The Beatification of Sister Irene Stefani

In late 1911, a 20-year old woman joined the Consolata Missionaries in Turin, Italy. She took her final vows two years later and boarded a ship for Mombasa, Kenya, in 1914.

Born Mercede Stefani in Anfo, a small town in Northern Italy, the young lady took up the name Sister Irene Stefani. She had had a rather tragic childhood, losing her mother at 16 after quitting school to take care of her. In Kenya, Sister Irene joined the Consolata Missionaries station in Nyeri. The Consolata Missionaries first set up in Kenya in 1902 when two priests, Tommaso Gays and Filippo Perlo, were sent to Kenya. They landed in Mombasa and traveled to Naivasha. They then crossed the Aberdares on foot for a place called Tuthu in Fort Hall, now Murang’a.

Karuri wa Gakure, then the paramount chief, received them and gave them a place to stay. They conducted their first mass on June 29, 1902, under a Mugumo tree in the compound.  By the time Sister Irene joined the missionaries, they had expanded from Murang’a to Nyeri after the independent mission was elevated to the status of apostolic vicariate. In Nyeri, she worked on a mission farm for the first two years, using up the time to learn Kikuyu. She had arrived in Africa at the beginning of World War I, and East Africa was just about to become a warfront.

World War I

As World War I casualties mounted, Sister Irene and her fellow nuns joined the Red Cross as volunteer nuns. They had the little medical experience, only having attended a short first aid course. They left Nyeri for the warfront of Voi, covering 230 miles to their first station. She worked in Voi before moving to a hospital at Lindi and another at Kilwa Kivinje, both in Tanzania. Her last year as a Red Cross nurse was thus served in what was the final year of World War I, as the British and German forces battled for control of East Africa.

The East Africa Campaign was one of the most prolonged warfronts of World War I. It stretched from Kenya and Tanzania, through to Uganda, Congo, Mozambique, and Northern Rhodesia. The front was essentially a diversion headed by the able German General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck to force the Allies to divert vital resources from Europe. The warfront not only achieved that, costing an estimated 12 billion pounds (in 2007 prices), but also outlasted the official armistice. It required 400, 000British personnel and 600, 000 African personnel. Lettow-Vorbeck only had a small group of soldiers, and no real hope of winning a decisive victory.  He only surrendered on 23rd November 1918 at the Zambezi River, a whole week after the official German surrender.

The war effort was costly, especially for the British forces and their Carrier Corps. 90, 000 African porters died during the fighting, but their numbers were always downplayed because of the racist systems at the time. More than 2 million people died during the war, most due to fighting and an epidemic of the Spanish Flu. The warfront hospitals where Sister Irene was stationed saw a lot of the action, especially due to the large numbers of carriers who were wounded in the fighting. After the war ended in 1918, she left Tanzania back to her adopted home in Nyeri. She then rode a mule to Gikondi, now Mukurweini, where she taught a new mission school. She also taught catechism and cared for the sick.

Nicknamed ‘Nyaatha’, an amalgamation of the phrase ‘Nyina wa Tha’ which means ‘Mother of Mercy’ in Kikuyu, Sister Irene’s work among the people of Gikondi left a rich legacy of compassion. In 1930, an epidemic of the bubonic plague hit the village. While treating the afflicted, she contracted the disease and died. She was only 39.  

The Beatification Process

The canonization process has four key steps: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and Saint. The Servant of God is the first step and probably the easiest of the four. After, the Church investigates the person thoroughly and gives her the title Venerable once proof of heroism or martyrdom is found. Her miracles are then evaluated by the church and doctors, after which the Pope outlines her Beatification. The beatified person is given the title ‘Blessed.’ Beatification, from the Latin words beatus and facere which mean blessed and to make respectively, gives the dead person the capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals. After more miracles are officially acknowledged, the person is then declared a saint.

Sister Irene’s Beatification is the first in Africa’s history, hence the global interest. The beatification process is not entirely new in the recent news as the late Cardinal Maurice Otunga is well on his way to sainthood after the process began in 2005. But Sister Irene is two steps ahead as her canonization begun much earlier, in the 1970s. She achieved the first step, being declared a Servant of God, in 1985. That allowed her remains to be exhumed from Mathari Cemetery to the Mathari Church. She was then declared Venerable by a papal decree on 12 June 2014, beginning the process of beatification.

Process of confirming Miracles

In Catholic dogma, a saint is the person who is in heaven. Individuals who are deemed saints are those who the ‘Catholic Church’ knows are in heaven. For this to happen, the church must confirm miracles, essentially events for which there is no natural or scientific explanation. The formal process begins with a thorough investigation for one to go to the first step of canonization. If they exhibit heroic levels of virtue, such as Sister Irene’s sacrifice and dedication, they are considered venerable. If two miracles are attributed to the person, after death, they become saints.

In most cases, the Miracle Commission investigating claims finds medical miracles. For Pope John Paul II, for example, the medical miracles are the healing of a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the healing of a Costa Rican woman with a brain injury. The miracle attributed to Sister Irene’s intercession is the multiplication of water at the Napepe Catholic Church in Mozambique. The church was hosting 270 refugees escaping the civil war and in dire need of food and supplies. According to the beatification confirmation, the water was multiplied between 10th and 13th  January 1989, and the congregation of refugees attributed it to her intercession.

The process of confirmation of miracles is fairly recent in the long history of the Catholic Church. Before 1521, saints were selected based on tradition or proof of martyrdom. After that, miracles were required for one to be beatified. They have changed several times, with Pope John Paul II reducing the required miracles from three to the current two. The essence of miracles has also reduced, with science explaining many previously thought (and confirmed) miracles as hitherto unknown explainable events. Miracles are now required more as a technicality, with more emphasis on the holiness of the individual.

Still, the process is intriguing. It includes The Promoter of the Faith, more commonly known as the Devil’s Advocate. The work of the Devil’s Advocate is to argue against the canonization of the individual. As the Red Team, the canon lawyer, first appointed in 1587, was required to tear through the evidence, looking for proof of fraudulence in the miracles and other elements of the process. He was the protagonist to the Promoter of the Cause, the lawyer tasked to argue for canonization. The role is hardly used these days, with the office of the Promoter of Justice doing the verification.

The change was also done by John Paul II in 1983, allowing the canonization of 500 candidates and 1, 300 beatifications. Once in a while though, the office is revived. One of the most recent cases was in 2002 when the author, columnist, and prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens was asked to act as the Devil’s Advocate against the beatification of Mother Teresa.

The Future of the Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church is in a crisis. Once the dominant global religion, it now has 1.1 billion members, 0.4 billion less than the Muslim faith. There are an estimated 593 million Protestants. In the Americas and Europe, the Catholic Church has been losing followers steadily for the last two decades. The process seems to have been sparked off by the reversal of the progressive reforms of Pope John XXII in the 1960s by Pope John Paul II in the 1980s. The changes had allowed for the participation of lay people in church matters, something traditionalists decried and fought under Pope John Paul II’s reign. As the new papal reforms reinforced the centrality of Rome, the church lost most of the liberal followers.

In the 1990s, the church faced a second crisis. A wave of child abuse cases emerged in the United States, leading even devout Catholics to leave the church. Pope Benedict XVI’s reaction to the abuses, allegedly protecting the pedophiles, further ruined the image of the church. The church suffered greatly in what had previously been Catholic countries, even in Latin America.

The only places the church was and still is growing steadily are Africa and Asia. The African congregation has increased threefold in the last three decades where it has been falling in other regions. It is expected to reach 230 million, one-sixth of the global congregation, by 2025. When Sister Irene worked among the people of Gikondi, the church population was merely 3 million in the whole of Africa. In Asia, the church has grown by 80 percent, and most interestingly, the number of priests has increased by 74 percent since 1974. Most of Europe is suffering a crisis as the number of ordinations has fallen. Africa and Asia now supply priests to the rest of the world.

The resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of Pope Francis, a liberal thinker on a charm offensive, seems to have been an acceptance of the need to stem the exodus. As the first non-European Pope in 1, 300 years, the Pope has embarked on internal reform, priests and nuns to worry less about their careers and more about their congregants. The focus now seems to be to make the church more responsive to changes, to stem the loss of congregants and find a footing in a modern world. The ‘Slum Cardinal’ as the Pope is known, discarded of the expensive papal garb and refused to live in the affluence of the official papal rooms. He also takes selfies, jokes about the Argentine Ego and mothers-in-law, although he will never have any. He is goofy, revolutionary and media friendly, and already evokes more headlines than his predecessors ever did. The revolutionary reforms are most likely ruffling the feathers of the conservative wings within the Vatican, but may be winning more converts and convincing more Catholics to stay.  

The beatification of Sister Irene will most likely work to boost Africa as the epicenter of the future of the Catholic Church. Although she was Italian, her elevation to sainthood will promote pilgrimage tourism to Nyeri, cementing Catholic faith among the growing African congregation. Her elevation has regional connotations as she did most of her nursing work in Kenya and Tanzania, her confirmed miracle was in Mozambique and her beatification will be presided over by the Tanzanian Archbishop. Up until recently, beatifications were done at the Vatican. Recent papal reformations have it that they be conducted within the dioeces where the individual lived and worked. At the ceremony on 23 May, Sister Irene’s remains will be moved to the Nyeri Cathedral where a newly constructed tomb will serve as the shine.

Pope Francis will follow through with a visit in November with a stopover in the war-torn Central African Republic and Uganda, the first African country to host a pope in 1969 when Pope Paul VI visited. The last papal visit to Africa was by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Pope Francis notably confirmed the Africa visit at the end of a weeklong visit in Asia. 

The history of Roman Catholicism in Africa stretches back to the first Christian activity in the 1st Century. There have been three African popes, Pope Victor I (189 to 199), Pope Miltiades (reigned 311 to 314) and Pope Gelasius I (492 to 496). All three were Christian Berbers from the North African region. 

Owaahh, 2015. 

  • Edward Wainaina Ngwiri

    Hi owaah! really well researched piece there! I wish some other writers on the same topic would have bothered to roll up their sleeves at the least!