The Church of the Sacred Heart of Mary on a farm in the Mazoe valley, Zimbabwe is a striking creation. Tall, red-brick and Romanesque in style, it stands miles from any urban centre overlooking farmland beneath a beautiful mountain range. Opened in 1962, a turning point in the history of what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, it was a political as well as religious statement. And it was the creation of one woman, Daphne Acton.
Born Daphne Strutt (1911-2003), she was from a conservative English family who expected women to take no initiative in public life: her father, a professor, saw no point in even sending her to school. Had she an iota less personality and independence of mind, it is unthinkable she would one day build a church, least of all a Catholic one.
Her upbringing was intensely anti-Catholic. When at 19 she resolved to marry a Catholic – Lord Acton, grandson of the historian – her relations were horrified. Even though she was adamant she would not herself become a Catholic, they told her: “You could do nothing worse”.
Five year later, in 1936, influenced in part by the strength of her husband John’s faith, she became convinced. The priest who in 1938 received her into the Church was Monsignor Ronald Knox, chaplain at Oxford and a leading Catholic intellectual. It was he who, two decades later, planted in her mind the idea of building a church and provided the initial funding.
While he was instructing her, they became fast friends. He came to live as chaplain at the Actons’ family home in Shropshire, Aldenham Park, from where he translated the Bible single-handed. When World War II broke out, Daphne was asked to take in hand and farm some of the land on the estate. To help her start, Ronnie Knox lent her £3600, then a substantial sum.
After the war, the Actons, now with 6 children, sold up, bought M’Bebi farm in Southern Rhodesia unseen and emigrated. Encouraged by Jesuit missionaries, Daphne opened a school for the farmworkers’ children and many families were converted. She would arrange Sunday Mass, initially on the stoep of the rambling colonial-style house and later in the thatched school-house at the bottom of the farm drive. When she could, she persuaded the bishop to let her have a resident chaplain.
Once in Rhodesia, she began repaying Knox. But with a further four children (I am one of them), progress was slow. In 1957, Knox, who had visited M’Bebi, wrote to say he was terminally ill and instead of repaying the £1200 outstanding, she should offer it to the Archbishop to help fund a church or build one herself.
She resolved to do so, referring to it as ‘the church I owe Ronnie.’ But money was constantly short. Though she taught her children herself till secondary school, she and John had to pay for at least 5 children at boarding school throughout the building period. They relied on a large bank overdraught.
When in 1960 work began and a site near the farmhouse was cleared, she had found only a quarter of the eventual cost of £5000. The bricks, which she would collect in her red Volkswagen Kombi van, were ‘seconds’ at £2 per thousand. There were periods when the builders, a team from Malawi, had to pause and she would institute a fierce economy drive at home to raise a little more. At key moments, friends and relations contributed, one on condition she gave up smoking for at least 2 years.
The architect was a mild man named Meredith Price. Because Daphne facilitated his conversion to Catholicism, he insisted on doing the work unpaid. However, hearing he wanted to send his daughter to the new American convent run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary where her own younger daughters went, she asked if they would take her free. The Reverend Mother said they would do so if Daphne would dedicate the church to the Sacred Heart of Mary. Daphne agreed. The nuns went further and raised money in the US to present the tabernacle, candlesticks, altar furnishings and vestments.
The design was simple. Cruciform. Ten tall, narrow arches running down each side, a second tier of slightly smaller arches above. A high tower. The internal walls whitewashed. The floor bare brick laid out in parquet pattern.
The most arresting feature was the stained-glass window of Our Lady above the altar. John had commissioned it for the chapel at Aldenham as a memorial for his brother Peter and his wife, killed in an air-crash in 1946. However, the tragedy was a factor in their decision to emigrate the following year and the window had remained in its packing cases. It was now flown 5000 miles and installed just in time for the opening on 4 April 1962.
The ceremony was conducted by Archbishop Markall, the plain chant Mass sung by the children of the farm school. As the Rhodesian press noticed, all aspects were conspicuously multiracial: the clergy on the altar, the 400-strong congregation and the reception afterwards.
This was just one month after the formation of the Rhodesian Front, the racist party created to entrench minority white rule for a thousand years. It won the election later in the year, and went on to make a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain and lead the country into a disastrous civil war which has warped its political culture ever since.
The Catholic church was a leading voice for a multiracial future and Daphne an outspoken liberal. The following year she scandalised white opinion by sending her youngest son as one of just two white boys to join the newly opened Jesuit school, St Ignatius.
When, within two years, the Actons decided to sell the farm they carved out the church, together with the house and school, as a gift to the Jesuits. It became a pre-seminary residential centre and has survived the turmoil of the Mugabe decades.
Others helped but from start to finish it was Daphne’s project. To stretch the words Knox used when dedicating his best novel to her: she was “the formal, efficient, material and final cause of it”.
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