I am not a Catholic faithful but I am utterly impressed by the works of a selfless Lady Nurse who has taken the world by storm. Forgive my ignorance, I have read so much about Sr. Irene Stefani Nyaatha (Mother of Mercy) more profound is when she learnt the local language Gikuyu. This time in Kenya’s history was called the colonial times where the Whites had little to do with the natives. More impressive she followed up all her converts and wrote letters of encouragement to them in their local language.
Emulating the founder of Modern Nursing Florence Nigthingale, Sr. Stefani was one who literally walked in her shoes. The current issue of The Seed magazine, a Consolata Missionaries publication edited by Fr Daniel Mkado, has rich insights on Sr Irene. It states that Irene was born Aurelia Giocomina Mercede to Giovanni Stefani and Annunziata Massari on August 22, 1891 in Anfo Italy.
Sr. Stefani was born in a family of 7, and lost three of her siblings. Later she gave up school at an early age to nurse her ailing mother and take care of her father and her other siblings. Monsignor John Luciano writes, in his book Blessed Irene, that caring for her mother taught her “how to look after the sick, seeing their needs, and serving them with gentleness and dedication”.
Described as strong-willed and “enthusiastic in doing good to everyone”, her decision to join the religious life at the tender age of 20 was, therefore, no surprise. She left for Turin, Italy, on June 19, 1911, and on January 12, 1912, she became Sr Irene Stefani.
After completing her novitiate on January 29, 1914, she became a full Consolata missionary. With three other young sisters, she left for Kenya on December 28, 1914, arriving in January, during the First World War. She was taken to the Apostolic Vicarite of Nyeri where she served the community here she mingled with residents in coffee plantations and learnt the new language. At the height of First World War her calling to take care of people led her to join other missionaries as a Red Cross volunteer in Voi. Here she took care of the wounded soldiers among them the British.
She later worked in a similar capacity in the then Tanganyika at Kilwa, Lindi and Dar es Salaam. Monsignor Luciano says she gave herself to all and was not afraid of catching diseases from ill and wounded soldiers.
The Catholic faithful are coming from as far as South America, North America and Europe — where her 100-year-old order, Consolata Missionaries, has a presence — for the ceremony, which will put Sr. Irene just a step away from being named a saint. Among them are her relatives from Italy. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is also expected to join Catholic faithful in this extraordinary moment. Millions more will watch the historic event at Kimathi University College on television.
At the end of her beatification, Sr Irene will be known as Blessed Irene. The title Blessed in the Catholic Church is recognition that a person entered heaven on the day of his or her death. As Blessed, Nyaatha, as she was fondly called by the Kikuyu of Gikondi in Nyeri, who benefited from her mercy, can now be invoked by Catholics in prayer to intercede to God on their behalf.
A miracle is required before one is declared Blessed, and it has to be subjected to scientific proof. However, the evidence is usually private, raising scepticism among doubting Thomases. Fr Daniel Bertea, the priest in charge of the Consolata Shrine in Westlands, Nairobi, said on Thursday that Sr. Irene’s first miracle was in Mozambique, a country she never set foot on, although she had a stint as a missionary in neighboring Tanzania.
In the parish of Nipepe, in the Diocese of Lichinga in 1989. A group of about 270 people in danger of death, offered their prayers through the intercession of Sr Irene, and the little water in the baptismal font, measuring between four and six litres, was multiplied to enable them to drink and wash for four days, before help arrived from outside.
It was at the height of Mozambique’s civil war between Frelimo government forces and the rebel Renamo movement. Many had been killed and wounded in the surrounding areas as they were caught in the crossfire of the two forces.
The Church was surrounded. Nobody would go out or come in, and the only available water to drink was what was contained in the small baptismal font.
Ordinarily, people would not drink the water in the font, but due to the danger that was surrounding them, they requested the catechist to grant them permission to drink the water. There were children and pregnant women, all of whom were sweating due to the congestion.
One expectant mother even gave birth in the midst of the confusion, delivering a baby girl, who was appropriately named Irene. They used the same water to wash the new-born baby. And for four days, the water continued to multiply to provide for all their needs.
They reported the miracle to the Parish priest, Fr Giuseppe Frizzi, who, incidentally, had been reading and re-reading the story of Sr Irene. It is after this miracle that more and more people came forward to report the extraordinary and supernatural events that had been happening in their lives in the time of civil war.
One catechist, Sebastiao Aranha, even says how he saw in a dream a white lady, dressed like the Consolata Sisters, holding a book in her hands and telling him to read a prayer. But Sebastiao told the visitor that he did not know how to read, and so the lady called a small child, who translated the prayer to the catechist.
In another reported miracle, a couple was led through a path full of land mines to safety.
According to Sr Serafina Sergi, the Regional Superior of the Consolata Sisters in Kenya, even today, Sr Irene “continues her missionary journey of compassion and love by obtaining many favours”.
According to Sr. Irene’s site shows a detailed account of her life. In 1920 she was appointed to “Our Lady of Divine Providence” Mission at Gikondi, where she remained until her death. With unconditional love she gave herself out in the pastoral activities of the Mission: Taught in school, Catechism in the parish, visited the villages.
She would run to help the sick, the dying and anyone who was in need of her help. She would never remain indifferent to the needs of the people. She would literally run and kneel at the bed-side of the sick, always with gentleness, respect and maternal care. The people nicknamed her Nyaatha: “Mother all mercy and love”.
To date she is still remembered like that and with other similar expressions, like: “Good mother who loves everyone”, “Secretary of the poor”, “Angel of charity”. The desire to announce Jesus Christ was immense and it greatly involved the life of sr. Irene. She would take advantages of any occasion to encounter to make the Lord and his Gospel known to people. She would naturally speak about God with joy and deep conviction.
At Gikondi she was the Superior of the Consolata Missionary sisters community for eight years. Even in this service she remained memorable for her charity towards her sisters, the guests, and anyone who would go to that house for different reasons.
She looked strong and in good health for few years. In the summer of 1930, physically she looked weak and had lost weight. In humility with the difficulties of the Institute and the vicariate she felt was good to offer her life to God. She did it for the sake of the Mission and of the Institute after obtaining the permission from her major superior.
On 20th October she started feeling sick, nevertheless she opted to go to visit a sick person, suffering from the plague. He was a teacher who had previously offended her by speaking badly about her and her way of teaching, in order to take her place in the school. She stayed for a long time at his bed-side. She embraced him and without realizing she inhaled his breath and this probably led to her infection. From that moment her health started deteriorating fast to the point of death which many described it as ‘Love killed her’
And now that she has been beatified, many more people will continue to seek her intercession. Officially, she will become a channel of hope and intermediary, and her name will be invoked by the Universal Church throughout history.
Beatification precedes sainthood, which can be as swift as that of Pope John Paul II, who died on April 2, 2005 and was declared Blessed by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, on May 1, 2011.
Although a minimum of five years has been the rule between beatification and canonisation, it was waived in John Paul II’s case. He was canonised (declared a saint) alongside Pope John XXIII on April 27, 2014.
It is noteworthy that although John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, he was only beatified on September 3, 2000, before his joint canonisation with John Paul II. While John XXIII waited for nearly 51 years to be canonised, the case of John Paul II, whom mourners demanded to be declared saint at his funeral, was a record.
Saturday’s beatification of Sr Irene is a multiple first not just for Kenya, but for the Universal Church. It is the first time that such a ceremony has taken place on the African continent.
When renowned sports evangelist and Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) Elder Solomon Gacece squeezes his way into the packed Dedan Kimathi University of Technology grounds for the ceremony, he will be reaffirming what Nyaatha (‘Merciful Mother’) stood for — oneness of humanity.
The preacher, who is the chairman of the International Ecumenical Movement Kenya Chapter, will be leading his motley band of ecumenists, whose raison d’être is giving resonance to John 17:22: “That all may be one”.
Inevitably, she succumbed to the plague at only 39. It’s her service in the Red Cross that will see her remains carried to her final resting place by British soldiers.
by Winnie Kamau.
Freelance Data Journalist
Media Relations Consultan