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Catholic Sisters in Kenya Mourn Founding Superior General who “took after Mary’s heart”

Photo of late Sr. Marie Therese Gacambi, the first African Superior General of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi. Credit: ACI Africa

Sr. Marie Therese Gacambi lived true to the values of her model Mother Mary in the way she encouraged deep reflection, humility, and obedience to Jesus among members of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi (ASN) in Kenya, where she was the first African Superior General.

Sr. Marie Therese is said to have dedicated her final days in endless prayer before she passed on aged 83 on September 17 after many years of selfless service in Religious Institutes and even in Kenya’s politics following the country’s independence in 1963.

In glowing tributes to their first native Superior General, ASN members remember a spiritual leader who “pondered everything”, listened keenly, and provided a model for faithful living among members of the Nairobi-based Religious Institute.

“Like our Mother Mary, Sr. Marie Therese had many challenges during her lifetime. In prayer, love, humility and endurance, she pondered everything.  Sister could listen keenly and judge with faith,” the ASN members say in a collection of tributes shared with ACI Africa on the eve of her burial, Thursday, September 23.

Credit: ASN

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They say that when appointing a member of the Institute for a mission, Sr. Marie Therese always added that “what is needed there is only your presence, look at Mother Mary and do what He tells you.”

On uttering the golden words, Sr. Marie Therese would lovingly pat a Religious Sister on the back and thank her for accepting to go to the mission she had been assigned to.

“For most of us, Sister was a sign of a real mother, very appreciative and a model,” the ASN members say in their tribute to the Catholic Nun whose Requiem Mass was presided over by John Cardinal Njue, Archbishop emeritus of Nairobi Archdiocese, September 23.

Credit: ASN

ASN members remember their leader who they say had a disposition that valued and appreciated continuity of Mother Mary’s heart in their areas of work. 

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“Through her intercessions, may the Lord enable us to nurture our human values, Christian values and religious values within His Mission,” they say of Sr. Marie Therese who has also been eulogized as a “daughter of the Church who had many firsts.”

Sr. Marie Therese passed on at Nairobi’s Mater Hospital after battling an illness and was laid to rest on Friday, September 24.

The seventh of eight siblings was born in 1938 in Kiambu County, which is served by Kenya’s Catholic Archdiocese of Nairobi.

Credit: ASN

She went to Loreto Convent High School Limuru in Form One in 1953 where she converted to Catholicism and proceeded to teach before she expressed her desire to join Religious Life.

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Sr. Marie Therese became the first African Superior-General of ASN in 1970, succeeding Christine Middleholff of the White Sisters.

During the handing over, Archbishop John Joseph (J.J) McCarthy and Archbishop (later Cardinal) Maurice Otunga, were the principal witnesses.

She took her final vows at St. Austin’s Catholic Church in Nairobi in 1972 on the Feast of the Assumption in a ceremony that was presided over by the late Fr (later Archbishop) Nicodemus Kirima.

Credit: ASN

The Catholic Nun served as Superior General for three terms: she was elected for two six-year consecutive terms from 1973 to 1985, and decades later, for a third term, from 2003 to 2009.

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While serving her first term as ASN Superior General in 1973, she also became the chairperson of the Association of Sisterhoods in Kenya (AOSK).

Sr. Marie Therese is said to have survived a terrible 1973 motor accident in which her colleague, Sr. Gertrude Nthemba Mutunga, died.

Members of her Religious Institute have lauded her leadership role as the first African Superior General in the Institute’s humble beginning, a responsibility they say was a sign of faith and courage. 

Credit: ASN

“Your efforts enabled the Institute to attain a solid foundation in all facets of life,” ASN members say in their tribute, and add, “You inspired most of us with your prayerful disposition, an appreciative attitude, generosity and a strong passion for humility. You treasured the Eucharist with reference and for you, ASN was first in your life.”

Sr. Marie Therese has also been eulogized as selfless “with reasonable simplicity.”

“She accommodated all; a good listener and advisor. She touched the hearts of many, gave meaning to their life as she went along her mission. Sister was detached in poverty and valued obedience for the sake of Christ,” ASN members eulogize Sr. Marie Therese.

Credit: ASN

In her value for legacy for the Religious Institute, the Kenyan Nun always encouraged older ASN members to take care of the Institute’s new entrants.

One of her most notable quotes that the ASN members remember in their tributes is, “Sisters, make sure you take care of the young Sisters since they are the future of the institution of ASN.”

Credit: ASN

“A great heroine has fallen,” ASN members mourn, and add, “Her shoulders bent with the weight of the many lives she nurtured during her lifetime. Rest peacefully till we meet in heaven.”

The ASN members’ tribute is about a servant leader who had a prophetic vision, an ability to discern the God-given gifts and talents in other members of the Religious Institute.  

Credit: ASN

“Sister, you worked and walked hand in hand with the upcoming leaders, formators, and gifted-talented persons within the ASN Institute.  You mentored them with love and built trust in their potentiality and strength.  They were able to see that their integrity and the institutional concern should be key at all times,” members of ASN say in their tributes shared with ACI Africa.

Sr. Marie Therese is also said to have been a leader of seasoned wisdom, which came with the art of discerning when to say what and to whom. 

Credit: ASN

“When sending the young Sisters to upgrade their education, she was heard saying, ‘Sister, I am sending you to college…… you can now be going for Disco on Fridays,’” ASN members say, adding that their long-serving Superior General never wrapped his head around the idea of a Consecrated person missing the daily Eucharistic celebration.

“Despite all her wit and intellect as a PhD holder, there is one thing that Sister never understood until her demise. She just couldn’t get it, even after deep reflection and prayer, how a Consecrated Religious person could afford to miss Holy Mass.  Dear Sister, may The Holy One teach you now,” members of the Nairobi-based Religious Institute say.    

Credit: ASN

Her impact, the ASN members further say, was felt within AOSK membership, Higher Institutes of learning, the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) regions, political reams and platforms, church and international forums of women. 

“You embraced a servant leadership with deep reference for local leadership,” ASN members say in their collective tribute, and add, “You never disgruntled at all; indeed you have fought a good fight and finished the race, may you find angels to welcome you in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ whom you dedicated your life to.”

In his address during the Requiem Mass September 23, Cardinal Njue urged ASN members to continue working to water the seed that had been planted by late Sr. Marie Therese.

Credit: ASN

“An occasion like this is a moment of thanksgiving to God for what was done in the establishment of this Institute,” the Kenyan Cardinal said at Holy Family Basilica, Nairobi.

He added, “My dear Sisters, let a day like this be a day of renewal and encouragement. May the seed which was planted and what Sister Marie Therese was able to do be properly watered so that it can be able to grow and be a source of inspiration and strength for the others.”

“Thank you for how far you have come and for what you have been able to do not only in our Archdiocese but also in other places of the country and even beyond. Keep it up. Do not move backwards,” Cardinal Njue told ASN members September 23.