Irene Gleeson, the ‘Lioness of Africa’

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.

Irene Gleeson and the children she has rescued

Irene Gleeson and the children she has rescued

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.

Getting ready for a TV appearance

Getting ready for a TV appearance

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.

Amongst her children

Amongst her children

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.

Mama Irene:  1944 – 2013


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  1. Irene Gleeson was an amazing woman indeed. She definitely earned her rest and hearing God saying “Well done good and faithful servant.” RIP faithful Irene! A lovely write up Charlie xx

  2. What a truly inspirational lady. She’s left such a legacy for those children and she set it all up on her own. A Lioness indeed. RIP Mama Irene.

  3. Sounds like such a strong woman of God. What a life well lived!

  4. I am in tears reading this lovely tribute to an incredible woman, Charlie. Thank you for sharing this and reminding all of us that wealth lies not in possessions or fame, but in serving others. Blessed be Irene’s memory.

  5. What an amazing woman.

  6. How beautiful and inspiring. Thank you for sharing this story Charlie.

  7. Charlie, I’ve read a few pieces now about Mama Irene, but yours is without doubt the most touching. What an amazing woman, and what a tough life she had. I sometimes wonder if greatness is ever possible without adversity – she was such an inspiration. Thanks for sharing her story with us, both at lunch and in more detail here. And it was truly lovely to catch up! xxx

  8. How nice that you had another opportunity to meet up with Lorraine and Celia; it’s too bad you’ve had two funerals. What an inspiring story, Mama Irene truly led a selfless life.
    We’ve been away meeting some bloggers too and I’ll tell you all about it on Monday!

  9. Lovely tribute to an inspiring woman.

  10. I heard Mama Irene speak at a CCC conference along with some of her gorgeous rescue children. Her story and testimony were incredible indeed and just goes to show that God looks at the heart rather than the outside, as you would certainly not expect this lovely little lady to be a warrior or lioness! The impact of one person’s life can be be remarkable- it’s so humbling. Irene certainly lived a life worthy of celebration xox

  11. G’day and SO sorry to hear (once again) about your loss Charlie…hugs to you!
    Your post today was and is a great tribute to a remarkable lady you were blessed to have in your life too! Cheers! Joanne

    She Is Just Away
    I cannot say, and I will not say….
    that she is dead…
    She is just away!
    With a tilt of her head, and a wave of her hand…..
    She has wandered off to an unknown land……
    and leaves us thinking, how fair, that land must be…..
    since she lingers there.

    Always know…
    do not fear….
    She loves us, there,
    as she loved us here.

    And therefore I just cannot say….
    that she is dead…..
    She is just away!

  12. I knew about Irene and read about her death in the paper. Your story made me cry, Charlie, and she would have loved reading your words. I suspect it’s just how she would want to be remembered.

  13. This woman did what few of us can, she puts us to shame, showing what the ordinary can do, but she was not ordinary, she was very very special, what a passion, what an angel on earth. RIP.

  14. Charlie, I truly am unexpectedly shedding tears at the moment. The beautiful woman’s name was familar, her recent story not so. Thank you so much for the tribute: no remembrance can be more powerful than the one we have in our hearts . . . I have only helped ‘bring up’ three of those who had needs from the Third World . . . but have tried to work in orgs which understood and supported since my childhood . . . I know what difference it makes . . . may the wonderful woman rest in peace . . . so sad she could not have had a longer time on this earth . . .

  15. What a beautiful, touching and inspiring story. I am sure she has blessed and helped more people than can be calculated – what a wonderful woman.

  16. I am so glad to learn something of the life of Irene Gleeson. Hers isn’t a name I knew, but I’m touched just by the story you’ve shared, Charlie. What a remarkable woman. The photo you shared shows a woman with great beauty. It shines through her eyes and smile, and I am very moved by her loving heart. What an inspiration!

  17. What an impressive lady.

  18. Thank you, Charlie. I’d never heard of this incredible woman nor of her work. She is truly an inspiration. May she rest in peace.

  19. What an inspiring woman, and you tell her story so well. Thank you.

  20. Her passing is of deep significance to the region’s people, who affectionately knew her as Mama Irene.

  21. What a moving tribute to an incredible woman! Thank you for sharing her story. 🙂

  22. So glad to have read this Charlie, a terrific tribute.

  23. She sounds amazing and it is disappointing we have heard nothing of her here in mainstream media. What a wonderful and brave job she has done. If only there were more of her.

  24. What a beautiful tribute to an incredible lady Charlie. Irene is most definitely surrounded by treasures.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  25. I was really moved by your story about this amazing lady Irene. You wrote a beautiful story. I couldn’t stop reading till the end. Very inspiring story and I got chilled. Thank you for sharing Charlie. You are an incredible writer, too. May Irene rest in peace..

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