Fond farewell to "Father John"
Words of condolences are pouring in from all over Cape Town and oversees for well known and much loved Father John Oliver, the “Guitar playing minister.” Father John, who famously ran around with a placard reading, “Hoot if you love the Princess,” sadly passed away in his sleep in the early hours of Thursday July 4.
“He loved his two children, Sarah and Joseph,” said Emma Oliver, his wife for 32 years, “and he was very supportive of me and everyone else whom he met. He was the kind of person who would see the possibility in you and who you would become. He had the ability to take anything, no matter how glossy it was, and make it better.”
Ms Oliver said that Father John’s hobby was the Van Blommenstein Park in Zeekoevlei. “He took that piece of derelict land and rehabilitated it to the point that it is now a wonderful park, complete with tennis courts and a picnic area.”
Father John lived with his family at Zeekoevlei for many years and was a founding member of the Princess Vlei Forum(PVF), a non-profit organization set up to look after the bio-diversity of the wetlands in the area. “This land is on loan to us from God, and we must hold it in safekeeping for our children and our children’s children,” he used to say.
According to Mea Lashbrooke, of the PVF, Father John played a crucial role on the PVF Executive Committee. She said that he knew and loved the neighborhoods so much and that his understanding of the wetlands as an essential eco-service was at the heart of his decision making regards the Vlei’s future, especially in light of tabled plans to build a controversial mall on its banks.
“I witnessed how his determination in all matters pertaining to social and environmental justice was characterized by flexibility,” Ms Lashbrooke said. “He taught me that issues could be overcome if the door was left open for negotiation. He knew that not one single person had the answer, but that together a solution could arise. He gave me strength to voice my opinions.”
According to Ms Oliver, Father John, who retired three years ago, was working on the service that was going to be held in the Cape Town City Hall for Mandela. He was the co-ordinator for the religious leaders and after completing his work on the project, on the night he past away, he told Ms Oliver that he was hoping it would be amazing.
Father John had Fathered St Mark’s Church in District Six for 18 years until his retirement and his passing away was a shock for Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and Metropolitan of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.
Speaking from oversees, the Archbishop said that it was hard to take Father John’s passing away in; but that he was comforted by the certainty that Father John now knew the fullness of joy of resurrection life.
The Archbishop said that his thoughts went out to Father John’s wife, Emma, and their two children, Sarah and Jospeh. He prayed that God would surround them with His tender love, comfort and strength and that they would know that it was OK to weep on God’s lap and to share their grief with Him.
“His is surely the welcome of a good and faithful servant,” the Archbishop said. “He has devoted so many years, and given so much energy and dedication, to his unstinting love for God, for God’s people, especially the poor and needy, and for God’s creation. I thank God for all he has been for us in Cape Town and beyond – for his long service at St Mark’s in District Six, for his unflagging socio-political commitment, for his music ministry, for his ever-ready camera!”
The Archbishop said that Father John was instrumental in bringing together and encouraging people of different faiths to persevere in their commitment to uphold all that is good, true, just and holy and to oppose all that would diminish the flourishing of all God’s children. “I have lost a brother in Christ, a respected Colleague and fellow-labourer in the vineyard of the Lord, as well as in the muddy Vlei’s of Cape Town.
Father John’s influence extended beyond the confines of his religious duties and passion for the environment, as Esme′ Kennel, the Chairperson of the Board at Fisher Centre for Mentally Ill and Intellectually Challenged Persons in Grassy park well knew.
“He walked into the Centre one day in February 2012,” said Ms Kennel, “and said that he walked by everyday and wanted to know what we do. That same day he joined us, becoming an active Board member.”
Ms Kennel said that Father John, quickly gained a reputation for being wise, articulate, supportive and quick to offer advice where needed or to recommend someone else who might be of better assistance. He helped the Centre get legal support and organized a person to assist them with the implementation and running of the garden project at the centre.
“From the start he supported our first "high Tea" by paying for a table of guests from his church even though he himself could not attend,” said Ms Kennel, adding that they were hoping that he would play his guitar at their musical/cultural event to be held later on this year. “His passing has left a huge gap in our midst and we are going to miss him. We pray that his soul may rest in peace and we want to extend our deepest condolences to Ms Oliver and Family. “
“I am deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Father John Olivier,” said Alderman Patricia De Lille, the Executive Mayor of Cape Town. “On behalf of the City of Cape Town, I would like to extend my condolences to his family and friends, and wish them strength during this difficult time.”
Alderman De Lille said that she would always remember Father John as being one of the most distinguished religious leaders in the City of Cape Town, especially for his ability to use the gospel to mediate wherever divisions existed in different communities.
According to Alderman De Lille, he played an instrumental role uniting religious leaders in the City and Province through the formation of the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum,
of which he was the Acting Chair. “His pursuit for reconciliation, unity and social justice will be sorely missed,” she said.
Neil Major, who has a fynbos nursery in Zeekoevlei, said Father John was passionate about nature and particularly fynbos. “His death is a sad loss because he was a person who wanted to preserve nature. He wanted the wetlands to be rehabilitated and he had a particular interest in the Cape Flats fynbos.”
The funeral service will be held at St Mark’s, District 6, on Thursday July 11 at 10am. The family requests that, instead of flowers, indigenous plants be donated to continue Father John’s work at Van Blommenstein Park. For donations of plants, contact Neil Major at 076 473 7095. A memorial service will also be held on 20 July at St George’s Cathedral at 10am.
A special meeting in honour of Reverend John Oliver will be held on Sunday 14 July and is open to religious leaders of all faiths who value and wish to protect the Princess Vlei. The meeting begins at 1pm and will be hosted by the PVF at The Jolly Carp, 38 Sasmeer Road, Sasmeer Estate in Retreat. Interested parties are asked to RSVP Petrina Roberts for catering purposes. Email Ms Roberts at email@example.com or sms her on 074 302 3254.
Words and images by Clinton Wittstock
Freelance writer and photographer
Article appeared in the Constantiaberg Bulletin