Were it not for a resolute uncle and a generous parish priest, the life of outgoing Nyeri Catholic Archbishop Peter Joseph Kairu would have taken a less religious turn.
The firstborn in a family of 10 – whose father was a carpenter while his mother was a housewife – says he did not hide his admiration for priesthood from an early age as a pupil at St Peter’s Boys’ Primary School in Elburgon, Nakuru. The seed, he reckons, was planted by his Christian Religious Education teacher in the late 1950s.
“I was moved by the way he explained and narrated Biblical stories and I just found myself being attracted to priesthood,” he told Lifestyle.
But his father, Daniel Muraya, would hear none of it. And if he thought he would get a sympathetic ear from his mother, Teresia Muringe, then he was in for a rude shock as she, too, envisioned a different path for her son.
RELIABLE BIG BROTHER
As a firstborn son, his parents’ idea of being a good example to his siblings was washing their clothes, helping to prepare food for the family and eventually getting a “serious job”.
“Until today, I do not know how to swim simply because I concentrated on washing clothes for my siblings as they swam in the nearby Londiani River,” says Archbishop Kairu, adding that he has no regrets about playing his part as a reliable big brother.
But despite sensing the strong opposition, the young man’s passion to serve the church was poorly disguised, at one time prompting a family meeting in his hometown of Londiani to discuss his conduct. Several of his uncles were in attendance and all were against his wish apart from one who he really acknowledges until now.
“Since I was the first born, they wanted me to take a more ‘serious’ career but I stood my ground,” he says.
He was emboldened to follow his heart’s desire by the uncle who stood by him – a lone aye in a gaggle of nays – despite his father’s repeated threats of not paying fees at the seminary.
But Father William Cunningham, who was the Molo Parish priest, volunteered to pay his school fees at the Matunda Minor Seminary for four years.
“This was between 1960 and 1964 when we did Cambridge Examination,” he says with a chuckle.
He would later join St Thomas Aquinas, an Interdiocesan Seminary in Nairobi’s Lang’ata area, and was eventually ordained a priest on November 8, 1970.
He was in for a pleasant surprise as he was posted to his home diocese of Molo to be the parish priest before being promoted to be the founding archbishop of the newly created Murang’a Diocese in 1983.
“Being a son of a carpenter, just like Jesus was, I made sure I did not disappoint both those who opposed my dream and those who supported it,” he says.
But life was not easy in the new posting. Based in Kiria-ini, he had no official residence or office and running water was a privilege.
Instead, he shared a house with other priests at the cathedral as fundraising efforts continued. Their budget included building a new house for the archbishop, buying new cars and paying for the education of priests and seminarians.
Archbishop Kairu also wanted more personnel to be posted to the Gaichanjiru and Kiria-ini health centres which were run by Catholic nuns and were the only such facilities in the area.
“When you become a bishop, automatically you become a beggar,” he says.
On one “begging mission” seeking donors in Switzerland, the archbishop and his team ran out of money to buy train tickets. Fearing they would be stranded, they briefly turned into hawkers and successfully raised the fare by selling some of the gifts they had carried. “We had no option but to sell some batik art works we had carried with us so that we could get the train tickets,” he says, adding that the gifts were meant as a token of appreciation for donors.
After serving in Murang’a for 14 years, he was transferred to Nakuru in 1997 where he served for 11 years before being moved to Nyeri.
In Nyeri, he succeeded Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima, who died at a Nairobi hospital on November 27, 2007 at the age of 71.
The Nyeri archdiocese, comprising 53 parishes, was formed in 1988 and has only had two other prelates before Archbishop Kairu took over: Archbishop Kirima and John Cardinal Njue who stood in for the ailing archbishop.
And now, after 33 years of heading various dioceses, Archbishop Kairu has called it a day and is waiting for a replacement to be announced by the Vatican after reaching the age of 75. He has already written a letter to Pope Francis informing him of his impending retirement in line with church rules.
“It has been a long journey but now it is my time to take a rest although I will continue to serve God,” he says.
For the archbishop, it has been a journey of ups and downs. Spreading the gospel and starting successful church programmes have, over the years, filled him with satisfaction. But one of the lowest moments of his career, he says, was the controversial death of Fr Michael Kabutu in May 2003.
Archbishop Kairu, who has rarely talked about the incident over the years, told Lifestyle that Fr Kabutu had been asked to go and reflect about his vocation — but instead the priest went and committed suicide.
“This has been haunting me because I have been asking myself whether I am responsible for his death. I never anticipated he would do that,” he says.
The Mogotio Parish Priest died after he deliberately drove his vehicle into Menengai Crater, a popular tourist spot in the Rift Valley.
He had been suspended from his parish in Nakuru under circumstances Archbishop Kairu, who was then in charge of the diocese, is reluctant to reveal. It was a particularly painful moment, he says, since he had ordained the priest and worked closely with him.
His greatest hope as he looks forward to retirement is that another miracle will happen in the name of Blessed Sr Irene Stefani “Nyaatha” so that she can be crowned as a saint.
The Italian Consolata missionary, who served in Nyeri until her death in 1930, was beatified in May last year after a miracle was attributed to her. The event was one of the most high-profile religious ceremonies in recent years despite the missionary having died 85 years earlier.
The archbishop acknowledges his role model, Fr Bernard Carnia, whose work in the Molo Parish and Nakuru Diocese touched the lives of many. The priest also spearheaded the creation of Nakuru Diocese in 1968 after it was hived off the Eldoret Diocese.
Archbishop Kairu once visited Fr Carnia’s home in Torino, Italy, and learnt the priest was an orphan who had been inspired by St Don Bosco. It was a pleasant piece of information as Don Bosco — the famous Italian priest, educator and writer who died in the late 1800s but whose legacy has spread throughout the world — was also an inspiration to Archbishop Kairu.
While in Turin, there was a big book where visitors put down their wishes, and Archbishop Kairu wrote: “It’s my desire and wish that one day we shall have Don Bosco Fathers in Murang’a.”
Months later, his wish was fulfilled when the Don Bosco (Salesians of Don Bosco) Fathers landed in Makuyu and set up a parish, dispensary and a printing press.
When he officially moves out of office, Archbishop Kairu says he will concentrate on writing inspirational and Christian books, rest and travel around the country to preach peace. He will also no doubt get more time to play golf, his favourite pastime. Already the church has decided to build for him a house in Kamakwa estate, Nyeri. This will also double as an office. It will, however, not be personal property as it is meant to house all the bishops who will retire from the archdiocese.
The archbishop has been living in the compound of Our Lady of Consolata Cathedral, Nyeri, but will have to move out as soon as his replacement is found.
Asked why he has chosen to stay in Nyeri instead of going back to his home county of Nakuru, he quips that it is always good to remain in the same place where one has retired. Besides, he adds, the faithful in Nyeri have, over the years, proved to be loving and caring.
UNITE AND STRENGTHEN FAMILIES
“The last born is more loved by the mother and is normally allowed to occupy the house,” he says by way of explaining the decision. The outgoing Nyeri Archbishop hopes his successor will continue with his efforts to unite and strengthen families and complete the archdiocese projects, prominent among them the Nyeri Catholic University.
“My greatest belief is that strong and united families make up the church and a well co-ordinated country which results in a developed nation,” he says.
But even as he heads to retirement, Archbishop Kairu believes that there are issues there should be no compromise about. He, for instance, condemns homosexuality and same sex marriages, terming them “satanic” practices that are prohibited in the Bible. Marriage, he says, must be between a man and a woman.
He is also steadfast about celibacy, even though he sometimes had to live with the reality that some people would inevitably fall by the wayside. “Whenever I see a priest breaking his vow of celibacy, I get irritated and I’m lost for words,” he says.
Those who have worked with the archbishop describe him as a humble and peace loving servant of God. His motto since he became a priest has always been amani (peace).
According to Fr Charles Kinyua, spokesman for the Catholic bishops, the archbishop has always told them: “Without peace there can never be development”.
In his sermons, recalls Ms Sarah Muthoni, the archbishop never missed saying this before and in the middle of his sermons: “Ngai ni mwega, hindi ciothe (God is good, all the time).” Ms Muthoni also notes the diocese has thrived under the archbishop who started various projects and even revived the church’s coffee plantation.
Mr Peter Njogu, another faithful and a church elder, says he loves attending Archbishop Kairu’s sermons.
“His sermons are all about peace and love. This is one bishop we will miss a lot but since he has chosen to live in Nyeri, we will be asking him for guidance,” says Mr Njogu.