Kenya expects 100,000 at beatification of WWI-era nun

Kenyan officials are expecting more than 100,000 people at the May 23 beatification of Sr. Irene Stefani, an Italian member of the Consolata Missionary Sisters who cared for wounded and sick soldiers in Kenya and Tanzania during World War I.

A Kenyan government official announced May 6 that the beatification would be a state function and would be accorded proper security.

Stefani was born August 22, 1891, in Anfo, Italy, and died at Gikondi Parish in Kenya October 31, 1930.

The fifth of 12 children, Stefani was named Aurelia Giacomina Mercede and known as Mercede. As well as facing their mother's death when Aurelia was 16, she and four sisters lost their seven siblings to various illnesses.

When she was almost 20, she joined the congregation of Consolata Missionaries in Turin, Italy. In 1914, she took final vows and left Italy by ship for Mombasa, Kenya.

Stefani 's first two years in Africa were spent working on a mission farm in Nyeri, learning the local language, Kikuyu, while doing manual labor.

In response to mounting casualties during World War I, Stefani was among missionaries who left Nyeri in August 1916 and traveled 230 miles to Voi to work in a hospital there, after a short course in first aid.

During the war, she also cared for sick and dying soldiers in hospitals in Tanzania. While caring for patients, Stefani often went without food so that she could give her share of community meals to the sick.

The hospital in Kilwa Kivinje, Tanzania, had more than 1,500 patients in March 1917 when Stefani worked there. According to Sister Irene's biography, "Her Life a Light," by Consolata Sr. Gian Paola Mina, "the sick were like an ever growing angry tide at which the doctor drew back. . . . They were all mixed up, the madmen with the dysentery cases, the wounded with the ulcer victims . . . all in total confusion."

Stefani nursed them every day, "always with the same loving attention. They saw that she did not spurn them. . . . She comforted them, made them comfortable, served them, washed them and covered them up, she bound their wounds as well as she was able, went humbly to get food for those who were unable to get it for themselves and was happy to return with the mess tin full and feed those who had not the strength to feed themselves," the biography said.

On her return to Kenya after the war, she lived for a year in Nyeri and took care of postulants at the newly established Congregation of the Sisters of Immaculate Mary.

Stefani then took a 30-mile journey by mule to Gikondi, just north of the equator, where she taught at a new mission school. The people of Gikondi called her "Nyaatha," an abbreviated form of "Nyina Wa Tha," which means "mother of mercy" in Kikuyu.

She became severely ill while administering medicine to Gikondi residents who had contracted bubonic plague and died at age 39.

Searching for more? Catch up on the full Nuns and Nones series