ROSEBANK UNION CHURCH, JOHANNESBURG, now in its 4th building and situated in Hurlington,Sandton, is an active, thriving, multi-faceted church housed in an impressive modern complex. (www.ruc.org.za ) But like most things that succeed, it had an inauspicious beginning when a few like-minded Christians of different denominations decided to form a union church with a Baptist minister 107 years ago. The first church was a simple cheap structure nick-named The Tin Tabernacle. In 1919, Rev JE Ennals was inducted as minister and in 1926 the so-called Spanish Church was built.(The architect was Frederick Williamson). Rev JL Green was minister from 1942-1960. This is the period of the church in which I and my two sisters, one fifteen months younger than myself, the other eight years, grew up. It was also a time of church growth and consolidation under “JL’s”, as he was affectionately known, ministry. I do not believe the present church would exist without his ministry. There is very little mention on the church’s website of this important period. These are some of my memories. I have mentioned no names in case I leave someone out!
I had been christened at St Martin’s-in–the-Veld but during World War 2 while our father was serving in North Africa, JL visited my mother and at about 3 years old I started Sunday School at RUC in Cradock Avenue, just a short distance from where we lived. It became “our” family church and when my father returned he became a deacon and leader of one of the Sunday School departments for many years. I remember crying on my first Sunday and being carried around by a young teacher with a mass of curly white hair. She looked just like a big fairy to me! When I was 12 I became the pianist for the primary department and after 3 weeks had my own class of 6 little boys. Most of my pocket money went on buying flannel-graphs and cut out Bible characters to illustrate the stories. I met John, a theological student, at church when he came to preach and instead of going to the minister’s vestry, was sitting in the choir vestry when I arrived to put the choir books out as I did every Sunday. After church, walking home with my mother, I said, “I am going to marry him!” And we were married by JL in the Spanish Church a couple of years later! My sister was also married by JL in the church.
The church was particularly beautiful. Painted white on an uneven, patterned plaster surface with a red Spanish tiled steeply-pitched roof, it was linked by an arcade in front of a small hall forming, with a large hall opposite the church, a u-shaped rose garden, complete with sundial. In front of the church on one side was a tall bell tower with a square pitched roof that extended beyond the walls and was topped with a cross. One entered the church via a short flight of broad steps leading to an arched wooden door which opened into the middle of a vestibule. All the doors and windows in the church and halls were arched. The interior could almost have been an English parish church, with pitched dark wooden beams rising from white columns supporting the roof. One entered the nave with an aisle on either side. The nave led into the chancel. Before this was a high wooden pulpit on one side in front of the facing choir stalls with the organ pipes above. The centrepiece was a magnificent stained glass window of a cross. Below this was the baptistery for those who wanted to be baptised by immersion. It was covered by floor boards until required. I was baptised with my parents when I was twelve. There was a font for the dedication of babies where our son was dedicated by JL. One side of the church had lovely stained glass windows. I especially loved The Sower. The windows opposite had bubble-type golden glass through which the sun streamed during morning service showing the old oaks that grew on the border. This lovely church was demolished and a third church built in Rosebank in 1977.
The church was a closely-knit community, the centre of our lives. Much of this was attributable to the Greens. JL took a great interest in all aspects. When I entered the yearly eisteddfod for Sunday Schools, JL coached my solo. The adjudicator remarked “What a big voice for such a little thing!” The church had concerts too in which he played an active role. My sister and I were the star turn one year as we recited limericks learnt from our missionary uncle on furlough. One of these was, ”There was an old man of Peru who dreamt he was eating his shoe, he woke in the night in a terrible fright and found it was perfectly true!” We went on and on, the audience roaring with laughter! I often wish my youngest grandchildren and now my great grandchildren could have been born into such an innocent era. The second youngest Green daughter produced a play by the Young People in the large church hall. She cast me as the female lead “because I was the only one who looked like a duchess!” I can’t remember much about it except that when my father read the script, he objected vehemently to one line, “I won’t have my daughter saying that!” It was deleted. Thank God for Godly fathers!
JL visited his flock frequently and often stayed for a meal. He was our choir master too. He wielded a very disparate group of men into an active and friendly diaconate. He was a great reader and I often saw him sitting in their manse reading a book. His sermons were short but held everyone’s attention. Most of all, he created a feeling of great reverence when he stood before us in his dog-collar and black surplice. When I asked for baptism when I was twelve, it created quite a stir, many saying I was too young to make that decision. I remember him defending me from the pulpit.
Mrs Green did not have a hall named after her like her predecessor Mary Ennals (The small Mary Ennals’ Hall where we met for our young people’s meetings). As I remember her she was short, dumpy, unfashionable and with a knowing look in her eyes, but radiating kindness and hospitality. When the Baptist Theological College was established, she opened her home to students. John stayed with the Greens for a couple of years. Strange to say, I never bumped into him during that time although I had seen him once in Oxford Road when I was fourteen.
As children, my sister and I were often in the manse garden opposite the church with the youngest Green daughter. The back garden had a large orchard and we used to stand under the trees gorging fruit! There was also a long hatch for dear little bunnies. We could never understand why they disappeared and then a new lot came.
There were Sunday School picnics too at Gillooly’s Farm in Bedfordview. JL was always there. There were camps for the Young People on the Vaal River where we slept in tents, played rounders, swam in the muddy river, had delicious food cooked by an experienced Scoutmaster, sang and had a Christian message round a welcome fire at night and returned home, sunburnt and streaked with mud to gratefully get into a hot bath!
Like a true church, RUC obeyed Christ’s last command, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”. Daughter churches were established during this period, in Parkhurst, Northcliff, Ferndale and Sandown. RUC helped the Chinese church in Johannesburg and missionaries who had gone out from the church as well as other missions, eg The Mission to Lepers. It was a comfort to my aunt when her husband was imprisoned in China. He was a China Inland Mission surgeon. (See: They Left All - under “Other Writings”). Several young people from my generation went into Christian work as missionaries, pastors, nurses.
May God bless Rosebank Union Church