It is exactly 9.28 am and Mzee John Mbuthia Baiye, 95, wobbles uphill a gravelled road that leads to Gikondi Catholic Parish in Mukurweini, Nyeri County.
It is barely 50 metres to the church, the parish headquarters, but it takes about 15 minutes before he completes the seemingly rocky section and enters the church for prayers.
After about five minutes, the father of three re-emerges and heads towards his parish priests. He chuckles as he tells of the pleasures he has enjoyed in life, courtesy of Sister Irene ‘Nyaatha’ Stefani, a Catholic nun he became fond of when he was only four.
Sister Nyaatha was so fond of Mbuthia that after reading his palm, she prophesied that he would live a long joyous life.
“She called me, read my palm and told me, ‘you will live long and your lineage will benefit’,” recalls Mbuthia. This, Mbuthia says, has come to pass. “I have travelled to various parts of the world during the first and second world war — Bethlehem, Sweden and Italy —with priests whom I served as an altar boy,” he notes. Mbuthia says Nyaatha was a friend, prophet, mother, nurse and a woman of God who loved children, the elderly and the sick.
Mrs Caterina Wangari, 91, another Nyeri resident, recalls the Italian nun who died 85 years ago.
At their advanced age, Wangari and Mbuthia heartily laugh to any comment made about Nyaatha who died in her hospital bed after contracting the plague from a teacher she had gone to treat.
They say Nyaatha contracted the plague — locally known as ‘murimu wa brake’, caused by fleas in mice, from Julius Ngari. “He succumbed moments after Nyaatha baptised him,” said Wangari.
Wangari and Mbuthia are not hesitant to shower praises on the nun, whom they interacted with in their childhood.
In Nyeri the sister is locally referred as Nyaatha—a Kikuyu word which means mother of mercy. The nun was fond of children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. Residents nicknamed her Nyaatha because of her commitment to serve the underprivileged and the sick.
But for Mbuthia and Wangari, they loved her because of the sausages she gave them, the Latin hymns, Catholic Church service recitations and catechism she taught them, and the sports they played at the parish she lived in.
Mbuthia and Wangari say they were given tasty sausages after delivering a heap of ‘terere’ (amaranthus) vegetables to Nyaatha’s pigs. Mbuthia also earned 30 cents for this chore. “Children had grown fond of her because she taught us religious songs, prayers and catechism,” said Mbuthia. Wangari says she met Nyaatha a few hours before the nun died.
“I was accompanying my mother to Nairobi, when mother took me to her sick bed. We found her in bed and she faintly told mother: “Go and tell Mother Superior, Margerita that I am sick,” said Wangari. But on arrival at Parklands in Nairobi, Mother Superior broke the sad news: “That Nyaatha had passed on.”
The nun will be beatified in Nyeri on May 23 owing to the a miracle attributed to her intercession.
The miracle involved the multiplication of water in the baptismal font of the parish church of Nipepe (Diocese of Lichinga, Niassa, Mozambique), which served catechists from different parishes of the diocese.
The catechists had remained segregated in the church, together with local refugees after an outbreak of hostilities between liberation movements of Frelimo and Renamo in January 1989.
Nyaatha’s intercession was invoked and there was enough water for all the refugees.
The refugees had been unable to access water and the catechist Bernardo gave them permission to use the baptismal font, which they would never have dared to touch.
“They had no water to drink and a priest told the tens of survivors to intercede to Sister Nyaatha to provide them with water and to their utter surprise, the Baptism font was filled for the period that the catechists and the war victims camped there,” said Githinji.
Consolata Missionaries’ Father Joseph Gitonga said Nyaatha baptised more than 4,000 people between 1920 and 1930 when she worked at Gikondi.
While tutoring nursing students from Consolata Mission Hospital-Mathari Nursing College at the Consolata Mission Centre in Nyeri, Fr Gitonga noted that among those baptised was a man called Odhiambo, whom Sister Nyaatha was informed was ill and was on his deathbed.
“Sister Nyaatha was told that her patient, Odhiambo from Mukurweini was dying and since he wasn’t baptised, she rushed to his deathbed and baptised him,” said Fr Gitonga.
He said Nyaatha’s life involved showing sympathy, consolation and mercy for the poor and marginalised, especially children and the sick.
Nyaatha will be beatified by Pope Francis representative, Cardinal Angelo Amato, who is the Prefect of the Congregation Causes of Saints at the Vatican.
Father Peter Githinji of the Catholic Archdiocese of Nyeri, who is among the pontificial appointees organising the three-day event that will run from May 22 to 24, says Sister Nyaatha will be promoted from a Vulnerable to a Blessed, according to Catholic Church beliefs.