Cyrene Mission is a boys only High School situated outside Bulawayo near Westacre. The Mission was built in 1939 and named after Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry the cross at Jesus’ crucifixion ( Luke 23:26 ).
Canon Paterson, an Anglican priest born in Scotland but raised in Johannesburg , established the Cyrene mission near Bulawayo in the 1940s, and let his pupils make its mural paintings.
It was the first time that Africans in Zimbabwe were given training in painting, and Paterson was convinced that only the lack of access had prevented Africans from reaching the same heights as European artists. Paterson later moved to Salisbury (Harare), where he without success tried to establish an art school in the largest township, Highfield.
CYRENE Mission had its beginnings in 1936, when John Banks donated two farms, including a large house, to the Anglican Diocese of Southern Rhodesia.
Under the direction of Bishop Edward F. Paget, two projects were launched: St. Pancras Home, a rehabilitation centre for delinquent white boys and a skills-oriented primary school for black boys.
To supply a spiritual focus for these projects, a chapel was built in 1937. St Pancras Home was established first, but after Canon Edward (Ned) G Paterson’s arrival in 1939, the home was closed and emphasis put on developing the school.
Paterson changed the mission’s name to CYRENE (sigh REE nee), the North African home of Simon, who helped Jesus carry his cross. He prepared a new altar for the chapel and painted a black Christ, dressed as an Anglican priest, on the wall behind the altar.
The school opened in January 1940. As there was then no restriction on the age at which a boy might start or complete his primary education, many of the students were young men in their teens and twenties.
As the school developed, so did the students’ ability to express themselves in two- or three-dimensional art forms.
Paterson’s own enthusiasm for arts and crafts was caught by many of the students and first one, then another and another, was given the privilege of painting his interpretation of Biblical scenes on the chapel walls. So was born what some have called the CYRENE tradition in art – an art which grows out of the life and culture of those who produce it.
During the 1940s and ’50s Cyrene students produced an abundance of paintings and carvings that brought them world re-known. Their work was exhibited in London and South Africa, and royal visitors to the then Southern Rhodesia included Cyrene on their itineraries.
Paterson left Cyrene in 1953 for the then Salisbury, where he continued his art education activities (notably at the Nyarutsetso Art Centre in Highfield) until his death in 1974.
Meanwhile, Cyrene developed into a Form 1-4 secondary school for boys, thanks mainly to 22 years of leadership supplied by Canon Robin A. Ewbank.
Pressures of the Liberation War caused the school to move to Bulawayo in 1978. The mission properties were taken over by the Rhodesian army and renamed Fort Godwin.
Following Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the school returned to its former site to begin a process of rebuilding and development. Supervising much of this has been Fr Neil D. Pierce, principal since 1982.
Today Cyrene is a boarding school with some 500 Form 1-6 students from all over Zimbabwe. It has a high academic reputation, but the curriculum still stresses the importance of ‘education with production’, especially in agriculture.
The chapel remains as a living memorial of an earlier era. Its many murals mirror the artists’ environment, with Matobo rocks and rural kraals in the background. They are unique, and visitors come from all over the world to view them.
The chapel was declared a National Monument in 1987. However, it is much more than a monument. Mass is celebrated here daily, and during school holidays a small congregation meets each Sunday morning for worship.
In short, the chapel continues to play a central role in the life of Cyrene Mission. It is a place where God meets people and where people are given inspiration and direction to carry out their Christian mission.
Notable principals to serve the school include Rev Ewbank and Father Niel Pierce.