Life and times of Sr. Irene
The Venerable SR. IRENE STEFANI (in baptism Aurelia Jacoba Mercede) was born on the 22nd August 1891 at Anfo (Brescia) – Italy. She was baptized the following day after her birth. Her profoundly Christian family formed and helped her grow strong in faith and in all the Christian values. Her parents were blessed with twelve children but seven of them died in infancy. The mother died on 12th May 1907 when she was only 44 years old. Mercede, then, took upon herself the management of the house, helped her father in the human and Christian formation of her younger sisters Marietta and Antonietta and the little brother Ugo who also died soon after.
Mercede received the Sacrament of Confirmation on 6th November 1898 and few years later she received the First Holy Communion. She successfully completed her Primary education with excellent results. Since the time she was young she showed a serious commitment in her Christian life through charitable work for the poor and in the attendance and study of catechism. She met the Consolata Missionary Fathers of the diocese of Brescia and she felt called to be a Missionary. She answered positively to this call and in June 1911 she joined the Consolata Missionary Sisters, a congregation that had recently been founded by Father Joseph Allamano.
She assumed the name of Sr. Irene when she became a novice. At this stage she committed herself totally to her formation in order to be a good Missionary Sister. On 29th January 1914 she consecrated her life to God by taking the Religious vows and on 28th December of the same year she left for Kenya. She began her missionary life in the Apostolic Vicariate of Nyeri.
When the First World War from Europe spread across the African countries, the missionaries offered their help in Kenya. On 20th August 1916, Sr. Irene was appointed as a Red Cross nurse to assist the Carriers who had been forced to exhausting marches across forests, savanna and rivers, carrying heavy loads on their shoulders. Many of them died on the way while others would take refuge in the large improvised military hospitals where there was no food or medicines. The nurses were not trained to treat infections and contagious epidemics. As a result the poor carriers were exposed to all kinds of diseases and infectious plagues that would take away their lives.
When she was very young Sr. Irene worked in the military hospitals of Voi – Kenya and Kilwa Kiwinje, Lindi and Dar–es-Salaam in Tanzania. She took up her duties on the wounds of the critically ill. Some patients were difficult to handle. She would run to answer every call even in the night. She humbly served and treated their bodies and through baptism nourished their hearts. Everybody was amazed at her. A Medical officer said: “That person is not a woman, she is an Angel”
At the end of the war sr. Irene went back to the Apostolic Vicariate of Nyeri, first as assistant formator of the first aspirants of the incipient local Religious Congregation: the Mary Immaculate Sisters. 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.
She died at the age of 39, on the 31st October, 1930. “Love has killed her” were the first words of the Africans. By this expression the people had put a seal on a life marked by heroic charity sprung from a strong and continuous longing for holiness which was expressed in her last words before dying: “I belong totally to Jesus to Mary and Joseph, now and for all eternity”.
The fame of her holiness as perceived by the people remained always alive among those who knew her and was testified with strong conviction even after more than fifty years during the Diocesan enquiry carried out in Nyeri and in Turin within the period 1984 -1988. In September 1985, the remains of sr. Irene were exhumed from the mission cemetery in Nyeri, and transferred to the Parish Church of Mathari, where many faithful would go to invoke her intercession.
The congregation of the cause of Saints acknowledged that Sr. Irene lived the Christian virtues in heroic way and Pope Benedict XVI confirmed this acknowledgment on 2nd April 2011. On that same day the decree was issued by the Congregation of the cause of Saints.
A next step was the examination of the miracle attributed to the intercession of Sr. Irene. This was about the multiplication of water in the baptismal fount in Nipepe – Mozambique. The catechists from several parishes of the diocese of Lichinga – Mozambique used the water. They had gathered for a course and had been forced prisoners in the church of Nipepe from 10th to 13th January 1989. Many other men, women and children had sought refuge in the same church because of the civil war between Frelimo and Renamo in Mozambique. There were about 270 people, many were children. It was the hottest month of the year and there was no water in the church. They all prayed to Sr. Irene and they all got enough water for all the refugees. It was enough for all of them to drink, to refresh themselves and even to bath a baby girl who was born in that occasion. They named her Irene. The people with a grateful heart kept on repeating: “We are saved by the intercession of sr. Irene”, “Sr. Irene heard us and has helped us”, “It was mama Irene who performed the miracle”
In order to examine the miraculous event of Nipepe, a diocesan enquiry was established in the years 2010 – 2011. The congregation for the causes of Saints acknowledged the miracle of Sr. Irene and on 12th June 2014 the decree of the beatification was promulgated with the approval of Pope Francis.