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Iraqi Nun From Assyrian Church Leads Boston University Catholic Chaplaincy
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND, REGISTER CORRESPONDENT
Sister Olga of the Eucharist Yaqob, an Iraqi-born archdiocesan hermit in the Boston Archdiocese, is co-director of the Catholic Center and the Catholic chaplain for Boston University.
Raised in the Assyrian Church of the East, she founded its first religious order for women in 700 years. However, her love for the Rosary and daily Mass — practices that departed from her Church’s tradition — forced her departure from the order and her country. She came to the United States at the end of 2000, completed a graduate degree in spirituality and counseling at Boston College, and began reaching out to students at Boston University. The university’s Catholic chaplaincy is now the largest in New England, with 700 attending weekly Mass, 15 to 20 in Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults programs, and a number of graduates pursuing a religious vocation.
You are an Iraqi-born woman who loves your native land and family. Yet your strong attraction to the Catholic faith and its traditions led you to leave everything behind and come to the U.S.
The Lord has given me unique stations of the Cross. I visited a Catholic church for the first time when I was 14. The power of that moment was magnified by the fact that I had felt a great longing to be closer to the Lord for years.
The Assyrian Church does not have daily Mass, only on Sundays and holy days of obligation. They don’t have a tabernacle. The host is consecrated on Sunday and must be consumed at Mass.
For me, the idea of waiting to receive the Lord from week to week was very difficult. I told my parents, “I just miss the Lord.” I already attended daily prayer in the Assyrian Church, but because the Blessed Sacrament wasn’t there, I felt I wasn’t in union with the Lord on a daily basis. The Eucharist is a great nourishment.
To be with the Real Presence made me feel at home, united with my inner soul. When I came to the Catholic Church, my soul became alive.
That first visit to a Catholic church also stirred a deep devotion to Mary, didn’t it?
Very often people ask me what the turning point was in my spiritual life. The turning point was not a “what” but a “who.” My answer has always been the Blessed Mother. She has been the mother of my faith, my vocation and my ministry. It was May, the month of Mary. I saw neighbors praying the Rosary. I thought the closer I stayed with Mary the more she would lead me to Jesus.
When did you decide to become a Catholic?
After my first visit to the Catholic Church, I continued to meet with the Catholic nuns: Sisters of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. I was attracted to consecrated life, but I didn’t know that I couldn’t join them until I was officially “Catholic.”
About two years after my first visit, the local superior of the order met with my parents and our Assyrian Church pastor. He wrote a letter to the bishop, but the answer continued to be No. When I was a senior in high school, I ran away from home and went to the Catholic sisters. They brought me back home because I didn’t have my parents’ permission.
Then my father sent me to college far away to make sure I would not run to the sisters again. I earned an undergraduate degree in biology and hematology. My undergraduate education was completed in 1991.
I returned home and planned to pursue medical studies. At this time, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and the Gulf War had begun. My father was afraid that something would happen to my brother, his only son, if he didn’t leave the country.
I agreed to accompany my brother to London. But on the way, he acknowledged that my father had planned an arranged marriage for me in London. My brother continued the trip, and I came back to Baghdad.
You were disowned, but this didn’t free you to join the Catholic Church.
I could not receive the necessary written permission from my pastor to join the Catholic Church.
I became homeless for the next five years and lived in a garage of a family in the poorest neighborhood in Baghdad. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, but I never imagined how poor people in the city actually lived.
When I moved into the garage, the passage from the Gospel of Matthew 25:35 — “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me …” — suddenly came alive.
I remember being with a homeless man when he died. I tried to take him for a church burial, but he wasn’t registered, and no church would accept him because of laws governing religious burials. All of his skin was eaten away because of sleeping on the street for so many years. Anyone who got close to him said that the stench was too overpowering and they couldn’t help us. Yet I could only smell incense from his wounds.
Between 1993 and 2000 I ministered to the homeless and the 12,000 prisoners of Abu Ghraib, including the political prisoners.
I was given permission to enter Abu Ghraib to provide food and medicine. The prisoners didn’t have running water, slept on the cement floor, and a large number of people were crowded together in each cell. In the heat, these poor conditions caused people to get sick with skin diseases and emphysema.
The most painful experience was to accompany those sent to death and to be with them during their last months. I felt like Mary standing at the foot of the cross, watching the death of her son.
I couldn’t save them. I wasn’t there as a lawyer; I was only there to bring food and medication. I wasn’t there in a religious capacity, though I was allowed to bring the Eucharist at Christmas, Easter and on solemnities. Throughout the years of my service in the prison, Jesus’ question to the sons of Zebedee, James and John — “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” — pierced my heart. During that time, I felt called to declare my personal answer to Jesus’ question. This answer has radically changed my life. Serving the homeless, prisoners and the poorest of the poor in my homeland, war has been my way of “drinking the cup” of sorrow with and for my people in Iraq.
Then the Assyrian Church began to reconsider the possibility of a religious order of nuns.
When I was 14, St. Thérèse of Lisieux taught me to say to Jesus: “Take my heart! Jesus, it is yours alone.” In reply to my little offering, he called me to be his servant.
In 1995, the Assyrian bishop heard about my service to the poor. He had felt the need to start a religious order, and said I had more experience than other Assyrian women.
In 1995, the Order of Missionaries of the Virgin Mary started in a house donated by an Assyrian family. The following year, on Aug. 15, 1996, I received the official habit.
After such a long time, your profession of religious vows must have been a landmark for the Assyrian Church.
I was received in the Assyrian Church in Baghdad, and it was packed. On the streets, a lot of poor people I knew came to watch. They witnessed the journey the Lord began in my life.
The Assyrian people had not seen a religious sister in 700 years, and I wanted to let them understand the significance of this moment. I entered the church in a wedding dress, holding a candle as a bride searching for her groom. Before the bishop blessed my habit, I explained to the congregation what it meant to be the bride of Christ. In my culture, most women have long hair, and it is a sign of womanly beauty; so I asked the bishop to cut my long hair in the church as a reflection of offering up this sign of womanly beauty to my heavenly Spouse.
Then he blessed my habit. I processed back in, wearing a religious habit, and held up my small cross with red and white roses as a symbol of pure love for Jesus — like St. Thérèse.
But the Assyrian Church subsequently asked you to leave the religious order you founded.
I continued to pray the Rosary and attend daily Mass. As a foundress, I became a spiritual mother, and that was gradually changing people’s view of their own tradition. Understandably, the Assyrian bishop could not accept this.
When I left after almost seven years, there were seven sisters in the first house, and I had opened a second house with three sisters. Since 2000, I have not been allowed to be in touch with them.
With the help of the Jesuits, I was given a full scholarship for graduate work in ministry and spirituality at Boston College.
What brought you to Boston University?
When I arrived in Boston in 2001, I didn’t know any English. I was sent to CELOP (Center for English Language and Orientation Programs) at Boston University and attended daily Mass at its Catholic chaplaincy center.
I was impressed to see students’ reaction to a nun in religious habit. One student asked if I could be her spiritual director. I wrote back, “Thank you for asking me, but I don’t speak English well and don’t know your culture.” She wrote back, “I asked you to be a spiritual director not because you understand my language, but because you understand my heart.”
My own supervisor told me to go ahead and be with the students.
I felt comfortable talking about St. Thérèse: her teaching and spirituality. In 2002, my first initiative was to begin a St. Thérèse group with 11 students.
I interned at the Catholic Center for several years and became a full-time campus minister in 2005, when Cardinal Sean O’Malley received me into the Church and received my religious vows as an archdiocesan hermit.
In July 2010, I became co-director for Catholic Center and also the Roman Catholic chaplain, the point person for relations between the university and archdiocese.
You knew nothing about Americans and their culture before your arrival, yet you have attracted many students seeking counsel and support. What are students looking for?
Since coming to America, I have found young people, in loneliness and despair, with a hopelessness invading their lives, brought about by the materialistic and hedonistic ideals of the society in which they find themselves. In the last nine years of serving the young men and women at BU, I have felt called to soothe their anxiety and to bring the hope of Our Lord to them.
It is a great joy to see the uncertain and seeking freshmen grow over the years into confident, peaceful and guided seniors who have grown intellectually and have embarked on a journey with God.
We offer daily Mass Monday through Thursday, daily Rosary, weekly adoration and confession. Seven hundred students attend our three Sunday Masses at BU. About 1,500 come every week for a variety of activities. Students can also attend three retreats every semester: one for undergraduate men and women, one for graduates, and a third just for women.
Next year, we will have two seminarians from Boston University, and this past February seven guys began their process of discernment. Four women have entered religious life, and others are discerning. Others are married and raising families. So many beautiful fruits!
You are on campus more than 80 hours a week visiting with students. You describe this as a “ministry of presence.”
From the beginning of my time in the United States, I found the direction for my ministry by contemplating the image of the Visitation, and by the saints, bringing [God’s] presence and love with me everywhere through a simple, ordinary way of living.
I believe strongly in the ministry of presence — to be present to these young people. I live on campus. They are in the stage of searching: Let them know you are there for them when they need you. I believe in St. Francis’ counsel: “Preach always, and only use words when necessary.”
In recent years, many students communicate through technology — Facebook and text messaging. I smile, greet everyone. I smile, make eye contact, and often give a gentle hug. That physical human interaction is important.
Recently we had an ice cream social for freshman, and about 140 students attended. Later on, I saw one student and spoke to him by name. He was surprised and touched that someone remembered his name. He wasn’t just an I.D. number.
You are a professed archdiocesan hermit. What does that mean?
My previous religious vows were no longer valid, and I had to make my own vows again. Coming from a church where they didn’t have nuns for 700 years, the Lord has given me a special charism and a unique spirituality.
Cardinal O’Malley proposed that I consider the vocation of a diocesan hermit. I had never heard about that form of religious life before. While he led the Diocese of Fall River, he introduced that form of religious life, and he received people as diocesan hermits.
My vocation as a diocesan hermit is a calling to a deeper Eucharistic life. I take as my example the way of life followed by the Blessed Virgin Mary. She lived a richly contemplative life, in perfect communion with her son and Lord in Nazareth, and from this, she drew the strength and inspiration to reach out to others in her surroundings.
This vocation of eremitic life is to live a contemplative life within the city. It is what Blessed Charles de Foucauld called living the “life of Nazareth.” This life is a “way of being contemplative while sharing the ordinary, day-to-day life of people by being in close contact with them.” It is also a call to live the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.
It was new, but not difficult. For me, it’s an extended time for discernment about what the Lord wants for my vocation in this archdiocese. The cardinal is praying and supporting me to be open to starting a religious order here.
Looking back, how do you understand the “stations of the Cross” that brought you to the United States?
Students ask, “If somebody showed you a video of your life, would you still choose it?”
When I was received into the Church, Cardinal Sean said, “It’s not a coincidence that Sister Olga is from the land of Abraham, who also was called from his homeland.” It’s about obedience: believing that God has a plan.
Just like Abraham, I waited so many years — from the age of 14 — to be a religious sister. Just as he waited to have his child, I waited for many years for my own community. Then, years later, the Lord asked Abraham to sacrifice his son for him. I was asked to sacrifice my own community and give it up for the Lord. That was a great suffering, yet I’m happy that I helped prepare something beautiful for the Assyrian Church that I will always hold in my heart and pray for daily.
Many students call you a “spiritual mother.”
Non-Catholics often ask if it is difficult to give up motherhood for consecrated life. I always answer them that by becoming a religious sister I have received a hundredfold experience of spiritual motherhood from those whom I have served.
I am entering my 10th year at Boston University. I came here at age 34 and I still have a lot to learn to be close to them. But Mary has given me a share of her motherly heart in this little local Church, within the archdiocese and the larger universal Church.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.