A few days ago I was enjoying a quick catch-up with Lorraine and Celia. We were talking about what we’d been up to and I had to let them know that sadly, I’d been to another funeral. ‘Another funeral?’ asked Celia, ‘Wasn’t there just one?’ And I said, ‘No, there’s been two’.
And so I told them that on Monday I had been to the celebration of Irene Gleeson’s life. Celia had heard of her and asked me how I knew her.
I first met Irene when I was 17 and Irene would have been in her late 30’s. She was a smallish woman who always greeted me enthusiastically and was totally interested in me but apart from her obvious love of people, there was seemingly nothing else that made her stand out; she was the mother of four children, on her second marriage and ran the canteen at a local TAFE.
On the night that I met her there were about 20 of us in the room and if you had asked which one person in that room was going to end up doing something incredible with their life, she would probably have been the person most overlooked.
Because she was smallish. And she seemed average. And she wasn’t wealthy. Or beautiful. And she didn’t come from ‘good stock’.
But the physical characteristics of those destined for greatness aren’t necessarily easy to define.
During World War II, Irene’s mother became pregnant to a US solider. He abandoned her, and her parents, fearing the shame of an illegitimate child, sent her to Queensland to have the baby in a nunnery then give it up for adoption. But after giving birth, Irene’s mother wanted to keep her baby and brought her back to the family home where her father kept saying, ‘get rid of it’.
But Irene’s mother kept her daughter and married and had six more children. And Irene, although just a child herself, helped her mother to raise her siblings. Then when she was 15 her mother died leaving her an orphan. Despite the adversity, Irene went on to become dux of her school then at 16 she married her childhood sweetheart. By the time she was in her early 20’s she was the mother of four children, Greg, Marie, Shelley and Heidi.
Irene not only raised her children but with a glimpse of what was to come, on weekends she would go to a Boys’ Home and bring home an Aboriginal boy so he could experience family life and spend some time away from the institution. During this time she also earned her teaching degree and started sponsoring World Vision children. Although never a wealthy woman, she ended up sponsoring 40 children.
Following a divorce and then a re-marriage and then at the time when her children were young adults, Irene’s heart was for the children of war-torn Uganda. She made the decision to sell her home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches (her only asset) and use that money to help the children of Kitgum, Uganda, the victims of civil war.
She sold all she had and moved to Kitgum, living in an old and ordinary caravan with no electricity or running water and she didn’t even have a supply of food. Irene started her school under a tree. She gathered the children to her and began to teach them, then she clothed them, then realising they were hungry, fed them and meet their medical needs. Very quickly her money began to run out but people began to sponsor her work and so from helping 50 children, she soon was able to support thousands in her care, many of whom were rescued child soldiers.
Through the years she was in Uganda the rebels were ever present and at one stage she had to sleep in a different location every night just so they wouldn’t find her. Despite the adversity, she continued on with her work.
Irene stayed in Kitgum for more than two decades and battled on despite contracting malaria, her second husband leaving her for another woman and rebels being ever-present and threatening her life. In a remote, war-destroyed and desolate area she built schools, day care centres, hospices for those with HIV and maternity facilities.
However, less than 18 months ago, Irene was diagnosed with inoperable oesophageal cancer. Irene had to return to Australia.
After a courageous battle, Irene passed away in Sydney on July 21 surrounded by family and friends. A funeral service was held for her in Kitgum and around 15,000 people attended including those high up in the Ugandan government. In Uganda, this tiny woman had become known as ‘The Lioness of Africa‘.
On Monday there was a funeral service for Irene in Sydney. I felt very privileged to be able to attend the service of someone so inspiring. It was startling for me to remember back to the woman I thought had very little going for her and whom I had judged as being ‘ordinary’ yet she proved me wrong. I had no idea of the strength she had within her tiny frame. And not only her strength but her ability to be so self-sacrificial and give up a very comfortable existence to go to one of the most wretched places on earth to help the least.
She loved Jesus and lived that scripture from the Bible, ‘Sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven’.
Irene must for sure, be surrounded in treasure.