Father John Groeber and St Mary’s Church at Serima Mission

Father John Groeber and St Mary’s Church at Serima Mission

John Groeber (born in 1903 – Died in 1973) was a missionary who founded the Serima mission station for the Swiss Bethlehem Mission in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He is best known for designing and building St. Mary's church on the Serima Mission grounds, and for training a number of artists and builders.

Early life and education

Groeber was born in Basel, Switzerland to a family of bakers who were among the city's Catholic minority. Groeber himself was religious from a young age, and attended Mass and other religious activities on a regular basis. He was also a painter, largely self-taught. Due to the family's limited resources, Groeber's education was cut short and he went to work as a draughtsman when he was sixteen. In this work he learned the basics of both architecture and construction, and worked on such buildings as the Federal Charter Archive. 

By the late 1920s Groeber felt unfulfilled and was increasingly driven to join the priesthood. Because he had been a poor student and had not completed high school, he joined the Swiss Bethlehem Mission (SBM) at Immensee.  In 1930 he was able to matriculate, and began his studies at the SBM theological seminary. After several years of seminary, Groeber enrolled at the Kunstgewerbeschule Lucerne, where he studied art for several years (although he did not get a degree as his superiors would not allow him to take the mandatory life drawing course).

After being ordained, the SBM posted Groeber to Rhodesia in 1939. During his early years in Rhodesia, he worked on a series of construction projects for the SBM. He asked his superiors to let him build and run his own mission with an arts-oriented school, and in 1948 was assigned a new, isolated mission station at Serima.

At Serima, Groeber was able to build up a congregation with more than a thousand local converts, while also mobilizing them to provide support and labor to develop the mission station. A large complex, including a boarding school and church, were built over two decades, using bricks fired in a massive kiln. Students with an aptitude for construction were given scholarships and worked in the afternoons. By 1956 the school was built, and Groeber moved on to the construction of St. Mary's Church. This church combined the use of a modern architectural plan (inspired in part by the Federal Charter Archive) with African carving and artwork in the interior spaces.  All the Serima artists were trained from scratch by Groeber and his former pupil Cornelius Manguma. These artists, plucked from mandatory art classes, worked in the afternoons, and were trained in drawing, patterning, pit firing, and woodcarving. Once Groeber was satisfied with their technical abilities, they were assigned subjects to carve for the St. Mary's interior. The students were expected to create their own designs, which were approved if they fit in with the overall iconography.

The exterior of St. Mary's was completed in 1958, and the interior was completed in 1966. Today it is considered to be one of Zimbabwe's architectural masterpieces, featuring a unique design combined with hundreds of carvings, murals, and ecclesiastical artworks that combine a coherent statement of Africanised Catholicism. 

He built the mission to his own plans and to decorate it he awakened in the young primary school African boys at Serima a keen interest in drawing and carving by establishing an art workshop. The mask was the most important part of his art teaching. The boys were given basic training in drawing and then told to draw a face just as they wished. With the drawing done, they modelled the same face in clay and once done they carved the same face in wood. Those that made the best carvings received more specialised training under the guidance of Father Groeber. Elizabeth Morton argues that Mission-derived Christian art was central to the development of modern art in southern Africa and that the church workshops had a major impact on the education and training of many of Africa’s most influential artists.

Father Groeber decided to decorate the church interior with extensive Christian art carvings that were to be “African” in style and as a result he had to make judgments about what African art should look like, as well as devising a training program that could produce this kind of African art, because local woodcraft production was practically extinct by this time. It is their carvings, paintings and decoration that now adorn the school buildings, classrooms and especially the Church. The modern techniques and styles that he developed would be institutionalised eventually at the Driefontein Carving School, and would also be used in the secular stone sculpture movement that emerged in Salisbury (now Harare) in the 1960’s.

It was Father Groeber’s respect and admiration of African art that led him to create this superb building using a local building style and local materials. Serima Church, with its open spaces, green polished floors and curved arches features a carved wood altar and soaring screen of apostles, saints and angels, the baptismal font clad in small clay tiles depicting biblical scenes and two side-altars of gracious beauty, one has tiers of fine large clay pots and intensely sculpted figures represent the wooden Stations of the Cross on the walls of the Church. Stools are carved out of solid blocks of wood and decorated with stylised carvings of animals which feature in the bible.

The pupils were given free rein to express their ‘’religious’’ feelings. Elizabeth Morton says training young men to carve and paint was only a means to other ends for Father Groeber. On a deeply personal level, he was driven to prove that despite his modest background, his marginal academic abilities and credentials, he was capable of producing an architectural triumph that would define his life’s work. On a broader theological level, he believed that the arts needed to be used to spread Christianity in the Third World and he practised this philosophy in the years 1948 – 1967 that he taught at Serima Mission Church.

The interior decoration sought to create an African expression of Christianity, as one of Groeber’s greatest admirers, his former student, Tapfuma Gutsa once said of Groeber, he wanted “to produce a church and form of art that would make his people feel at home.” Every piece of wood within the Church is carved with figures, or masks of apostles, angels and other biblical characters with over 80 figures on the roof and window beams alone. Large coloured murals made of coloured sands depict scenes from the Bible in the nave and coloured ceramic tiles decorate the altars and fonts.

Groeber’s training system was demanding and rigorous one, always carried out under his very close supervision and he insisted on the highest technical standards for his artists. They were initially trained carefully in proportion and drawing, but Groeber refused to teach art history lessons for fear of contaminating his student’s imaginations by letting them view European art. The only models the students were allowed to see were West African masks and works produced at Serima. Some of the best known artists to emerge from Groeber’s school were Nicholas Mukomberanwa, Joseph Ndandarika, Tapfuma Gutsa, Gabriel Hatugari, Ernest Bhere and Cornelio Manguma (Sinyoro).


Credits: Wikipedia, Elizabeth Morton. “Father John Groeber’s Workshop at Serima Mission’’, Academia.edu. 27 November 2014, A. Plangger. ‘’Serima: Towards and African Expression of Christian Belief’’. Gwelo: Mambo Press, 1974 and Various online sources. 


Photo Credits: Wikipedia, Vukutu, Wikiwand and Art and Theology and Zimfieldguide. 


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1 comment

Who did he first met and which family gave him refuge when he first arrived in the village. Also who apoint where the church was built. In African Shona culture a heardman is responsible. I know only Kanongovere primary school unless it was Serima Primary before if not where is it located? The church is built in my village where my family lived as far back as early 1800s.


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