The Reverend Sister Dr Marie Theresa Gacambi belongs to a vanishing cadre of highly disciplined servant leaders, who took the reins of public, private and religious institutions soon after Kenya’s independence in 1963. But the nun did not just inherit institutions. She opened new ones in response to emerging needs.
Gacambi had deep connections not only with her own congregation, but also with other organisations including Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya, Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa that groups over 300 Catholic bishops from eight countries in the region, Christian Organizations Research and Advisory Trust, which is pan-African, and the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA).
Immensely gifted, she was well equipped for her religious calling and career of service through training in Kenya and Europe.
The seventh of eight siblings born to Jackson Kieya and Alice Muthoni of Ruhia Rwambogo village in Kiambu County, young Gacambi attended the nearby Manguo Primary School. Good performance in the Standard 4 Competitive Entrance Examination and the Kenya African Preliminary Examination saw her admitted to Loreto Convent High School Limuru in Form One in 1953.
She was in a remarkable class that pioneered sitting the Cambridge School Certificate at Loreto Limuru. Gacambi’s cohort produced professionals whose impact on the socio-economic life of Kenya is significant. Mrs Catherine Kuria, retired senior civil servant and sole surviving member of that class, recalls: ”Gacambi was intelligent and kind to a fault. She used to be punished for our sins because she was the prefect”.
A remarkable turn of events happened during Gacambi’s study and stay at Loreto Limuru. Born in a staunch and loving Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) family, the girl opted to embrace the Catholic faith. After dialogue with her parents, the Kieyas accepted her decision. This was a notable response given that those were days of intense denominational rivalry among Catholic, Protestant and African Independent churches, with each tradition doing its best to outdo the others.
Having passed her Cambridge School Certificate, Gacambi trained at Loreto Limuru Teachers College that specialised in forming instructors to serve in primary and secondary schools.
The nuns who ran both school and college were glad to hire her to teach in her alma mater alongside her former tutors.
Gacambi’s teaching assignment at Limuru proved to be a stint. She made another momentous decision — she wanted to become a nun. Her parents, who remained firm leaders in their PCEA Ngarariga community, respected her option the second time.
After a period of religious formation and taking of her first vows in 1963, Gacambi proceeded to pursue a certificate in Theology and a diploma in Education at the National University Dublin, Ireland. Upon her return home, she taught at Maryhill School Thika and later served as head of Maria Goretti School Mang’u.
Even as she taught and lived her religious life, Gacambi thirsted for more knowledge and skills. A believer in life-long learning, the nun applied for a study leave to pursue a diploma in Religious Studies at Gaba Pastoral Institute in Uganda.
Gacambi is a person of many firsts. She became the first African Superior-General of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi in 1970, succeeding Christine Middleholff of the White Sisters. During the handing over, Archbishop J. J. McCarthy and Archbishop (later Cardinal) Maurice Otunga, were the principal witnesses. Gacambi took her final vows at St. Austins Church Nairobi on the Feast of the Assumption 1972 in a ceremony presided over by Fr (later Archbishop) Nicodemus Kirima, who has since died.
A resilient personality, Gacambi survived a terrible 1973 motor accident in which her colleague, Sr Gertrude Nthemba Mutunga, perished.
Gacambi was elected in two six-year terms as Superior-General of her congregation. In 1992, she earned her PhD in Spiritual Theology from Duquesne University in the US with the world famous Prof Adrian van Kaam as one of her supervisors.
An exponent of the theology of inculturation, she will be remembered by thousands of students she taught at CUEA, where she doubled up as Dean of Theology. Her most recent initiative was the Regina Pacis University College Nairobi, which focuses on training nurses and medical personnel. Regina Pacis is a constituent college of CUEA.
During her last five years marked by ill health, she dedicated herself to a life of prayer. Aged 83, the beloved daughter of the Church departed peacefully at the Mater Hospital Nairobi.
Prof (Fr) Lawrence Njoroge, Vice-Postulator Cause of Cardinal Otunga, taught alongside Sr Gacambi at CUEA in the 1990s.