Our Mother Irini, Abbess of St. Philopateer Mercurius (Abu Sefein) Convent in Old Cairo, Egypt, departed to join the ranks of Heavenly Saints on Tuesday, October 31, 2006 (21 Baba 1723 AM on the Coptic calendar), following a long battle with cancer and other afflictions.
Omenna Irini joined the Convent at the age of 17. His Holiness the late Pope St. Kyrillos VI, recognising the exemplary reflection of God's Love and Holiness and the profound ascetic self-discipline exercised in her monastic life, entrusted her to be Abbess of St. Abu Sefein Convent following the departure of the previous Abbess at the mere age of 20. So exceptional was this Nun in the eyes of the Late Patriarch that he granted her what is generally an exclusively priestly privilege--the ability to anoint people with Holy Oil.
She is most recognised amongst Copts for her intimate relationship and Communion with the Saints. She is particularly known to have been visited by, and to have communicated with, Saints of the Old Testament, St. Anthony the Great, and St. Philopateer Mercurius. In her last days she has given us the privelege to hear of the various wondrous events and incidents, that God may be glorified through His Saints, by allowing her narration of such events and incidents to be recorded*
. She is also known to have received a dream regarding the Papacy of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III.
Omenna Irini is known to have prayed to God requesting that if He should find it fit that she be tested with a trial, that that trial affect her physical being and not the love, peace and harmony that existed amongst her Nuns at the Convent. Omenna Irini's prayer was answered when she was struck with cancer. This was not the only physical ailment she had to deal with however; she was at one stage simultaneously suffering from a blocked artery, and was flown to the U.S. for an emergency bypass operation. The night before the operation, St. Philopateer Mercurios appeared to her and told her that he came to perform the bypass operation for her. Omenna Irini felt St. Philopateer insert an instrument thrice into her artery, in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He then declared her healed; out of his great love for Omenna Irini, he told her that it was his desire that he also cure her weak heart that was made as such by the Chemotherapy she was undergoing as part of her cancer treatment. However, he said that he would leave her heart in God's hands, and declared that in as much as it was his desire to prolong her lead of his Monastery, that he would not want to deprive her of the Crown that awaited her for her most faithful endurance throughout the whole ordeal. The next day, the American physicians found Omenna Irini's arteries to have been cured.
Regardless of the tremendous suffering that she endured, Omenna Irini continued to praise and glorify God. Though deprived, according to her own will, of healing for her own cancerous condition, God granted healing through her prayers to many others who suffered and desparately sought her prayers, just as He did through the Apostle Paul who healed many afflicted in his days of suffering also.
*I have these recordings (which are in Arabic) on CD; I can download them as MP3's if anyone is interested.A short excerpt on her taken from the April 99 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly:
"Mother Ireni, mother superior at the Abu Seifein Convent, is deeply involved in her effort to bring to light women's real contribution to monastic life in Egypt. Mother Ireni must be the one nun Coptic Christians today love the most; she is considered a living saint by the majority. While traditional accounts have consecrated St Paul of Thebes and St Anthony as the pioneers of monastic life and seclusion from the world, Mother Ireni insists that it was women who started this tradition, in the first century AD. Shortly after the resurrection of Christ, she believes, a group of women vowed to live a celibate life of prayer in a community at Mount Olive. They are supposed to have been in close contact with St Mary, the mother of Christ. Although this was the first of its kind, according to Mother Ireni, such communities of women proliferated and became commonly known as the "houses of virgins". In the centuries that followed, women also sought a solitary life in the desert as anchorites, but disguised themselves as men. Their real identity was only discovered after their death. Mother Ireni, however, emphasises that some of the anchorites who reached high levels of spirituality even had monks as disciples, "like Anisimone, the anchorite who taught many monks."
The first convent, where 400 nuns lived, followed the rule of St Pachomious. In the first centuries, there were also women's convents in Akhmim, Sohag, while another convent in Upper Egypt had more than 1,800 nuns within its walls. At one point, the number of nuns exceeded the number of monks; near Beni Suef, there were monastic communities where 10,000 monks and 20,000 nuns lived.
Mother Ireni, who hails from Upper Egypt, became head of the convent at the age of 16. She holds fast to the tradition of St Pachomious in the monastic way of life. In the second half of the fourth century, St Pachomious began a movement in which monks and nuns were organised in strictly regulated communities. In his monastery of Tabenna near the Nile, 7,000 men and women lived in congregations. Their garments included a tunic of linen, a cloak of goat or sheepskin, and a hood. They came to live within a walled enclosure, which included a church, refectory, dormitory, garden, and a separate lodging for visitors. St Pachomious's way of life has been instrumental in shaping the contemporary Catholic monastic movement. Mother Ireni insists on the importance of living in a community. "While it is up to each nun to decide on the level of austerity appropriate for her, our life is still essentially built on partnership and love."
May her prayers be with us all. Amen.