Listen to the show:
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry
Today’s guest(s): Sr. Olga Yaqob
- “Iraqi sister founding religious order to serve Boston’s spiritually poor”, Catholic News Agency, 6/23/11
- “Sister Olga says farewell to BU after 10 years”, Daily Free Press, 4/13/11
- “Iraqi Nun Finds Her Calling, Spreads Message of Peace”, Assyrian International News Agency, 10/25/2004
Today’s topics: Sr. Olga Yaqob, foundress of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth order
Summary of today’s show: Sr. Olga Yaqob joins Scot and shares with him her story of growing up in Iraq as an Assyrian Christian; her growing pull toward the Catholic Church; how she started a movement of love in response to war, including ministering to prisoners in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison; started the first order of religious women in the Assyrian Church in 700 years; came to Boston and eventually entered full communion with the Catholic Church; served as campus chaplain at Boston University; and was asked by Cardinal Sean to form the first new religious order of women in Boston in 45 years.
1st segment: Scot started by recalling that 33 years ago yesterday was the anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul II. Scot said joining us today on the show is Sr. Olga Yaqob, who is founding the first new religious order in Boston in five decades.
Scot said Sr. Olga was living in Iraq in 1978 and was not part of the Roman Catholic Church, but was Assyrian Christian. She became a Roman Catholic much later. Sr. Olga said John Paul was part of her faith journey. She remembers the day he died. Earlier that year she’d started the full process of coming into full communion with the Church. He had inspired her desire to convert. She feels he’s with her even more now that he’s in heaven. Sister pointed out that Assyrian Christians are not in communion with Rome, while the Chaldean Catholics are.
She grew up in northern Iraq, near Kirkuk, until she finished high school. Part of her ministry in Iraq was helping the victims of the first Persian Gulf War. Sr. Olga said her vocation was influenced by the suffering of her people. She was born in 1966 and has seen four wars: the war with Iran, first Gulf War, the 12 years of the embargo, and the second Gulf War. she was struck by the pain and despair of young people, who would say that it didn’t matter if they went to school because they would die anyway. She wanted to give them hope by bringing them out to the streets of Kirkuk and Baghdad to see the pain of others, to make a difference for them and help them see a hope for the future.
Sr. Olga said the Assyrian church does not religious sisters, but it was the example of the Blessed Mother that called her to the religious life.She grew up desiring to be set aside for the Lord, just like the liturgical items in the church. Her neighbors in her town were Catholic and she asked them why they went to Mass every day and they said it was because they were Catholic. They then introduced her to the rosary, to religious sisters, and to the presence of the Eucharist in the church. She told her father she wanted to become a religious sister and live next to the “red light” of the tabernacle lamp.
She moved to Baghdad at one point. In high school, she saw so many dying in the Iran-Iraq War, she wanted to serve. She knew that Assyrians had not had religious sisters in 700 years until she became the first in 1995. So before that she went to the Patriarch and asked him if she could start a lay movement of young people serving others, called “Love Your Neighbor”. She said it was amazing to see Muslim young men and women join the movement too. It included Catholics and Assyrians as well. One of the prisons where Sr. Olga ministered was the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. She served prisoners there for seven years, including both criminals and political prisoners. She even walked with prisoners who were being taken for execution. She noted that there was no official prison chaplaincy so it was a special grace for her to be able to do that.
She said the fact that the movement was a lay movement of people from all religions providing food and medication for everyone equally was the reason they gave her permission to work there.
Sister said she walked with the death row inmates nearly every week, too many, and it stays with her. She began to study Islam in order to talk with the prisoners on their own religious terms.
2nd segment: Scot asked Sr. Olga about Muslim beliefs of the afterlife. Sr. Olga said there is a lot of emphasis on doing good in this life to determine where you will end up. Many of the prisoners focused on their misdeeds and believed that they would definitely be punished. They did not believe in the possibility of mercy and forgiveness. One prisoner told her that he couldn’t understand why she cared for them when even their own families had cut them off. She told him that she did it for Christ because he loves them and wants to extend his mercy to them.
Scot said Christians may take for granted how loving God is to us with all the sacraments to bring us into right relationship with God. He is infinitely loving and merciful to us.
She said the example of their witness was a powerful example of the love of Christ to many in Baghdad.
In 2000 she moved from Iraq to the United States. She said it was due to Pope John Paul II and his love for the people of Iraq. He had encouraged religious orders to go to Rome and so two Jesuits from Boston and two Salesians went to Iraq for 1999-2000 to teach at the seminary, and John Paul said that whoever reached summa cum laude would go to Rome with a full scholarship. Sister Olga was studying there, still not a Catholic, but she won. She was going to refuse it in favor of one of the seminarians, but the two Jesuits thought it was so big that a woman who was not Catholic and suffered so much for her education (four years of philosophy and tow years of theology), they asked the order to give her a full scholarship to Boston College.
She arrived in 2001 without knowing English. She started learning English at Boston University, which a strong program for international students to learn English. Spent two years learning English. Then she entered the Masters program at BC in the fall of 2003. Even while she was still not proficient in English, she was asked to be a spiritual director by a young woman. She had to respond in her broken English that it would be better to find an American. She responded, “I didn’t choose you because you would understand my English, but that you understand my heart.”
At the time she was living with the Sisters of Charity. While she couldn’t convert to Catholicism in Iraq, she did practice Catholic devotions, including consecration to the Sacred Heart, praying the rosary, attending Mass. Her parents did not approve and she was even beaten for it. In 2003, when the war started, she went back to see the religious order she started. She was told she had to go back to finish her schooling and was told that when she was done she had to come back either fully Assyrian or give up her order. She decided to approach Cardinal Sean and she had to join an Eastern-rite church in communion with Rome to continue as a religious sister. Finally, when she fully entered the Church as a Roman Catholic, she did so on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Mother, September 8, 2005.
3rd segment: After entering the Church, Cardinal Seán asked her to serve as campus minister at Boston University. When she was studying at BC, she had to do a field education component and was allowed to volunteer there for 2 years and after being received into the Church began full-time ministry.
She said it was a very special place for her. She had many nicknames, including “Blue Lightning” and “Flying Nun” and “Sister Hug”, but her favorite was that all the kids would call her “Mother”. Every Mother’s Day she would receive gifts from the students she ministered to. Her official title was Catholic chaplain at the Newman Center, but her ministry was to bring Christ to all the students. The highlight was being with the students every day. The Newman Center is at the center of the BU campus, which made her available to give a hug or talk with them or give them a smile. Walking around campus, being there on move-in day, attending weddings, being godmother for children of students and even for students who came into the Church. She’s also been there in times of tragedy, when students have died on campus, to console faculty and staff and students.
She was overwhelmed by the generosity of the university and the student community when it was announced that she would be living. They gave her many beautiful farewells. Scot said some of his favorite photos were the service trips with students, going on spring break with them to help in various places, including one trip to Honduras. She recalled visiting Appalachia with students and experiencing the regional dialect. She heard women saying “Howdy” to one another and she expressed surprise at hearing so many women with the same name: “Howdy!” The students she was with got great laughs at hearing her confusion. But now she really loves the Southern accent.
4th segment: Scot said Sr. Olga will soon be Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart now that Cardinal Sean has asked her to start the new religious order Daughters of Mary of Nazareth. She has just moved into her new convent, St. Joseph Convent, in Newton. She said Cardinal Sean first invited her to consider this 3 years ago. She said it’s a big responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. The theme of annunciation continues to be part of her journey. She finds it difficult that she didn’t grow up in this culture and doesn’t understand their background so how could she be a mother to the young women who join her order? But she turns to St. Joseph who must have wondered how he, a simple carpenter, could be a father to the Son of God. She doesn’t want to just bring sisters to the Church, but holy sisters for the Church. To do so takes a lot of sacrifice.
She said the new convent is rented and even the furniture has been donated as well as all the household goods. She is reliant on so much generosity. Parents and children, priests and seminarians have all been helping in so many ways.
Scot said it has been a hope of Cardinal Sean to found a new order of religious order of women for years. Cardinal Sean said he hopes and prays that order will serve to promote the New Evangelization called for by Pope John Paul II. Sr. Olga said the main focus will be to live the life of Nazareth, to live in daily intimacy with Jesus just like Mary and Joseph and to bring his presence to others. Jesus lived in Nazareth for 28 years. The order will contemplative and apostolic at the same time. They will focus on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Evangelization is to be the living witness, the living sanctuary and its a call for everyone today. It could be through Catholic media, through healthcare, through every day work.
Scot said six to eight women are in discernment to enter the order when the rule of life gets accepted by Cardinal Seán. She had a retreat for discerning women in May for six women and another 10 are signed up for another retreat coming up. They are all very devout young women. Some of them have a lot of student loans so it will take some time for those to enter. Six are expected to entered right away and the others in the spring.
They will take the usual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and she has asked Cardinal Sean for a fourth vow of a public consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Scot said if someone wanted to offer a donation to further her work, they can make out a check to the Convent of St. Joseph and send it to Sr. Olga Yaqob, Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Boston, 66 Brooks Drive, Braintree, MA 02184.