From the time of the discovery of the Cape, ecclesiastical jurisdiction over it appertained to the Portuguese missionary authorities. After the settlement of the Cape in 1652, the practice of the Catholic religion was prohibited by the civil authorities.
Commissioner General De Mist, by ordinance of 25 July 1804, declared that “all religious societies which for the furtherance of virtue and good morals worship an Almighty Being, are to enjoy in this Colony equal protection from the laws…” and in 1805 three Dutch priests arrived to minister to the Catholics of the Cape. One of them, Father Johannes Lansink, was appointed Prefect Apostolic (a title more or less equivalent to that of bishop, but used in missionary areas). The following year the military authorities ordered them to leave.
In February 1818 Pope Pius Vll erected the Vicariate Apostolic (a title more or less equivalent to that of diocese, but used in missionary areas) of the Cape of Good Hope and adjacent areas. Subsequently the “surrounding islands” were added – and these included Madagascar, Mauritius, Australia and New Zealand. The first Vicar Apostolic, the Right Reverend Bishop Bede Slater, OSB, having called at the Cape, went to reside in Mauritius. He was succeeded by the Rt Reverend Bishop William Morris, OSB, who also resided at Mauritius.
On June 6, 1837, Pope Gregory XVI constituted the Cape of Good Hope a separate vicariate (again similar to a diocese) and appointed the Rt Reverend Bishop Patrick Griffith, OP, as the first resident vicar apostolic (a more advanced title than prefect apostolic, and still similar to bishop).
In 1847, the Vicariate of the Cape of Good Hope was divided into the Vicariates of the Western District and the Eastern District of the Cape of Good Hope.
On May 24 1872 the Prefecture of the Central District of the Cape of Good Hope was detached from the Western Vicariate.
By decree of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide (that department in the Vatican which deals with missionary territories) dated June 13, 1939, the name of the Western Vicariate was changed to the Vicariate of Cape Town.
On January 11, 1951, Pope Pius Xll established the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the then Union of South Africa, and set up the ecclesiastical Province of Cape Town, comprising the metropolitan church of Cape Town, with the suffragan sees of Aliwal, Oudtshoorn, Port Elizabeth, Queenstown and De Aar.
By the same bull, the Most Reverend Archbishop Owen McCann was appointed to the Metropolitan See of Cape Town.
The islands of Tristan da Cunha, Gough, Ascension and St Helena belonged to the Archdiocese of Cape Town until 18 August 1986 when they were given to the care of the Mill Hill Fathers, whose residence is based on the Falkland Islands.