In 1882 a group of Trappist Missionaries under Father Franz Pfanner arrived in the colony of Natal to establish a mission. Pfanner bought a farm near Durban and named it Marianhill. The Trappists, being an agricultural order, intended to train Zulu families living on the farm in agriculture, animal husbandry, bricklaying and other skills. Expansion from the base of Marianhill was rapid; several “daughter” houses, including Maria Ratschitz, on the farm Boschkloof in the Biggersberg were established.
An important aim of this missionary endeavour was to create productive agricultural communities of African converts. At Maria Retschitz, this vision met with limited initial success: the local people were given land and were gradually introduced to the responsibilities of life as -rent paying tenants. They were encouraged to move into a concentrated village and a school was opened which, by 1907, boasted 112 pupils and by 1910 the first substantial church was built. The farm was developing according to plan. The long-term land ownership scheme however met with several obstacles. The first of which came from within the church itself. The Natal vicarage, under Whose authority the mission fell, disapproved of the scheme. Negotiations were continued but the Land Act of 1936 put and end to this. Under the new Act it was no longer possible to sell sections of the farm to Africans, of whom many were forced to move to Limehill, 33km away. With the outbreak of World War II the German Trappist monks were interned and financial support from Germany came to an abrupt end. They never returned and the orders that replaced then (French Oblates and English Franciscans) lacked agricultural focus. During the 1940’s and 50’s the farm lost a lot of its manpower in the form of migrant labour to the cities. The land was steadily degraded and the mission was in serious trouble.
From 1965 – 1975 there was a brief respite in the form of the Church Agricultural project (CAP). Neil Alcock, an accomplished stock farmer, observed that many potentially productive mission farms were lying fallow. If these farms could be rehabilitated, the people would be fed and their status would be changed from “Squatter” to “bona fide farm labourer”, lessening the threat of forced eviction. However, this project also met with disaster due to external circumstances as well as internal conflicts. The failure of the CAP split the community and some segments were alienated from the church.
Political changes after 1991 renewed the possibility of meaningful development at Maria Ratschitz. Land ownership is again possible and the farm has a potential for diverse activities. Maria Ratschitz is in a dramatic setting at the base of the KwaHlatikulu Mountain and consists of a remarkable cluster of 14 ecclesiastical buildings. It is an ecologically important area with diverse flora and fauna, natural forests and wetlands, and an estimated 200 bird species, including breeding populations of endangered species such as the Cape Vulture, Grass Owl and Martial Eagle.