Only remaining witness of Sr Irene Nyaatha eagerly awaits nun’s sainthood

Milka Wambura

Milka Wambura, 102 during an interview at her home at Gathiriti village Nyeri County on July 6, 2023 on how she knew the Italian nun Irene Stefani (left).

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Steps towards sainthood: Wait five years after death, unless the Pope waives this requirement.
  • Become a "Servant of God" by having a local bishop examine the candidate's life and writings for evidence of heroic virtue.
  • Become "Venerable" by having a panel of theologians and cardinals from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints evaluate the candidate's life.
  • Become "Blessed" by the verification of a miracle attributed to the candidate, except in the case of a martyr.
  • Become a "Saint" by canonising a second miracle, unless the candidate is a martyr.

Ms Milka Wambura Itundu, 102, is the only remaining witness to Blessed Sr Irene Stefani ‘Nyaatha’ and together with Roman Catholics around the world, awaits Pope Francis to declare the nun a saint.

The Nation had an exclusive interview with Ms Wambura at her home in Gathiriti village, Gikondi division, Mukurwe-ini sub-county, Nyeri County, on her interactions with the Italian nun.

When Sister Stefani died in 1930, Wambura was nine years old.

"These are the toes I was treated by Sister Irene and you can imagine how painful they were when she put medicine on them. There were no hospitals around and we don't know how she found our homestead to treat the strange disease," said Ms Wambura.

The centenarian recalls how Sister Stefani came to her home and spoke to her father in Kikuyu, asking him to let her treat his sick children.

"Some of our siblings pleaded with Sister Irene as she offered the treatment. It was painful. She was sent by God, because my father offered her milk, but she chose to serve God. She ministered to children and adults in Gikondi and followed them until they were healed," said Ms Wambura.

"We received the news of Sister Irene's death with deep shock. But we feel blessed because we have been healed through her good works," she added.

Wambura is still a member of the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) and never converted to Catholicism.

"I am still a member of AIPCA. When I was a young girl, I helped to build a new church in our area. I am grateful for what Sister Irene did for me and other children. But I decided to stay with my faith," she said.

Father Peter Githinji, the Postulator for Causes of Saints, Beatifications and Canonisations in the Archdiocese of Nyeri, describes Wambura as a silent example of a living witness who was treated and healed by Sr Stefani.

"Wambura is not a Catholic, but she is a testimony that this Catholic nun lived a merciful life. She was treated and cured by Sister Irene. But after that, she was not forced to join the Catholic faith. She was touched by a woman of God and we celebrate her," said Fr Githinji.

In nearby Kiirungi village, still in Gikondi division, a family is mourning another centenarian, Elizabeth Muthoni Nyaga, who knew Sister Stefani. Muthoni died on June 25 at the age of 106 and will be buried today (Friday). Muthoni died at Outspan Hospital Nyeri of age-related illness.

Fr Githinji said Muthoni, his grandmother, was one of the two remaining people who had direct contact with Sister Stefani and termed her death as a big blow to the Catholic Church.

He described Muthoni as a devout Catholic who taught many people catechism and the sacraments of the Catholic faith.

"Sister Irene taught Elizabeth catechism and how to read and write. She served in various leadership positions in the Christian Women Association (CWA) of Our Lady of Divine Providence, Gikondi Catholic Church. She contributed a lot to the spread of Christianity in many areas," said Fr Githinji.

Sister Stefani belonged to the order of Consolata Sisters and began her missionary work in Gikondi in 1915. It was there that she earned the name Nyaatha, which means "mother of mercy" in Kikuyu.

She died in 1930, aged 39, after contracting a disease from one of her patients.

Milka Wambura shows a toe that was treated by the Italian nurse Irene Stefani in 1920 during an interview at her home in Gathiriti village in Nyeri County on July 6, 2023.

The Catholic Church is now concerned that all the other witnesses who interacted with Sister Stefani have died while waiting for Pope Francis to declare her a saint.

"We have only one remaining witness for Sr Irene. We pray that Sr Irene will be canonised soon while her remaining witness is still alive. This is our prayer. Many witnesses have died in their old age while still hoping to witness her canonisation," said Fr Githinji.

He is optimistic that Sr Stefani's cause for sainthood will soon be finalised in Rome so that the Pope can declare her a saint.

Blessed Nyaatha

A new canvas unveiled after Sister Irene Stefani "Nyaatha" was declared "blessed" in a beatification ceremony at Dedan Kimathi University in Nyeri County on May 23, 2015.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi I Nation Media Group

"A miracle is the one that will lead to the final stage and it will be the greatest news for the world because the Pope himself is the one who will declare Sr Irene a saint. We ask our faithful throughout the world to continue to invoke the intercession of Sr Irene," he said.

The Catholic Church's headquarters in Rome began documenting her life's work in 1985 and her remains were preserved in a brown marble sarcophagus and placed in the wall next to the exit of the Mathari Central Chapel in Nyeri.

The beatification of Sr Stefani took place on May 23, 2015. It was presided over by the papal delegate, Polycarp Cardinal Pengo of Tanzania.

The miracle that led to her beatification took place in Mozambique, where in the parish of Nipepe, Diocese of Lichinga, 270 people hiding from the 1989 civil war invoked her name to obtain drinking water, which miraculously flowed and multiplied in the baptismal font.

Sr Stefani’s path to sainthood unfolded through three successive pontificates.

Pope John Paul II formally opened her cause for sainthood by declaring her a "Servant of God".

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared her to have led a life of heroic virtue and proclaimed her "Venerable".

Pope Francis approved a decree recognising the Mozambique miracle and declared her “Blessed”.

Some of her remains were taken to Our Lady of Divine Providence Catholic Parish in Gikondi where they were placed in a gleaming gold vessel.

Other remains were buried at Our Lady of Consolata Cathedral in Nyeri town, while some were taken to Vatican City in Rome.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Nyeri is constructing a seven-storey building, Nyaatha Plaza, in Nyeri town to commemorate the blessing of having a Blessed Sister.

"We appeal to well-wishers to help us complete this great milestone as we continue to pray for her intercession. We are doing this in honour of Nyaatha," said Fr Githinji.