Meeting Sr. Irene Balzan for the first time, one is struck by a certain calmness and peace. Some say “contained” and most agree she is very competent. This comes from her family but also from the long years she spent as a child, teenager and young woman developing her spiritual life and discerning her life’s vocation.
Sr. Irene Balzan comes from Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea, a stepping stone between Europe and Africa. Her hometown is called Zebbug, meaning olives, and derives from the number of olive groves that surrounded the church and the town centre. It is one of the oldest towns in Malta. She has only one brother but grew up in a multi-generational household with parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle. She describes herself as having a very happy childhood. She was raised as a Catholic, schooled by religious Sisters and encouraged in all she wanted to achieve in life by her parents. As a young woman she was attracted to Taize meditation and did the Caminho pilgrimage between France and Spain. She knew early on that she wanted religious life but was unsure where or how until she came across a newspaper article about MMM and she resonated straight away with the spirit and work of the Congregation.
Sr. Irene did her early Nurse education in Malta before joining MMM. After her initial religious formation in Ireland, Uganda and Kenya, she came to Ireland to complete her midwifery studies. Then came her first missionary assignment, to Urua Akpan in Nigeria. “It was very much plunging in at the deep end and relying on one’s own personal resources”, Irene remembers. This experience founded the building blocks of resilience which stood by her in the years that followed. Sr. Irene did well in Urua Akpan and was chosen to go to a new mission, recently started by three other MMMs, in the Republic of Benin. Although a neighbouring country to Nigeria, it was French speaking and had different cultures and traditions.
After seven years in the Republic of Benin and further educational studies in London, Sr. Irene was ready for the next step in her “extraordinary adventure”. She began a new mission in a newly formed South Sudan, an area recovering from civil war and with great need. During her five years there she worked to establish the MMM Healing Centre, working collaboratively with other groups religious orders. Working in conflict-driven societies has been the most challenging experience for Sr. Irene, especially the feeling of living with uncertainty, instability and no ground under your feet.
However, life is not all about work! In her free time Sr. Irene enjoys swimming and music. She plays the guitar and reminisces on the joy it brought in the various countries where she worked.
“When people think of me, they think of …parapapumpum!! (The song of The Little Drummer Boy). Every Christmas in the Republic of Benin, it was a deep joy to go around the streets of the village of Zaffe playing the guitar and singing Christmas carols. The Little Drummer boy was the favourite song for both young and old alike. The song left a trail and whisp of connectedness, togetherness, love, solidarity and joy. It was as if parapapumpum is contagious as this song brought great smiles and joy too to the over 8,000 internally displaced people in South Sudan’s migrant settlement. Amidst their fleeing away for safety just like Joseph and Mary they found solace, love and acceptance. “
Currently Sr. Irene is working in the MMM clinic in Beechgrove, caring for our elderly and infirm Sisters. We wish her well in her present ministry and in all life will bring her into the future.