Those who grew up in Durban will be very familiar with the Catholic Church and the neighbouring Denis Hurley Centre, both prominent buildings as you enter the centre of town. What many might not be aware of though, is the great work that these institutions have been involved in over the years, and for much of that time, under the leadership of Archbishop Denis Eugene Hurley. Born in 1915 in Cape Town, Hurley was educated at St Charles’ College in Pietermaritzburg, and after studying philosophy and theology in Rome, returned to KwaZulu-Natal at the beginning of the 1940s to care for the parish of Emmanuel Cathedral. In 1951, at the age of 36, Hurley was appointed Archbishop of Durban, the youngest archbishop in the world at that time.
An outspoken opponent of apartheid, despite the Catholic Church’s recommendation to ‘play it safe’, Denis Hurley was the driving force behind the 1957 declaration by the bishops of South Africa that described apartheid as ‘intrinsically evil’. Later, in the 1970s, Hurley held a daily silent protest, standing in front of the central Durban Post Office with a placard expressing his opposition to apartheid, and the displacement of people from their homes. And it wasn’t just protest action that the archbishop was involved in – over the years the parish centre, now named the Denis Hurley Centre, acted as a temporary home for people seeking refuge from political conflict, and operated as a night school for the indigent, openly flouting apartheid laws. More recently, other social outreach projects have found a home at the Denis Hurley Centre, including a feeding scheme, a medical clinic, and an office offering paralegal support and job-related training.
Denis Hurley died at the age of 88 in February 2004, having completed a lifetime of service to the people of Durban. In February 2014, on the 10th anniversary of his death, a foundation stone was unveiled by patrons representing a range of religious groups, for a new Denis Hurley Centre, one that can carry on the essential work of its namesake.