National Catholic Register


From Abu Ghraib to Boston University

Iraqi Nun Ministers to Students at BU’s Catholic Center

BY Joan Frawley Desmond

October 10-23, 2010 Issue | Posted 10/1/10 at 6:33 PM


BOSTON — Families touring Boston University will be surprised to discover that it offers the largest Catholic university chaplaincy in New England.

Each academic year, about 1,500 students visit the Catholic center on a weekly basis, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes enroll 15 to 20 students annually, and a number of graduates enter religious life. Students can attend daily Mass, recitation of the Rosary and Eucharistic adoration.

At the very center of all this activity is a diminutive Iraqi nun — a convert from the Assyrian Church of the East. Sister Olga of the Eucharist Yaqob, an “archdiocesan hermit,” lives on campus and spends most of her waking hours ministering to students.

Louis Lataif, dean of the university’s School of Management, describes Sister Olga’s presence on campus as “ubiquitous.”

“Sister Olga is a role model for very hard work, for uncompromised faith and devotion, for caring, and for support, so much so that she attracts followers from many faiths who seek her out for guidance and friendship,” said Lataif. “To say that her presence among us is a blessing would be an understatement. She truly is one of God’s great gifts to the life of Boston University.”

Clad in a habit of light blue, a color signifying her devotion to “Mother Mary, my protectress,” Sister Olga practices a “ministry of presence.” She shares meals with students in the cafeteria, always makes room in her schedule for one-on-one counseling, and roams the campus greeting students with smiles and hugs.

“Everything Jesus did, the way he preached the good news of salvation, was through the good news of presence. He became one with the people. He lived their life,” said Sister Olga. “People have asked, ‘Why do you work on campus late at night?’ I said, ‘Because I’ve seen that I’m needed.’”

It might seem like unusual work for a “diocesan hermit,” but this distinctive vocation is designed for people in active ministry.

“A diocesan hermit is something between a regular apostolic religious community and a religious hermit who lives a 100% contemplative life,” Sister Olga explained. “We always work for the Church, but we practice a contemplative life of prayer and set aside a day of complete solitude once a week and one weekend a month.”

Mary Goldsmith, one student leader at the chaplaincy, confirms that Sister Olga was the reason a shaky freshman year didn’t prompt her to transfer to a different university.

“A good portion of the women in the community, including tough guys on the sports teams and non-Catholics, find themselves at Sister’s door asking for her wisdom during difficult times or through the process of spiritual growth,” said Goldsmith, who is now earning an advanced degree in biomedical engineering.

“When I introduce her to non-Catholic friends, they are struck by her. There is something in her love that is both very real and compelling,” Goldsmith added. “On a campus where so many people are searching, there is something attractive in the certainty of her joy.”

Abu Ghraib Ministry

The traumatic events that led Sister Olga to leave her beloved country and put down roots at Boston University testify to her singular yearning for a deeper relationship with Christ, nourished through Catholic practices that weren’t part of her family’s religious tradition.

Born in Kirkuk, the capital of Iraq’s oil-producing region and about 150 miles from Baghdad, Sister Olga grew up attending the Assyrian Church. At the age of 14, she saw her Catholic neighbors heading off to church and asked her parents for permission to join them.

That first glimpse of the tabernacle and habit-clad Chaldean nuns reciting the Rosary made an immediate impact. She felt a powerful connection to the Blessed Virgin and believed that the Lord’s mother would foster her relationship with Christ. The encounter seemed to answer a deep longing that had gnawed at her soul for many years. She sought to join the Catholic nuns, but her parents and church refused permission.

After she completed an undergraduate degree in biology and hematology and prepared to study medicine, she learned that her parents planned an arranged marriage for her. Refusing to accept this plan, she was forced to leave the family home.

For five years, she lived in a garage, but she soon had an opportunity to minister to the homeless and inmates at the now notorious Abu Ghraib prison. Over time, news of her ministry reached the Assyrian Church, whose leadership had decided to revive the long-dormant practice of religious orders for women.

Sister Olga founded the first order of nuns in the Assyrian Church in over 700 years. Thousands flocked to the cathedral in Baghdad to witness the young woman in a bridal dress, standing patiently as the bishop cut her hair.

“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,” she said.

Within seven years, 10 women had joined the new order. But she continued to recite the Rosary and attend daily Mass, a violation of Assyrian Church tradition, and the bishop finally ordered her to leave the order. Jesuit priests came to her rescue, providing a full scholarship to Boston College for a graduate degree in ministry and spirituality.

‘You Understand My Heart’

After her arrival in Boston, Sister Olga began attending daily Mass at Boston University’s Catholic center. The small woman in the blue habit caused a stir, prompting a student to request that the nun become her spiritual director. Sister Olga barely knew English and advised her to find another person. But the student replied, “I asked you to be a spiritual director not because you understand my language but because you understand my heart.”

Thus commenced a long and fruitful relationship between the university chaplaincy and Sister Olga. Then, in 2005, Cardinal Sean O’Malley formally received her into the Catholic Church and received her religious vows as well. The cardinal encouraged her to consider a vocation as a diocesan hermit.

This summer, Sister Olga was appointed co-director and chief Catholic chaplain. In a college environment that draws many students into random hook-ups and binge drinking, she sees an extraordinary opportunity to offer the love of Christ.

“In high school, kids are sheltered by family life — though they may not agree with their parents’ values. But in college, there are no boundaries, and they are far from home with no moral structure. [Many students] get into drinking because there is a gap, and they are filling it with the wrong things,” Sister Olga observed in her soft yet intense voice.

“They need support, but they don’t want to be lectured to. This is an opportunity to teach them to find the real rest and peace that comes from the Lord. I’ve seen some real stories of conversion.”

She acknowledged, however, that her vocation as a diocesan hermit may be part of a transitional period. With the cardinal’s blessing, she is discerning the possibility of starting a religious order. Perhaps those future plans will be matched with another dream: establishing a house that would provide a solid spiritual and social environment for female students.

Those who know Sister Olga well believe that her spiritual suffering not only deepened her relationship with Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin, but opened up a vital channel of love that has nourished all her “spiritual children.”

In her homeland, “people close to her have pushed her away,” said Scot Landry, secretary for Catholic Media in the Archdiocese of Boston. “The Blessed Mother took her through the difficult personal challenges.”

Said Landry, “Her roots in her faith are so deep they would withstand hurricane-force winds.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.