Eighty five years ago, a heroine of love was laid to rest. As her remains lay at the Mathari Church in Nyeri, she never knew her journey to sainthood would later on begin. Sister Irene Stefani, (Aurelia Giacomina Mercede) was born in 1891 in Italy. Her Christian family formed the foundation of her extraordinary heart.
She had worn many hats, being a nurse during the First World War, a lead cook and most importantly, a missionary. With her worn out boots she would make speedy apostolic runs to wherever she was needed. These boots at times gave her pain with every step, but she walked on. They were her boots of Glory.
When she was sent to the Gikondi Mission in Kenya from Italy, her love continued blooming and her thirst to save souls increased. By the time of her death, she had already baptized 4,000 people.
She fervently served God and her humility and mercy was pronounced. The Kikuyu community in Gikondi nicknamed her ‘Nyaatha’, meaning one of mercy. She was even willing to sacrifice her own life to save the souls of many.
“She is love personified.” These were the words of Doctor Tibsone, a protestant at Voi Hospital where Irene served as a nurse. Her love was exceptional; the kind of love that killed her.
Sister Stefani died after contracting pneumonia from Julius Ngare, a teacher. She had provided comfort to Julius, compromising her own health. She had totally lost herself in her love for mankind.
It is because of this and many other deeds that Pope Francis approved the promulgation for the Beatification of Sister Irene on 12th June 2014 after thorough research was done to determine whether she qualified for sainthood. The Beatification was then set for 22nd May in Nyeri. I couldn’t miss.
I had never seen Nyeri town so lit up and beautiful. In fact, it was the first time I walked home from town at 7.30 PM, feeling all courageous. There were so many people on the streets, taking advantage of the new developments. The town was so clean! After and interval of roughly two meters, a streetlight glowing so bright had been put up. “Nyaatha City,” I thought to myself.
There were also banners posted all over the town with photos of a pretty white lady with a pronounced hat. They were all about the much anticipated for beatification. I actually had to forego my Friday afternoon class, so as to catch a matatu to Nyeri. Fortunately, the fare had not hiked by the time I was leaving Karatina town, forty five minutes away from Nyeri.
When I got home, my mum was equally excited about the event. She had even visited Gikondi, where Sister Irene used to stay while in Kenya. Not only that, but she had bought two scarves which had a picture of Irene at the back. Of course we would wear them to the event.
The scarves and the many t-shirts I had seen people wearing in the past few days got me thinking. There are people who had really found a great business opportunity out of this. Everyone wanted to have something with Sister Irene on it. Talk of scarves, t-shirts, caps, umbrellas and even mugs. Every business wanted to pocket something, while every believer wanted to identify with something.
“We leave at 4.00 AM,” mum said sipping her cup of coffee. I almost chocked on mine!
“We leave, or wake up at 4.00AM?” I asked. I had heard her the first time but wanted to confirm. The last time I woke up that early was three years earlier in high school! Mum gave me a plain look and immediately I knew she meant what she said. I dashed to bed since I knew waking up that early would be a tale.
Just when I was taking a turn in my warm blankets, the door flew open. “Wake up. It’s 3.00AM,” mum called. But I had just slept! I thought to myself. Lazily, I got out of bed and took my shower with my eyes half open.
After getting ready, we met other members of our church at the meeting point. Everyone was in warm clothing and of course none lacked a mark of Sister Irene. Those who did not have it physically had it in their hearts.
We began our journey on foot to the Dedan Kimathi University grounds. I still couldn’t believe I was on the road at 4.00am. But all through, Sister Irene’s theme had been repeating itself in my mind… “All for Jesus, nothing for me.” With this, I felt the urge to forge on.
With our rosaries in our hands, we said our prayers as we walked, in the bid to increase our faith. The women, my mother included, led from the front with my two friends and I trailed at the back.
After walking for about an hour, we arrived at the grounds. I was surprised by the number of vehicles and people who had already lined up for screening. And here I was complaining we woke up too early. We stood behind the last person in the queue, hardly talking to each other due to the fatigue and cold we had just battled with. Everyone had really high expectations for the day. Whenever they arrived and saw the queue, most would recite Irene’s theme. So it did not work for me only. I was impressed.
In every market, there never lacks a mad man. Just when we were about to get to the gate, around 7.00AM, (yes, from 5.00 AM) some five huge men and one lady came and fixed themselves between my friend and I, and pushed those who were in front. In between this commotion, those who were at the back ran to the front, and there was a state of total mayhem. The police who were at the gate watched and just threw heavy tantrums, doing nothing helpful.
From this point I could tell security had really been compromised from the beginning. Sister Irene had to protect us since the police didn’t seem up to the task. After being stepped on, pushed and some even losing their weaves, we finally made it in. It was survival for the fittest, but later I came to realize it was pointless since everyone got a chance to get in.
When we got to the grounds, I was astonished. I had never seen so many people in my entire 21 years! I held on to my mother’s scarf, knowing once I let it go we would meet each other again in the house since I had no phone.
We took our plastic seats and positioned them strategically. There was one big screen in front of us, so we would catch all the action. The sun had already started rising, and we were prepared for it. Most of us had umbrellas, so the scorching sun was the least of our worries.
At 9.00AM, arrivals of important dignitaries began. Nyeri County Member of parliament Esther Murugi among other MPs and senators were present. The former president, Vice President and the President accompanied by the first lady crowned the arrivals. I was seeing His Excellency President Uhuru for the first time ever. My mind started battling between politics and religion but I had to focus on the purpose of the day.
Pope Francis’ representative Cardinal Polycarp Pengo was as well present to ensure the Beatification of Sister Irene, which was done is a span of less than five minutes. Bishops and priests from Italy, Mozambique, India, Liberia and Colombia were not left behind. When he made this declaration, my heart skipped a beat. I felt excited, challenged and blessed. She had been so young yet had given her all to Christ and service.
A canvas with Irene’s picture was propelled and shouts of joy could be heard from all over. She was now officially “Blessed Irene Stefani.”
People had travelled from all over the country to witness this. Some had also travelled from abroad, but they were countable. They had been overestimated to arrive in huge numbers. Actually, this was a huge disappointment to the hotel owners who had expected a total bloom from these visitors.
Why ‘Blessed’. Some asked. Quoting from a writing by Reuben Kigame, a Kenyan gospel artist and evangelist, even Mary, mother of Jesus, shouldn’t be called ‘Blessed.’ From my own knowledge, Mary gave birth to Jesus, the son of God. The same Jesus who died and resurrected. Why wouldn’t she be blessed?
All Sister Irene went through was out of the normal. Declaring her a saint is out of the recognition that she had followed the ways of Jesus. Giving her all, out of love. It is in no way blasphemous. Anyone who understands her story understands she was indeed special. An angel in human flesh.
At the end of the day, I was feeling exhausted but fulfilled. It had been a success. There is nothing impossible under the sun. Being good and kind even to those who do the opposite is quite possible. I was ready to follow Blessed Irene’s footsteps with taking every challenge as my boot of Glory. All for Jesus, Nothing for me.