Sister M. Iona Mackenzie

Born 1951 in Zimbabwe (the former Rhodesia), grew up in a South African family of Scottish-English descent. She chose nursing as her profession and later became a health care teacher in Cape Town, South Africa.  In 1970 she entered the Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, worked responsibly in the Schoenstatt Movement of South Africa – timewise also in Kenia and Nigeria -, and served in her own community as Provincial Superior and still today as member of the provincial government.

What are the experiences that formed you as a woman?

I grew up on a small farmers’ settlement in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at that time). As a child I spent most of my time with my father and other farmers; I loved to listen to their stories which, for me, were much more exciting and interesting than the conversations of women that mainly dealt with children and cooking. I would have loved to be a boy. It was my longing for freedom, the wish to do something great and courageous as well as to be drawn into great mysteries. Boys could lead a daring, interesting life, different from what girls had to do: To sit at home and keep busy with sewing, cooking, and embroidery – things I did not like and was not skilled to do. I was better in adjusting a wrench!

When I was seven I entered a Catholic boarding school – we had no schools in the bush –, and here, by the way we lived and by what we heard, I got a first faint inkling of being a girl as something beautiful. Especially the Marian piety touched a chord in the innermost part of my soul.

After grade school I lived with my parents for some time in South Africa, then back in Botswana in my beloved bush. During the high school years I still struggled with the fact that there were things which I, as a girl, could not do. Of course, I cared for my appearance, and I got along with boys. But I found it stupid when other girls changed their behavior in order to be more attractive for the boys. In my opinion our conduct should always be the same – independent of the persons we are together with.

During my training as a nurse my insight grew that as a woman, too, I can lead a life of freedom, courage and daring.

The step leading me to the full acceptance of being a woman was my encounter with the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary in the middle of the 1970’s. When I walked through the doors of the Provincial House in Schoenstatt Constantia I felt and I knew myself finally at home. In this community I discovered step by step what womanhood is about. I experienced, and I also recognized intellectually the dignity and the great mission that belong to us as women. The inner encounter with Mary helped me to appreciate myself in my own way of being, and slowly I recognized what I truly was longing for: To be free, to do great things for God, and to live in unity with Him.

God was good to me. There were up’s and down’s, joys and suffering, but all this belongs to life and forms a person into what he/she is. I was allowed to work in various branches of the Schoenstatt Movement, was teaching for some time as a nurses’ trainer, was allowed to serve my own community in various leadership positions and still do so today. All this led me to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a woman in the service of the Church – exactly in Africa – and to be like Mary united to the living God, our merciful Father. There is a word by our founder that summarizes what the gift of being a woman means to me today:

“There is nothing more similar to God than a noble woman who, in noble serenity and genuine God-filled self-possession, calls this spirit of restrained freedom her own.”

When during your life did you experience God?

My deepest experience was the midnight Easter Liturgy when I was about 6 years old. My younger sisters slept in the back of our pick-up, but I was awake; so my parents took me along to the Church with the admonition to keep quiet. At their hand I entered the mission church and was overwhelmed by an ocean of lights and deep harmonious music. I looked and looked; no one had to tell me anymore to keep quiet. The deep solemnity made me speechless. Something happened that touched me in the depth of my heart. I cannot say what it was. Most probably I experienced the nearness and presence of God, even though I was too small to be able to put it into words.

My next experience of God was during boarding school. There I learned to know popular piety for the first time: the rosary for example, Corpus Christi Processions with flower carpets, etc. More tender emotions awakened – womanly feelings. Already at that time, listening to the story of Samuel (1Sam 3) I got the idea to dedicate my life totally to God. I “devoured” the biographies of saints; Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux impressed me most. – Then we moved to South Africa and there, in the boarding school, life was more reserved (‘distanced’); I missed the warmth and simple piety and also experienced the distance between ideal and reality. The white marble statue of Mary Immaculate in the courtyard of our school within untended surroundings mirrored my experience. The Mother of God became a distant though beautiful statue – spotless but very far from life. Finally I questioned if God exists at all. At that time, I found support in the books by Michel Quoist, Taylor Caldwell and others.

My questions increased during my nurse’s training in Cape Town; I saw an abyss between faith and real life. One of our main teachers was a Schoenstatt Sister of Mary. She noticed my inner struggle and gave me some literature from Schoenstatt about organic thinking, living and loving. I learned that I have to start with myself linking faith and life. At that moment God sent me once more the inspiration to belong totally to him, and this as a Sister of Mary. But I was not ready. I had experienced religious who were embittered from within. Those whom I liked most asked me if such a decision would not imply running away from life, and I loved the freedom that my profession gave me.

Finally, however, God managed to get me into our community. And it was for me an interior coming home! I remained kind of wild but at the end I was tamed by His love. I found what I was longing for: to belong totally and unconditionally to God who had called me “from my mother’s womb” (Jes 49,1). At the same time I could, as an image of Mary, give everything to Him and His kingdom, mediating the reality of His nearness and mercy to others – in spite of my weaknesses and failing. Indeed, I can pray with Mary in her Magnificat: The Lord has done great things to me – holy is His name.  

What do you consider the greatest challenge for women today?

I see challenges of a westernized womanhood in a South African context – questions about one’s own sexuality, acceptance of one’s body, but also the over-esteem given to the body by the beauty industry; there are many aspects to each of these problems and at the same time challenges for women in traditional or semi-traditional surroundings.

Even more I want to point at the manifold violations of the dignity of woman – for instance by sexual violence. All over the world, women are misused by men or by others whom they love and to whom they are bound. This is a worldwide challenge that countless women meet in everyday life. In the USA, each day about three women are killed by their actual or former partners. In South Africa, every fourth hour a woman is murdered.

Human trafficking is another point: In Africa I experienced domestic slavery. Many young women who long to escape the poverty of their lives fall into the trap of agents who promise big salaries and higher living standards. As soon as these young women arrive in the “promised land” they are trapped in modern slavery: They become prisoners, dependent on their employers and extremely vulnerable. Often, their papers are taken away, and they are forced to work until their debts are paid. Many horror stories were published in local newspapers, but this does not stop desperate young women to try it nevertheless.

In some African countries woman is considered the property of her husband and his family. In many areas of South Africa “Lobola” (= marriage portion) is still practiced. This is based on an image of woman which negates any right of codetermination and permits misuse and maltreatment of women.

I think, Father Kentenich would point at (the image of) Mary from which we learn to know the specific dignity of woman and her irreplaceable task. Every woman is called to imitate her.

We must learn to appreciate our own body as the temple of the Holy Spirit; we are called to be child before God and so to mature as women and mothers for the world.

What would you like to change in this world by your own life?

I want to make the world a better place by my own striving for sanctity. In my youth I was educated to become aware of the social injustices in the world, especially in our own country. I recognized, however, that I was not called to become a political or social activist according to the usual sense of this word but rather to be “spiritual” activist, i.e. to change matters from within, from person to person.

I recall a serious conversation I led with a young woman, probably only a few years younger than I: She was convinced that another political change would eliminate the evil of the apartheid from our South African society. I was not convinced, and I made her aware that regardless of the color of our skin we still are human beings burdened by the effects of original sin. Neither one of us convinced the other – so we left it at that. But it made me think…

What, then, would be the solution to the problem of the apartheid and all other social evils? For me, the change had to start from within toward outside. My ‘activism’ was and still is an active striving, by the strength of the Covenant of Love, for (everyday) sanctity. We are called to become saints, and by this we could change our society step by step, from within. And I found a way toward this goal in Schoenstatt.

Something that often made me restless – and still does so in my daily living – is the cleft between the “ideality” (my own word) and the “reality” of everyday life. Here to change the world from within, this is a permanent challenge. To connect God and everyday life, to bring God into this world like Mary did – these are the changes I want to bring about in the world, and in this way I can be an “activist” until my last breath.