2summers

        Aw, that’s so cool, Michele!

        Reply
  2. dizzylexa

    Coming in from the chaos outside to the serenity inside is somewhat mind boggling. It sure is a very impressive church with so much history attached.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, especially coming in through that weird entrance at the back!

      Reply
  3. PHILIP

    Loving this Blog – Tessa and I being muso’s and she being a singer, we love visiting Kerks! And hearing the organ + choirs – Well done! [again!]

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I also can’t get enough of the kerks 🙂

      Reply
  4. Barend van der Merwe

    This is wonderful Heather thank you so much. I often learn so much from you. Most people, including myself, only know Tutu’s history from the 1980s onwards when he lived in Cape Town. This must have been in the 1970s.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, I believe he lived in Joburg on and off until the mid-1980s. Also he had a house on Vilakazi Street in Soweto (hence that street becoming famous as being home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners at the same time).

      Reply
  5. AutumnAshbough

    How beautiful, and yet also how sad about the shelved revitalization project. Is there any chance you got any organ music on video? Would love to hear it if it’s on Instagram!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      I did take some – it was (momentarily) on my Instagram story. I’ll try to remember to put it in highlights.

      Reply
  6. Natalie

    St. John’s College has its Christmas service there every year. They bus all of the students and parents there. The church is packed top to bottom. I have a great video I would love to share with you. Hearing 750 young men singing in that space still gives me chills.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Oh wow, that’s so cool! I’d love to see it.

      Reply
  7. Adrian Lovel-Hall

    Was such a joy to have you all at the Cathedral on the 28th April. Thank you for sharing. Fr Adrian

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks so much Father Adrian!

      Reply
  8. Mvuzo

    Does the church still gives services?

    Reply
  9. Berinice

    My sister rosemary was confirmed at st. Mary’s In the 1980’s, beautiful ⛪️ church.
    I used to pop in there on my way to work for guidance for the day.
    Would love to hear that organ video 📹
    Berinice Kay

    Reply

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