AFRICA – BECOMING A CONTINENT
December 3, 2020 - Interview with M. Iona Mackenzie
Sister M. Iona comes from Zimbabwe and joined the community of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary in South Africa in 1975. During these 45 years she worked in her profession as a nurse and in the Schoenstatt Movement, studied pedagogy and administration on the side and finally was Provincial Superior from 2003-2015. Currently she is responsible as Superior for the Sisters in the Provincial House in Constantia. Her sphere of activity, however, extends beyond South Africa to Kenya and Nigeria.
Sister M. Iona, you have entered our community in Constantia/South Africa, but your home country is Zimbabwe.
How did you get to know the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary?
My mother is from Cape Town. Her biological sister worked there in the nurse training. That is why I did my training at the Nurses’ College there. One of my teachers was Sister M. Ursula Poetschki, through her I got to know Schoenstatt.South Africa was the first country to which our community sent missionary sisters in 1933.
They experienced the missionary work there as “quarry work”. What was the reason for this?
It is not easy to say; there are several reasons. First, the country is a Catholic diaspora. When our sisters went there in 1934, if I remember correctly, only 3% of the population was Catholic. Today it is about 8%. The majority of the Catholic population did not show much interest in deepening their life of faith, and the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape, where the sisters began, were not easy to evangelize. There were also many well-established religious congregations in the country with 50/60 years of missionary experience. Our community was young and had a new style. In 1939 the Second World War began – South Africa cooperated with Great Britain, and our sisters as Germans could not work. Finally in 1948 the National Party came to power, which established the system of apartheid and severely hindered the work of the Catholic missions.
What are the main focuses of your missionary work today?
In South Africa, we see our most important task in rooting people more deeply in the faith. The care of the pilgrimage movement and the pastoral work in the five Schoenstatt Shrines serve this purpose, but not least the apostolate of the Pilgrim Mother. In addition, our Founder, who took on the many difficulties during his visit in 1948, directed the Sisters’ attention to the whole of Africa and beyond to the English-speaking countries. He himself appointed three sisters who traveled from South Africa to Texas the following year to begin a new foundation there. In 1961 the province sent sisters to England, Scotland and Ireland, and in 1962 three of our sisters began missionary work in Mutumba, Burundi, at the request of the Bishop of Bujumbura.
Since 1999 you have been actively involved in building the Schoenstatt Movement in Kenya. In your opinion, what is the task of Schoenstatt for the Church in this country? What special challenges are there?
In Kenya, as in other African countries, there are various Marian movements in which the visions and apparitions of the Blessed Mother play a major role. Often messages are spread that do not correspond to Catholic teaching. At the explicit request of the bishops, it is our task to take up the Marian love of the Kenyans and to lead them to a solid Christian life in everyday life. A special emphasis is for us the youth work.
A big challenge is that we have not been able to establish a branch in Kenya so far. We are too few sisters in the province for this. Although two young Kenyan women have joined our community in the meantime, we are only present in the country for a few weeks each year. In 2008 you also traveled to Nigeria for the first time at the invitation of the Schoenstatt Fathers.
What was the purpose of this trip and what experiences did you have?
A Schoenstatt Father, who was already active in Nigeria, contacted the general administration in Schoenstatt several times and asked them to send a Sister because there were young women there who wanted to enter our community. However, we did not want to go there under any circumstances. We had already begun so much with just a few Sisters and we did not want to start again in a new country. But in the end I went there myself to take up the situation. On this first trip I was able to form groups for young women and for mothers. We then decided that Sister M. Joanne would visit once a year for two to four weeks to continue these groups. However, for the last five years this was no longer possible – first because of Ebola, then because of the change of provincial superior and the resulting redistribution of tasks. Only last year I was there again with Sister M. Connie, and to our surprise these groups still exist! They have continued to work independently over all these years. What I noticed: There is a Schoenstatt Shrine in Nigeria. This makes a big difference to Kenya and makes our work much easier.
Also the mentality in West Africa is very different from East Africa. The Nigerians are stronger personalities and clearly speak their minds. To Europeans this can seem almost impolite, but they are not. They are generous and deeply religious, although this can sometimes be superstitious. That is why it is important not to speak of miracles and visions in our work. It is about the inner transformation of people, not about sensations and outward appearances.
What moves you as a province and you personally to these not harmless journeys?
For me personally I can say: Africa is my continent. I live there. I could not be anywhere else. I am of Scottish-English descent, but I got everything from Africa and I am convinced that I have to give everything back. And the best I can give back is the gift of Schoenstatt. What I have received here are above all the three special pilgrimage graces that are given to everyone who visits the Schoenstatt Shrine: a deep home in this place and ultimately in the heart of God, the grace of inner transformation and also a strong apostolic spirit.
Our longing as a province is that Africa develops, that it becomes better there. I am convinced that this is not possible in a purely materialistic way. First there must be a change and development in the hearts and not the other way around. That is why we must bring the Blessed Mother to Africa. Africa is a great continent in the making. It is like a sleeping giant, similar to Europe in the Middle Ages. It is said that it was a dark age. If we look more closely, we can say that the Middle Ages were a civilization in the making. I think the same thing is happening in Africa. Therefore we have a great responsibility. It is our duty to bring Schoenstatt.