St Luke’s at Onrus River is one of the few small and private churches in South Africa. The little Eastern Orthodox styled chapel, near Hermanus in the Cape, is certainly one of the most interesting. This minuscule place of worship stands close to the sea and is the characteristic of the white Eastern Orthodox chapels with its barrel-vaulted roof.
While not on the water’s edge, the chapel at Onrus stands within sound of the restless and surging Indian Ocean, though an accompanying view of the sea is inhibited by trees and vegetation, by the undulations in the terrain and, today, by the increasing density of the habitation of what used to be the quiet, isolated domain of a handful of writers and artists seeking solitude in which to work.
The chapel is the brain-child of two women artists, Maxie Steytler and Tertia Knaap, who in 1980 migrated from Pretoria to settle in the quieter environs of Onrus. Tertia spent some studying art in Greece with the School of British Archaeology. The chapel, dedicated to St Luke, stands on a low, bushy and rocky knoll, which once supported a water reservoir for the bowling green of the Onrus Hotel. A short zigzag rough-paved stone path leads from the roadway to the heavy double doors of the entrance below a simple Crete-inspired bell tower. Designed in 1983 by Jack van Rensburg, a friend and architect in Pretoria, the church measures 2,5 metres in width and 4,1 metres in length. Approval of the building was passed by the Cape Provicial Administration on 24 August 1983 in accordance with Ordinance 20 of 1948. In the same year the chapel was concecrated by His Emminence Archbishop Paul Varnavas.
The two artists set up studios for spinning, weaving, sculpture, painting and creative art in the shadow of the chapel. Besides their own work, they conducted art classes in a well-equipped school, close at hand yet screened from the church by thick indigenous bush.
The chapel built on this historic site has been aptly named St Luke’s. St Luke was a historian of the first rank; an artist, who it is thought wrote (painted) some of the earliest Christian icons, and by profession he was a physician. When it came to naming the chapel Maxie and Tertia thought of the leper colony and hospital in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley.
Among the ecclesias¬tical ornaments that adorn the small semi-circular apse are a number of fine modern icons painted in classical Byzantine style, and four small stained-glass windows by Leo Theron which contribute colour to the otherwise unrelieved whiteness of the interior. The small chancel is separated from the nave by sandstone slabs, their plainness relieved by incised decorative crosses. The small, low altar is also of local sandstone.
Traditionally Orthdox churches such as St Luke’s have no pews and the worshippers stand throughout the services. It cannot thus be said that this chapel “seats” any estimated number of worshippers. The maximum number of standing persons at any one time, however, is thought to be twelve – a good eclesiastical number. In one corner there is a small bench – “for emergency use”.
For all its charm and attractiveness St Luke’s church is no mere architectural ornament. It has been conventionally consecrated and is used regularly also by those who find the dignified simplicity of its interior a quiet and peaceful haven for prayer and at times for services.