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Italian-born Catholic Nun Beatified in Kenya Hailed as “model of a missionary of charity”

Cardinal Antoine Kambanda of Rwanda unveiling the image of Blessed Maria Carola during the beatification ceremony held at Kinoru stadium in Kenya's Meru Diocese. Credit: ACI Africa.

The Cardinal Pope Francis delegated to preside over the beatification of Venerable Servant of God Maria Carola Cecchin has hailed the Italian-born Catholic Nun as “a model of a missionary of charity”.

In his homily during the beatification ceremony at Kinoru Stadium in Kenya’s Catholic Diocese of Meru on Saturday, November 5, Antoine Cardinal Kambanda acknowledged with appreciation the “sacrifices and risks” the member of the Sisters of St. Joseph Cottolengo, (Cottolengo Sisters) made in her 20-year missionary service in Kenya from 1905.

“Blessed Sr. Maria Carola represents the holiness of so many missionaries in those days who accepted to endure all sorts of sacrifices and risks to bring the salvation of God to us,” Cardinal Kambanda said about the Catholic Nun who was born on 3 April 1877 in Cittadella (Padua, Italy) and died on 13 November 1925 aboard a ship on the Red Sea as she traveled from Kenya back to her native country for treatment.

“It is the best act of charity that one can do to make the others know the love of Christ,” the Archbishop of Kigali Archdiocese, Rwanda, added in recognition of the ministry of the of the Catholic Nun who has been described as “the venerable who gave her life in Kenya” due to her dedicated service among the people of God in Meru Diocese for two decades.

The leadership of the Cottolengo Sisters announced the beatification of the Venerable Servant of God Carola on March 11, after a miracle attributed to her was recognized.

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The miracle reportedly happened at Gatung’a in Tharaka-Nithi County covered by Kenya’s Catholic Diocese of Meru, where “a woman being attended by nurse Sisters gave birth to a boy with no heartbeat,” The Standard in Kenya reported June 15.

Antoine Cardinal Kambanda of Rwanda after receiving a relic of Sr. Maria Carola during her beatification ceremony in Kenya's Meru diocese on Saturday, November 5. Credit: ACI Africa. 

The Kenyan newspaper report further indicates that “the child was born on April 14, 2013, in a Land Rover on the way from Gatunga village to Matiri in Meru.”

“Thirty minutes later, and after the heartfelt prayer of one Sister Katherine addressed to Sister Carola, the newborn named Msafiri Hilary Kiama began to breathe and now, after nine years, continues to live in peace,” The Standard reported.

In a statement obtained by ACI Africa, the Superior General of the Sisters of Cottolengo, Mother Elda Pezzuto, said the Congregation had learnt with great joy the news of the beatification of their member, adding that the celebration would take place on the eve of the Golden Jubilee of the Cottolengo presence in Kenya.

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“The Superiors of the Cottolengo Family, on behalf of the Little House spread throughout the world, and in particular on African soil, express gratitude to the Holy Father for having granted to celebrate the Beatification of Sister Maria Carola in the land that she loved so much,” Mother Pezzuto further said in the statement dated March 11.

In the same statement, the Father General of the Little House of Divine Providence, which St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo founded, described the Holy Father’s granting of the beatification as “an extraordinary grace”.

“It is an extraordinary grace that Divine Providence grants to the whole Cottolengo Family present in Africa and in the world as a renewed call to the path of holiness,” Fr. Carmine Arice, the Father General of the Catholic entity that includes members of the Clergy, women and men Religious, and the Laity, with the mission of taking care of many poor, sick and needy people who were welcomed in was quoted as saying.

In his homily during the beatification ceremony in Meru Diocese, Kenya, on November 5, Cardinal Kambanda said that Blessed Carola had “spent her missionary life for the kingdom of God to come here and for God’s name to be praised in this land. The joy of the faith is the fruit of this missionary work done in this land.”

Some Bishops at the Beatification ceremony of Sr. Maria Carola at Kinoru Stadium in Meru Diocese on 5 November 2022. Credit: ACI Africa

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“She had an absolute trust in the loving care of God and came in this land to be a witness to this so that we can also acquire the same faith and trust that frees us from all fear and calls to us to faithfulness to God,” he said during the ceremony that was graced by dignitaries, including the representative of the Holy Father in Kenya, Archbishop Hubertus van Megen, Bishop Salesius Mugambi of Meru Diocese, and the Italian ambassador to Kenya, Roberto Natali, among others.

The Cardinal who started his Episcopal Ministry in July 2013 as Bishop of Rwanda’s Kibungo Diocese called upon Christians to see in Blessed Carola an example of missionary zeal worth emulating. 

“Sr. Carola gave us an example to follow in our lifetime; today is our turn to carry on this missionary life in our world today, which needs it most,” the Archbishop of Kigali said, adding, “She spent her life in this land giving great honor to God and to the Church.”

The family is one of the institutions where the example of Blessed Carola can be applied, he said, underscoring the need to free families from what he termed “fake love”.

Fake love, the Catholic Church leader who is the first-ever Rwandan Cardinal, named Cardinal in October 2020 said, “is the root cause of the problems in our families today because of the high favors expected from each other by the spouses.”

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He advocated for true love in families following the selfless witness of Blessed Carola.

True love of the gospel when applied within the family should be based on “what good I am going to do for my husband, wife, parent, children, brothers and sisters in the community,” Cardinal Kambanda said, adding, “This is the testimony blessed Maria Carola gives us.”

The Cardinal turning 64 on November 10 went on to reflect on the sacrifices that early missionaries to Africa made, saying, “Many of them got sick on the way and others died young while on this journey.”

The November 5 beatification ceremony is the second such celebration on the Kenyan soil, after that of Sr. Irene Stefani (Nyaatha) in May 2015. 

Italian Ambassador to Kenya, (second from left) and some of Kenya's government officials at the beatification of Italian-born Sister Maria Carola at Kinoru Stadium covered by Kenya's Meru Diocese. Credit: ACI Africa.

Born Aurelia Mercede Stafani in August 1891, the Italian-born member of the Consolata Missionary Sisters was commissioned to Kenya after taking her first vows in January 1914; she arrived in the East African nation in January 1915.

She served in the military hospitals in Kenya and Tanzania during the First World War (1915-1918) where a medical colonel nicknamed her “angel of charity”. She died in Kenya in October 1930 after contracting a disease from a patient she was caring for. She was 39.

Pope Francis delegated Polycarp Cardinal Pengo, then Archbishop of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, to preside over the beatification of Sr. Nyaatha on 23 May 2015 in Nyeri.

The miracle that opened the way for Sr. Nyaatha’s beatification happened in the Southern African nation of Mozambique where, in Nipepe Parish, Lichinga Diocese, 270 people hiding from the 1989 civil war invoked her name to get drinking water, which miraculously flowed and multiplied in the baptismal font.

Her sainthood journey has so far evolved through three successive Papal reigns: Pope St. John Paul II formally opened her sainthood cause by declaring her “Servant of God”; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared her to have exhibited a life of heroic virtues and declared her “Venerable”.

Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing the Mozambique miracle thereby declaring Sr. Irene Stefani “Blessed”.