There were tears of sadness as former students, Friends and staff of the now defunct Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa (Fedsem) gathered at the seminary’s last campus at Imbali in Pietermaritzburg, to bring an end to the painful story of the abrupt closure of the institution, on 18 February.

Branded “The Native School that caused all the trouble”, the multi-denominational theological seminary was literally abandoned in 1993 due to financial difficulties and disagreements between the churches on the manner of running a theological institution in the post-apartheid era.

The poor people from the area helped themselves to whatever they could lay their hands on – bricks, roofing sheets, doors, window and door frames. Some even moved on to the campus and built their houses there. What is now left are concrete pillars, stubbornly erect, as if to refuse to let an institution with such a proud and distinguished history be erased out of history.

On the site of the campus, some former lecturers struggled to control their tears as they looked at the skeleton of the building.

“The pain was palpable. It was like standing for the first time at the grave of a loved one,” Rev Paul Verryn, one of the organisers of the event said.

Established in 1963 in Alice in the Eastern Cape, a short distance from the University College of Fort Hare, Fedsem, occupies a unique place in South African history. For three decades it was the main place of training for black candidates for the ministry in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa and a cluster of Presbyterian churches. The majority of students were black, but the seminary also trained white, Coloured and Indian ordinands and the staff was racially mixed.

Because of its multiracial character and its close links with the black consciousness movement the seminary was a thorn in the flesh of the apartheid regime which ordered its expropriation in 1974 and continued to harass its staff and students after it relocated to Umtata, Edendale and eventually Imbali.