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Couple gives account of 'miracle birth' that will see another Italian nun become a Saint

St Joseph Benedict Cottolengo Sisters based at Gatunga Parish in Tharaka, with the Landrover that ferried Joyce Muriungi to Materi Hospital on April 13, 2013. [George Kaimenyi, Standard]

At the Gatung’a Catholic Parish in Tharaka Nithi, an old but mint Land Rover Defender takes its place of pride, regularly used as the backdrop of photographs taken by Catholic nuns in the parish.

The pale-blue Land Rover, registration number KUN 637, has a central part in the fascinating story that will lead up to the coronation of Sister Maria Carola Cecchin in Meru on November 5 by the Catholic Church.

And now, for the first time, the parents of a baby who is believed to have been brought back to life by the revered Sister Carola have shared their story, along with Cottolengo Sisters at the centre of the miracle.

The late Sr Carola served in Central Kenya, with her last station based in Meru. She has been conferred the title “venerable” after the miraculous birth of a child named Hilary ‘Kiama’ Msafiri in Gaciongo village in Tharaka Nithi.

Owing to this miraculous birth, Sister Carola is on course to be declared “blessed”, marking another step in her journey to Sainthood.

It all began on the night of April 13, 2013, when Joyce Muriungi, at the time heavy with child, began experiencing labour pains.

“My wife said she was in pain and we had to go to hospital. At the same time, it began to rain,” says 42-year-old Jacob Muriungi, her husband. 

“I called people I knew owned cars but they were not reachable. So I borrowed a boda boda from a neighbour and we hoisted my wife on it. She was sandwiched between her sister and myself for support,” he adds.

Muriungi says his wife struggled with the pain, which was made worse by the rough road that was caked with mud due to heavy rainfall.

“It was raining heavily and the headlights were dim so I had to go at a slow speed to avoid any mishap. We arrived at the hospital and I left her in their care as I went back home to return the borrowed motorcycle,” he says.

At the hospital, Sister Catherine Kathoni and others attended to Joyce. Sister Kathoni remembers the eventful night of April 13, 2013 like it was yesterday.

Then aged 29 years, Kathoni recounts how Joyce had been faithfully making her usual pre-natal visits at Gatunga Health Centre, ran by the Cottolengo Sisters.

At 1am she went into active labour, but they realised the hospital lacked capacity to facilitate a successful birth.

Sister Florence Chugu, who was in charge then, made a decision to refer Joyce to Cottolengo Hospital at Chaaria, over 40 kilometres away.

“Normally we take them (patients) to our hospital (Cottolengo, Chaaria) but because it was raining heavily we could not make it there. We opted to go to St Orsola Hospital, Materi, because the road was a little better. The Sister in charge summoned me to accompany the nurse Stephen Karani and the driver,” says Sister Florence.

Whichever destination they opted for was not a rosy affair. Tharaka constituency then had zero kilometres of tarmac and residents had to make do with the available modes of transport.

“We prepared her (Joyce) and left for Materi at 3am. We were not expecting her to deliver on the way but we carried the delivery bag, just in case.

“We reached Chaaria at 4am, when Joyce informed us she felt the baby coming. We stopped. We had a dim torch which we used to check and indeed we confirmed she was ready to deliver,” recalls Sister Catherine.

Nurse Karani helped Joyce deliver the baby while Sister Catherine held the torch.

“After assisting her, Karani received the baby but it was lifeless. He told me and then tried to resuscitate the baby. He stimulated it by rubbing, for 10 minutes,” she says.

After realising there was no sign of life in the baby, Karani stopped the first aid and handed the body over to Sister Catherine, who placed it aside. The two then concentrated on saving the mother’s life, as she was bleeding profusely.

“He started to attend to the mother; I was holding the light to assist him, as I also threw glances at the lifeless baby,” she says.

After trying to stop the bleeding for about 30 minutes, the drained mother screamed, insisting to be told if the baby was alive or dead.

“When the mother shouted at me asking if the baby had life, I started to pray. I had heard the story of Sister Maria Carola among my fellow sisters,” says Sister Catherine.

“I prayed to Sister Carola even as I held the torch for Karani to stop the bleeding while throwing glances at the baby. I prayed for a miracle. All of a sudden, I saw the chest of the baby moving, and then the colour of the baby’s face changed to pink. I shouted that the baby is alive! The baby did not cry, he did something that sounded like a quiet sneeze and stretched his fingers!”

They realised then that the baby had come back to life but were still afraid he could die again, therefore they covered him with a warm towel and gave him to his  mother.

They then started their journey back to Gatunga Health Centre, but passed by Marimanti Hospital because Joyce had gone into shock and lost consciousness due to the bleeding. She regained consciousness at Gatunga.

“I was so happy because of the baby. As we stepped out of the Land Rover back at Gatunga, I told Sister Florence it was a miracle from Sister Carola!”

The couple named the baby ‘Kiama’, which means miracle. Today, he is a bubbly boy doing well in Grade Five.

“I thought my baby had died but prayers brought him back and I am grateful to God and the sisters,” says Joyce.

Muringi says: “We are Methodist but we see ourselves moving to Catholic. We have encountered so many miracles. I had no boda boda in 2013 but now I have two. I have had bumper harvests and even bought 30 acres.”

Sister Carola was born in Italy in 1877. She left for Kenya in 1905 to serve and spread the gospel.

She will become only the second person who worked in Kenya to be beatified, after Sister Irene Stefani (Nyaatha) in 2015. Sister Nyaatha had served at Gikondi Parish in Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County.