The village of Nieu Bethesda is situated just over 50km from Graaff-Reinet, off the N9, in the Eastern Cape (80km from Richmond and 90km from Middelburg). Nowadays the village boasts a wide variety of businesses, restaurants and art galleries, with Helen Martins’ Owl House still one of the greatest allures.
The Owl House has for years been a major source of attraction to Nieu Bethesda, which largely depends on tourism to survive.
There are currently around 1000 residents in Nieu Bethesda, most of whom reside in Pienaarsig.
The surrounding farming community is still very active with the Sneeuberg Farmer’s Association at the helm. The Nieu Bethesda Sport Club is one of the weekly social gathering spots for locals and services are still being held in the Dutch Reformed Church every Sunday.
Today, the church has 62 confirmed members, with about 35 active members. Although the denomination of the residents has changed over the years, the church still has a very strong history in the village as it is the reason Nieu Bethesda was founded in the first place.
The church and the village
The village of Nieu Bethesda was founded in 1875 on a portion of the farm Uitkyk, the inheritance of Barend Johannes Pienaar’s two sons. BJ Pienaar is however known as the Father of Nieu Bethesda. The land was purchased “for and on behalf of the church council” for the price of £4000 and the deed of purchase was dated 8 February 1875.
Residents of the area, members belonging to the Graaff-Reinet congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church wanted to form their own church and school, as it took them up to eight hours to travel to Graaff-Reinet. After the purchase of the land, the town was run by a “dorpscomite” (town committee) until the founding meeting of the church in 1878, when the church council took over this function.
The name Nieu Bethesda is said to have been a mishap (although there are no primary sources to confirm this). Reverend Charles Murray from Graaff-Reinet, who chaired the founder’s meeting on 20 November 1878, said in his address that this place would now be called Bethesda: “Laten wij het nu Bethesda noemen”, but the Dutch “nu” (now) was misconstrued and written up as Nieuw Bethesda. It was later shortened to Nieu Bethesda.
The cornerstone of the church was laid on 11 February 1905 and it was inaugurated on 23 December 1905. The church organ was put into commission for the first time in June 1914. It was built by Price and Sons in Cape Town and consists of 16 registers and more than 624 pipes. Church services are held every Sunday at 09:00 in summer and 09:30 in winter.
Most of the commonage belonged to the Dutch Reformed congregation until 1950 when it was sold to the municipality for 3000 pounds. This included the commonage, the poplar forest and the cemetery. The church kept ownership of ten erven as well as the church buildings. It is interesting to note that the cemetery was bought back by the congregation in 2010 and is now being managed by the church.
The village itself now forms part of the Camdeboo Municipality (Graaff-Reinet) who also owns the Owl House and Camel Yard.
Important note: Although Nieu Bethesda is a hub of tourist activity, there is still no credit card facilities, ATM’s or petrol stations in the village. Please make sure to draw spending money and fill up your tank before visiting.