Did you know there’s a pocket of Italian history tucked deep in the forests near Knysna? Take a road trip to the little San Ambroso chapel in the Knysna forest and discover a little known part of South Africa's Garden Route history.
The tiny church has just four pews on either side of a central nave, which leads to a brightly painted fresco on the back wall. Two small rooms off to the sides house photos, documents and other historical info, turning the chapel into a museum.
I’d searched out this church about ten years ago, intrigued because of my own Italian heritage. Now we were back and browsing the photos and documents when a voice boomed through the building.
He talked about how 32 Italians arrived in 1881 from Northern Italy – three families and a few single men, with names like Fardini, Polonia, Sciocatti and Robbolini. They had been lured by an invitation from English gentleman-farmer Henry Barrington – he of the Rheenendal Road’s lovely Portland Manor, which is a luxury guest house today.
Things turned out differently.
The San Ambroso church was built in 1891, ten years after they came to the forest. It was named for San Ambrogio (Ambrose), the patron saint of Milan.
Rayno has lived in the area for much of his life. When he sold his farm, his idea was to buy property in Tsitsikamma, but he got wedged at Gouna when he decided to renovate the church that held so many memories for his forefathers.
Update 2023: Rayno has been forced to sell and the lovely little church is no longer open to visitors. He still has all the documents and photos and hopes one day to find another venue in Knysna to house them for visitors to see. As it's a historical building, the church can't be demolished so that's a positive thing.
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