Umm Irînî (1936–2006): Feminine Coptic Monastic Engagement

By Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen

The Coptic enclosed nuns enjoy a privileged place in both the Coptic community and in contemporary Egyptian society. The social visibility and unprecedented success of the moniales are owed to the Coptic Revival, in particular to the actions of the charismatic leader Umm Irînî who died in odour of sanctity in 2006. Abbess of the monastery of Abû Sayfayn in Old Cairo, founder of three other convents, and builder of churches, she made the entry into the convent attractive for young Coptic girls. She asserted a new social and religious role for women, including lay women. Inspired in part by the model of the Latin Catholic missionary congregations of the nineteenth century, Umm Irînî participated in the awakening of the orthodox Coptic tradition which characterized the second half of the twentieth century and helped usher that tradition into the modern age. Even during her lifetime, Irînî became a model of engagement for Coptic women, one which stood apart from the patriarchal model of society and the Church. She died in 2006, thirty-five years after the holy pope Kyrillos, in relation to whom she is considered to be a feminine alter ego. Both the attention given to her grave and the hagiography which surrounds her memory testify to a new promotion of feminine roles in the Coptic community.


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