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Mother Irini

tamavirini_medMother Irini of St. Mercurius Convent; A Modern Desert Mother

On 31 Oct 2006, one of our church’s bright lights faded from this earth. Mother Irini, mother of (St. Mercurius) Abu-Seifen Convent in Old Cairo, and known to many as Umina (Our Mother in Arabic) Irini or simply as Tamav (our Mother in coptic), departed to the heavenly Jerusalem.

To tell the stories and miracles of Tamav’s life would require endless pages of writing. In time, the blessings from this amazing woman’s life will be made known to all. For now, let us remember her through the words of others:

Below is an excerpt from El Ahram Weekly, April 1999, which briefly discusses Tamav and shares some reflections that manifest her love, kindness and charity to others:

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.”

Mother Ireni doesn’t run a convent like a traditional mother superior — she emphasises the importance of leading a community in a democratic way. “I don’t like to point to the sisters’ faults and shortcomings. Words of love and encouragement are more effective.” Still, despite her non-confrontational, non-aggressive philosophy, Mother Ireni is anything but a submissive, introverted woman. She is reputed for being outspoken and for not budging once she has taken a stand. In the Coptic Church, only priests are allowed to anoint people with oil, but Mother Ireni is an exception. This right was given to her by former Pope Kyrollos, and she continues to exercise it as people flock to see her, ask for her prayers and request that she anoint them.

To all the questions about her philosophy and her community, she would state over and over again the importance of love.Was it all so simple for her?

‘In a family, different people take on similar features and traits. It is like that when you live your life with God. You are influenced by those you spend the most time with. Peace, joy and love come from prayer with God. That’s why our life here is a life of prayer.’

The obituary for Mother Irini appeared in Watani Magazine on November 6, 2006 (authored by Victor Salama and reprinted below):

Amid the bustle and jarring materialism of 21st century Egypt, a figure like that of Tamav (Coptic for Mother) Irene appeared to come from another world. Her mere presence exuded peace, happiness, modesty, profound faith, and a love that was deep enough to engulf the world at large. No matter that she had to endure repeated spells of illness— in many of them she almost looked death in the face —Tamav Irene’s faith never faltered. She lived on to take tender care of her spiritual daughters, the nuns at the convent of Abu-Seifein (literally the One with the Two Swords, the name commonly given to St Mercurious) in Old Cairo till her death.

The Beginning

Christians see death as rebirth. And in the Coptic tradition, monks or nuns ‘die’ the day they renounce all worldly interests and take orders. The consecration ceremonial prayers include funereal prayers, and from then on a monk or nun is dedicated to a life of fellowship with the Lord and His saints. In this context, Tamav Irene’s life began in the late 1940s in the convent of Abu-Seifein, with whom she is said to have enjoyed a unique fellowship. In 1954, the then father confessor of the nuns, Father Mina al-Baramousi — who in 1959 became Pope Kyrillos VI — told Mother Kyria, the mother superior of the convent, that Sister Irene would one day become mother of the Abu-Seifein nuns. Surprising as it seemed, since Sister Irene was the youngest and most recently consecrated of the nuns. The prophesy came true and, in 1962, Pope Kyrillos VI ordained her Mother or Tamav Irene.

Under Tamav Irene, the convent saw great spiritual revival. The number of nuns increased dramatically, the buildings were renovated and expanded, and two new churches were added. The present-day convent was established by Pope Kyrillos V in 1912 on relics of the dilapidated, original 11th-century one which had throughout the years undergone several changes. For many years it contained no church and the nuns used to partake of holy Communion in the adjacent fourth century Abu-Seifein church. A new Abu-Seifein convent was established in the1990s on the North Coast.

Rest In Peace

Earlier this month, the Coptic Church paid its last loving respects to its Tamav Irene. She had died at al-Hayat hospital in Heliopolis, Cairo. The nuns carried her body to the convent, performed the last rites, and laid her out in the top-floor church of Archangel Michael. They then moved her to Abu-Seifein’s church downstairs where they sang Midnight Praise and held Holy Liturgy at dawn. In the morning, the convent opened its doors to the public, as thousands queued to pay their last respects.

On Thursday the coffin was moved to the wider church of the Holy Virgin. Again, Praise and Holy Liturgy was sung then, before noon, the funeral ritual for nuns began. Participating were Anba Rweiss, delegated by Pope Shenouda III who was in the U.S. recuperating after spinal surgery, as well as Coptic bishops and priests, mothers superior of Coptic convents, top officials and a large Coptic congregation. Once the prayers were over, the coffin lid was shut, and several of the clergy carried it out, across the garden and to its final place of rest near the baptismal font in the convent. The nuns followed in a procession, each carrying a lighted candle, to lay away a woman who had lived a life of light.

May her prayers be with us. Amen.