St Mary’s Cathedral, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

St Mary’s Cathedral, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

In what is widely seen as a spinoff of the recent United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Conference that was co-hosted by Zambia and Zimbabwe, tourists to Bulawayo will be able to visit St Mary’s Cathedral which has become the first minor basilica in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

Built at the turn of the last century by Jesuits, the cathedral was officially conferred with minor basilica status at a solemn holy mass celebrated on 31 August by Archbishop George Kocherry, the Apostolic Nuncio to Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, the city of kings.

In 1879 the Jesuit Fathers arrived in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) under the leadership of Father Depelchin SJ. They were granted permission by King Lobengula to start a mission Ko Bulawayo. The first mission was started in a house and was called the mission of the Sacred Heart. However, in 1881 it was burnt down at the command of King Lobengula.

In 1887 Father Prestage SJ closed the struggling mission of Ko Bulawayo and was given permission by King Lobengula to move to Empandeni. This left a small Jesuit presence in Bulawayo which became the staging point for the Jesuit missionary to work further north.By the mid 1890s the Jesuits had built a small chapel in Bulawayo between Main Street and 10th Avenue. It was a brick under corrugated structure which was meant to serve as a boy’s school.

The school was called St. George. The chapel and school building structures still stand today but are not used for the original purpose. By 1901 the Catholic community had grown remarkably and the chapel became too small for comfort. The then Bulawayo City council granted the Jesuit Fathers the current site on which the granite church is built.

The foundation stone was laid in 1903 by the Prefect Apostolic Monsignor Sykes SJ. The church was built by workmen from Croatia. The granite was obtained free from a local quarry. The altar stones are one solid block of quarry stone. The Stations of the Cross, which include the pictures on the interior walls, came from England in 1911.

St George’s Day Service at St Mary’s Cathedral

St George’s Day Service at St Mary’s Cathedral

The following year the statues of St Patrick, Ignatius of Loyola and St Francis Xavier reached Bulawayo and were placed on the pedestals in the church.The Marianhill missionaries came to Bulawayo in 1920 and the Prefect Apostolic of Bulawayo Monsignor Ignatius Arnoz made St Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception his Episcopal church. St Mary’s became pro-cathedral. Meantime St Mary’s was part of the Salisbury diocese.In 1955, St Mary’s became a cathedral after the Rhodesian hierarchy had been established and Bulawayo declared a diocese.Also in the same year, after the Second World War, the parishioners of St Mary’s requested a memorial to honour the war dead.

It was decided the best way was to enlarge the church. The war memorial would take the form of a crypt in the church which would also serve as the burial site for bishops of Bulawayo. However, funds were not adequate to build   the crypt. What eventually emerged was elongation of the church and widening of the side aisles. The work was completed in 1959.Today just above the crucifix the following is inscribed, “In memoriam morutorm in bello 1939-45” meaning, In memory of those who died in the 1939-45 war.

The original priest’s house behind the church was made of corrugated iron sheets and became extremely hot in summer. A new priest’s house was built of bricks in 1933. Monsignor Arnoz built himself smaller quarters right behind the church. Work on the new Bishop’s house was started and completed in 1941. This building served as both the bishop’s residence and office until 1973.In 1974 the present double story building set at right angles to the old bishop’s house was built. In the same year the new church hall was built in octagonal shape.

A life sized sculpture by Bulawayo born and internationally acclaimed artist  Gillian Kaufman was placed in the central foyer of the building.In the early 2000’s marches for peace were held. They began at the city hall and ended at St Mary’s with holy mass. St Mary’s Cathedral Minor Basilica is one of the oldest monuments in Bulawayo. It has seen the city grow from a small trading town in the 1880’s to the second largest city in the country and the Catholic population has grown accordingly.

St Mary's Catholic Cathedral Bulawayo

St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral Bulawayo

The designation as a minor basilica is a fitting tribute to the missionary endeavour to take Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth and make his name known. This is a monument to the memory of those brave and dedicated missionaries who came long ago and a reminder that we too must carry on the work.The 25th March is St Mary’s birthday and this year she turned 110 years old. Archbishop Kocherry opened the declaration from the Pope in the presence of Archbishop Alex Thomas and other bishops. Rector Father Kevin Takaendesa took the declaration which was written in Latin. It had been translated into the three languages English, Ndebele and Shona.

Father Paul of St Mary’s Cathedral Minor Basilica read the Ndebele version of the Pope’s declaration which reads in part; “We by our apostolic authority, erect St Mary’s Cathedral, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to the dignity of a lesser (minor) basilica and bestow upon it all the privileges which belong to the lesser basilicas of this our own cherished city Rome”.  During the small procession when the Declaration was being shown to the congregation around the church, the congregation ululated, broke into song and dance, the drums were pounded as the  marimba band played melodious music to thank the Pope for the most valuable gift he had given to  the Archdiocese of Bulawayo.

The reading of the declarations was followed by a congratulatory speech in which Archbishop Kocherry also explained what the status of a basilica means and how it is bestowed to a church or a cathedral. “Today is a day of great significance to the archdiocese of Bulawayo and particularly to the people of the cathedral parish. St Mary’s cathedral has been raised to status of a minor basilica. A basilica is a church with certain privileges conferred upon it by the Pope.

Fast facts about St Mary’s Cathedral:  
Officially conferred 31 August 2013
When was it built Started in 1903 by Prefect Apostolic Monsignor Sykes SJ, officially opened on 3rd April 1904
Who built the Church Croatians
When did it become a Cathedral? 1955
St Mary’s birthday 25th March, This year she is 110 years old
Amount of Catholics in their diocese Over 40 000
Number of Major Basilica’s in the world 7
Number of Minor Basilica’s in Africa Now 17

You can be delighted to this honorific title of basilica that has been conferred upon this Cathedral church. All the more all of you should be proud that this is the first basilica in Zimbabwe and above all this is the first basilica in the SADC region. What else gift can you expect from our Pope Francis,” said Archbishop Kocher.He went on to congratulate Archbishop Alex Thomas Kalyanil for strenuously and with much patience, working to obtain the honorific title for the past two years. “The task of preparing the dossier, to be presented in the Vatican was lengthy, laborious and painstaking.

Together with the Archbishop, the one person who worked hard behind the curtain is Rita Normington, I thank you Rita for your endurance. Another person I must mention here is Fr Malicki Maciej SVD whose photographic talents were clearly exhibited in the album of pictures of this Basilica”, said Archbishop Kocherry.

Archbishop Kocherry said that there are only two classes of basilicas in the Catholic church; minor and major. There are seven major basilicas in the world. Six are in Rome and the seventh is in Jerusalem. Africa had 16 minor Basilicas until 2006. St Mary’s Cathedral Minor Basilica becomes the 17th on the continent but the first in the SADC region. “The church should be recognised for its historical and religious importance; it should be known for its architectural style according to the liturgical norms; there should undertake an intensive and liturgical and pastoral activity during the liturgical year and lastly it should be an acknowledged centre of liturgical and pastoral life for the archdiocese”, he revealed.

St George’s Day Service at St Mary’s Cathedral

St George’s Day Service at St Mary’s Cathedral

The archbishop also acknowledged that St Mary’s is very old as it is the sixth ancient structure in Bulawayo. “St Mary’s Cathedral is the oldest church in Zimbabwe, the foundation stone was laid down in 1903, consecration of this church was done on an Easter Sunday, 3 April 1904, I am happy to note that the Cathedral building is the sixth ancient structure in Bulawayo,” he said.

The archbishop also informed the congregation that the Office of the Vatican responsible for Basilicas had thoroughly examined the documents presented by Archbishop Alex Thomas and was satisfied that St Mary’s Cathedral church had fulfilled the necessary requirements to qualify for the title. There are several privileges which go with title of minor basilica. “The basilica should enjoy a good reputation at diocesan, regional and national level. It should gradually become a pilgrimage centre of intense liturgical life, marked by celebrations of certain splendour, apt to stimulate the participation of the faithful”, he added.  “The archdiocese would have to ensure that there should take place various celebrations based on the spirit of the liturgy characterised by active participation of the faithful. The presence and formation of various persons and groups for liturgical animation, a choir for singing Gregorian chant and training the entire faithful in singing it”, said Archbishop Kocherry.

The status also makes St Mary’s  a diocesan centre of liturgical formation for clergy, religious and laity in the form of courses, retreats, and seminars. It is expected that there shall be regular preaching and fruitful promotion of popular piety so that the faithful benefit from such devotions.

Archbishop Kocherry winded his speech by reminding the diocese parishioners that the Basilica was the centre of heavenly   graces where the faithful can visit the Centre on special days as follows; on the day of the feast of the Patron of the Basilica; on the solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul; on the anniversary of the granting of the title of Basilica; on the day during the year as fixed by the Archbishop and one day during the year personally and freely chosen by the faithful. In his closing remarks Archbishop Kocherry prayed that St Mary’s Cathedral Minor Basilica gradually becomes the Centre of Pilgrimage where the faithful from the Archdiocese and all over Matebeleland and Zimbabwe at large may come in search of spiritual benefits and heavenly blessings.Archbishop Alex Thomas then took over the pulpit to deliver his congratulatory speech.

He started by thanking Archbishop Kocherry for officiating at the ceremony, all the parishioners and the invited dignitaries who had come from across Zimbabwe.  “We thank you for increasing your faith in this diocese, when the church was officially opened in 1904 there were about 450 Catholics in this diocese but today we have over 40,000 Catholics in our Diocese”, he revealed. He also acknowledged that in this year of faith he had seen many positive developments in the diocese.He thanked the visitors for their moral support which he said strengthens the parishioners’ faith. He also thanked Rector Father Kevin Takaendesa, Father Paul and the choirs for working very hard in the past five years at the diocese.

However, he revealed that Rector Father Kevin Takaendesa would be going on study leave in the next two weeks. He wished him well in his studies.Archbishop Kocherry then proceeded to give his farewell remarks. He thanked Archbishop Alex Thomas and his hardworking clerk Rita Normington who later received a thank you gift from him, the entire Diocese and all the invited guests, the city of Bulawayo and members of other churches who came to witness the event. The Archbishop however announced that he is being transferred to Bangladesh this year.



Date: 13 September 2013