One such person is Sister Zora Skerlj, based here at St Gabriel Catholic Church. She was born in 1941 in Slovenia, the youngest of 11 children.Though Slovenia was a communist country at the time, she grew up in a rich Catholic environment of prayer and devotions. Together with her family they recited the rosary everyday and worshipped in the local village church. Zora began her formal education in Vrhpolje but for senior school she rode her bicycle everyday with a group of students to another village 16 kilometres away. On completion of her matric in 1960, Skerlj entered the Ursuline Sisters in September of that year with her best friend Gracia.
Their first months in the convent were spent in Slovenia before moving to Croatia in 1961 to begin their formal training for religious life as Postulants then Novices. Skerlj entered the Ursulines with the intention of going to the missions. For this she required English and she enrolled at the University of Zagreb for language study. Communist rule in Slovenia made it difficult to obtain permission to leave the country. However, as a language student approval was given to travel to England to improve her English. She did not return to Slovenia at the allocated time but stayed on for the whole of 1964 studying with the other young Ursulines Sisters. From England she received the mission to South Africa where she continued her university degree for another two years.
Following the call of Vatican II (Pope John Paul's Second Vatican Council in January 1959), religious congregations were urged to move out into new ministries and different countries. The Ursulines of South Africa decided to set up two new foundations, one in Zambia and the other in Botswana. Skerlj was appointed to be a founding member of the sisters going to Zambia. To prepare her for this she was sent to Malawi in 1970 to learn Nyanja at the While Father Language School in Lilongwe. Not only did she show great aptitude in the language but made use of this unique opportunity to take in the culture and customs of the people by using every opportunity to stay in the villages. By the end of 1970 her visa for Zambia arrived. In December she travelled to Lusaka to join the other Ursulines who arrived to make the foundation.While waiting for the Kalundu Study Centre to be completed the Ursulines lived in a small house rented from St. Peter Claver Sisters in a suburb of Lusaka. Having left South Africa before she completed her degree in Social Work and Sociology, Skerlj continued her studies part time at the University of Zambia. While studying, she also worked at the Bishop's office in the department of social work. From there she organised workshops throughout the diocese, often travelling with her team to the rural communities to conduct workshops at grassroots level. Sessions were also held in the sprawling shantytowns around Lusaka.
When the Ursulines withdrew from Zambia in 1976, Skerlj was assigned to Serowe in Botswana. Again she made time to learn the language and absorb Tswana customs and culture. One day while walking around Serowe she met a Mosarwa carver named Tshokolo who was selling a beautiful carving for a plate of porridge.This touched Zora deeply and she began
to collect artifacts from the Basarwa carvers which she sold locally and in the USA and Europe on their behalf. This was the beginning of a long relationship with the Basarwa communities living on the outskirts of Serowe.Those early years in Serowe provided Skerlj with ample scope to apply her skills as a consummate social worker, dream new dreams and use every opportunity to initiate specific projects that would enhance the lives of the Basarwa communities and others in need.
Arising from the needs of the community was an array of projects. These included Serowe wood carvers project, a pre-school at the mission, typing school for Form Three leavers, poultry project for the Basarwa.The poultry project failed when all the chickens were eaten one weekend because the people felt the birds were afforded better food and accommodation. To keep each project going Skerlj was able to solicit help from overseas volunteers with specific skills.The volunteers usually stayed for two or three years.In 1978 Skerlj went to Rome, Italy for six months for her Ursuline Spiritual Renewal known as Tertianship then on to Canada for further studies in Social Development. On her return from overseas Skerlj was invited to Gaborone to work at the Diocesan development office for Caritas. This meant leaving Serowe. However, the projects continued with the help of the volunteers. Again her work stretched beyond the walls of the office to the settlements in the remote areas of the Kgalagadi where she oversaw cr¸ches in Basarwa communities and bought and sold their craft.
As the Caritas representative in Botswana she was in contact with the caritas network throughout Africa where she attended regional meetings. In Rome she took part in the Caritas International Forum every two years. While living in Gaborone, Skerlj belonged to the Ursuline community of Mahalapye. By 1995 Skerlj felt it was time to hand over her work at diocese level to Sister Bernadette. She returned to the Serowe ministry and focused on grassroots level. She was able to pick up where she had left off and began nurturing new projects. To coordinate all the projects she formed the Community Development Trust. To tackle the AIDS pandemic Zora assembled a team called Tlhopha Botshelo (choose life) to move around schools within and beyond Serowe to conduct "Education for Life" workshops for the students. At the time she organised training workshops throughout the Diocese and others Diocese in South Africa. Looking back over the years Zora was responsible for building over 30 houses in the Basarwa communities at Morulamantsi, Metsimasweu and Makolojwane.
For these communities there are two cr¸ches and a daily breakfast feeding scheme as well as water reticulation for the people. Zora's journey began in her country Slovenia and took her to England, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia and finally Botswana. The journey has been rich and varied and marked by deep encounters with people, especially the needy.These encounters enriched and challenged her. Skillfully she has tapped into her ability to initiate projects designed to alleviate poverty and want. The journey moulded and shaped her into the wise woman she is today. Sister Zora celebrated her 50 years Jubilee on July 27, 2013 in the presence of her family which today she communicates with through the use of email and telephone.