Goodbye, ‘Sister God Bless’
Durban - Sister Stefani, formerly known as Gertrud Tiefenbacher, 87, would have celebrated her 65th jubilee as a nun with the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood next month.
There would have been flowers and candles in profusion, both of which she loved. Instead, on Monday, more than 1 000 people will fill the church alongside the Sacred Heart Home to bid farewell to the nun fondly referred to by the people of Ixopo as “Sister God Bless.”
Sister Stefani was raped and strangled in her bedroom at the Home in the early hours of last Sunday. She was targeted because she administered funds for the holy order.
Her killers made their way through a back door, via the convent kitchen and a storeroom, up two flights of stairs and along a corridor lined with bedrooms, to target her. The other nuns sleeping in rooms close by did not hear a sound.
Sister Stefani was found by a novice and another young nun who had only recently taken her vows. In their twenties, both women are receiving trauma counselling.
In a show of remarkable grace and fortitude, Sister Clair Wade, who administers the home, welcomed the newspaper this week.
Despite the horror of what she had witnessed when called to Sister Stefani’s room by the young women who found the nun’s remains, she radiated calm. “The police have been incredible. Truly amazing,” she said.
“They were here less than half an hour after I called to tell them of her death. They took fingerprints without delay, and they are keeping us updated on progress in the investigation all the time. All the policemen and women are respectful, efficient and polite. They are a great credit to the service.”
Excusing herself periodically to speak to police investigating the crime, or answer the constantly shrilling telephone, Sister Clair painted a picture of Sister Stefani – a woman with a huge spirit of adventure and a deep devotion to her calling. She was also a keen amateur photographer.
Her death has caused waves of shock internationally, because the order has branches in most developed countries
“She arrived in this country in 1952 and this was her home all the years of her service,” Sister Clair said. “Sister Stefani left her adoptive parents in Austria as a young woman and did not expect ever to see her family again.
“At the time she took holy orders, nuns forsook their families to serve God. Only much later were we permitted to have a visit home every five years.”
A black and white photograph proferred by Sister Clair showed a 20-something Sister Stefani in a severe, old-fashioned black habit with a long veil and wimple framing her face.
Her parents flanked her; her father stoic in his best suit, her mother, a scarf tied peasant-style under her chin, turned slightly away from the photographer and clearly battling not to cry as she bade farewell to her daughter.
“She would have embraced the adventure,” said Sister Clair.” She loved a challenge.
“Look at this picture – she rode an ostrich in Oudtshoorn not too long ago. And this one, where Sister is helping to demolish an old iron chapel before we built the new one here at Ixopo.”
Sister Clair lifted a laminated image, with a quote superimposed on a painting, and handed it to our photographer. “I recently made a special card for each of the nuns. They had to give me their favourite saying, and an image that was special to them. This was Sister Stefani’s choice.”
Lying in the nun’s palm the keepsake, she said, summed up the dead woman’s personality perfectly.
The words “You are my God, and I love you”, surmounting a white lotus flower.
In all the images of Sister Stefani, the pleasant, round-faced nun has a twinkle in her eye. Her zest for life was undiminished in her ninth decade, Sister Clair related.
Apart from slightly raised blood pressure, weakening sight and a back that sometimes gave her trouble, Sister Stefani was as active as ever at the time of her death.
“She used to call herself ‘uneducated’, but she was an incredible administrator and an excellent bookkeeper,” said Sister Clair.
“When we built the school here, which was the first school for black pupils within a radius of many miles, we also built a hostel and houses for the teachers.
“When the government took over the running of the school and the town expanded, we no longer needed the teachers’ homes so we rented them out for a nominal amount; just enough to pay for their upkeep.
“Sister Stefani made sure the houses were immaculately maintained and she collected the rental money each month. That is why the criminals caught her. For the money she was safeguarding in her room.”
Without prompting, Sister Clair walked us through the Sacred Heart Home, indicating where the killers had entered through a small rear door in the building; where they had ransacked a store cupboard, carrying off huge sacks of produce. Then she slowly mounted the staircase leading to the wing where the nuns’ bedrooms are located.
“The television here in the upstairs lounge was not taken,” she said.
“These clothing cupboards were not touched. They came straight to Sister’s bedroom.”
At the door to room number six, Sister Clair straightened Sister Stefani’s nameplate, and briefly touched a devotional plaque fixed to the door.
“Our Blessed Lady,” she murmured. “Sister Stefani loved Our Lady.”
Overcome by sadness, the nun said: “I do not understand. Why could they not have left her with her dignity?”
Outside, the mellow autumn light was filtered through a faint haze of smoke from a bush fire.
Sister Clair proudly showed off an extensive vegetable garden and led the way into the convent cemetery. Simple iron crosses on the graves of generations of nuns were offset by a blaze of flowers – yellow, red, orange and purple – and the laughter from children at play at the school next door carried on the air.
“The ground is very hard. It takes days to dig a grave, so we have already begun.
“This is where we will lay Sister Stefani to rest,” said Sister Clair.
“The azaleas are early. It will be beautiful. She did so love flowers.”