When I finally arrive at Bethany House in Sagana, it is a few minutes to midnight. I had traveled through the night to join a team making a pilgrimage across central and eastern Kenya.
The pilgrims, a group of catholic nuns and priests, would trace the footsteps of the early Consolata Missionaries from Murang’a to Nyeri, Nanyuki, Isiolo, Meru and later Embu.
It has been over a century, 114 years to be precise since Consolata missionaries arrived in Tuthu- a sub-location in Murang’a, where they started their first evangelization activity in 1902.
The first four missionaries: two priests, Tommaso Gays, 31 years and Filippo Perlo, 29 years and two brothers; Luigi Falda, 19 years and Celeste Lusso, 18 years were sent to the missions from Italy.
The spiritual journey is in the wake of celebrations to mark the end of Jubilee year of Mercy. Christian evangelization continues to play a key role in transforming communities in Kenya through education, health services, and various socio-economic activities.
The journey to change the perspective of the locals on spirituality though successful at some level was marred with great adversities which left hundreds of the early missionaries dead. In addition to the natural disasters such as harsh climatic conditions and deadly plagues, they also had to face cruel traditional chiefs who were not ready to forsake their roots for a ‘god’ who lived in the heavens.
Winning traditional chiefs over to Christianity
When the four missionaries arrived in Nairobi, they were stranded. Luckily, a local paramount Chief Karuri wa Gakure heard of their distress and invited them to Murang’a. Chief Karuri received the first Consolata Missionaries in the small village at Tuthu. This would later be a special location where the Consolata Missionaries held their first Mass on June 29, 1902. Today, a convex-shaped magnificent chapel, adorned with translucent glass walls stand next to a stone monument engraved with the date of their arrival and a brief history.
You would be forgiven to think that Chief Karuri was among the first Christians in Murang’a. On the contrary, it took the missionaries nine years to woo the traditionalist practicing witchcraft. He, together with one of his wives was later baptized. Chief Karuri was baptized Joseph and his wife, Wanjiru Maria. They also solemnized their marriage in the church.
To entice locals to Christianity missionaries learned the local dialect. This helped them understand and sometimes, turn locals to Disciples of Christ.
The Agikuyu- the largest ethnic group in Kenya- worshiped their god at Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga shrine in Murang’a. They believed in a deity who lived atop Kirinyaga Mountains (Mt Kenya). On the other side of the mountain lives the Ameru community who worshiped their god facing Nyambene hills where they supposedly believed he lived.
The two distinct communities performed ritual sacrifices for various reasons. The Agikuyu offered “sacrifices to the god of mountains” under the tree (Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga) to maintain peace on the land and appease god when necessary. Karanja Samson, chairman of the council of elders, known locally as Aramati a` Mukurwe told the pilgrims. On the other hand, the Ameru offered sacrifices during birth rites, to protect their children from harm and evil.
While the Murang’a shrine still stands as a traditional figurine in the land of the Agikuyu, in Meru, the ethnic shrine gave way to a Church, now known as Maria Consolata Mukululu Shrine. At one end of the church compound, a wall stands mortared with drawings of the Way of the Cross. The opposite side holds a wall engraved with the journey of the Consolata Missionaries throughout Kenya.
“Consolata Mukululu Shrine was built in remembrance of the work of the Consolata missionaries in Meru,” the local parish priest Steven Njogu Wainaina told the religious group.
To cover more grounds missionaries partnered with traditional leaders. The mutual partnership benefited the two parties. The missionaries were given land where they developed initiatives that brought about social and economic development. These benefits continue to sprout and spread across Kenya through the church and the growing number of local missionaries.
Empowering communities through education and socio-economic activities
Long after the four missionaries arrived in Kenya, a stream of others made their way into various parts of Kenya. One such missionary is the Blessed Sr. Irene Stefani, who found her way to Gikondi, located some 118 kilometers from the green city in the sun, Nairobi.
Known locally as Nyaatha due to her merciful acts, Blessed Sr. Irene advocated for education and health in the community. She nursed the sick, and those injured during the emergency time in the country. She would later teach schools and instruct parishioners in the catechism. While on duty serving the community, Sr. Stefani contracted a deadly plague and succumbed to the disease.
At Gikondi parish in Nyeri, where the nun lived with other members of her congregation, constructions are underway to transform her former house into a chapel that can seat 100 people. According to the parish priest Fr. Richard Mwaniki the chapel will be used to hold training workshops for young people.
A banner hangs outside the house under construction with the words “All for Jesus, Nothing for me” a phrase that was commonly used by Sr. Stefani- a Consolata Missionary. She was a true missionary committed to her vocation till death.
The missionaries also sought to spread the gospel by training catechists. In 1904, two years after their arrival in Tuthu, they established St. Augustine's Catechists' Training Centre in Nyeri. Through the trained catechists and ordained ministers, the church is able to continue spreading its doctrines, in its mission to evangelize throughout the world.
In addition to establishing learning institutions and health facilities, the missionaries also invest in socio-economic activities which helped in sustaining their local programs and enhancing the lives of the people.
Seated at the Mukululu shrine under the towering Nyambene hills, is a winery which was set up by Brother Giuseppe Argese, of the Consolata Missionaries in 1976. Brother Argese earned his local name, “Mukiri” (the silent one) due to his calm nature. Now in his mid-eighties, Br. Argese came to Kenya to help locals get an education, and access water- which still is a limited resource in some parts of the community. A structural and water engineer, the religious brother, is credited for being involved in the construction of St. Joseph Cathedral, Meru, and Tuuru Water Scheme, which taps water from Nyambene hills and Ura River. The water is then distributed to over 200,000 households in the locality.
From the meticulous processing of the grapes, the center produces Barbera (red table wine), Sauvignon (white table wine), and Meru Mukululu Martina (Sherry) and Altar wine used by Catholic churches in the country. To the community, the center is a market to sell their grapes. It also provides employment to a number of people to work in the winery and grape farm.
The church also runs minor and major seminaries which help in the formation of religious ministers. The pilgrims visited a few formation houses and schools to interact and encourage students.
Taking time out of the normal schedule for a pilgrimage or out of town tour brings rejuvenation. It helps one to learn about new things, interact with new people and build connections with people and the environment.