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Iraqi nun who lived through four wars tries to bring healing to Boston


George Martell

John Burger - published on 07/07/16

Mother Olga Yaqob, foundress of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, feels called to be a bridge between peoples

Mother Olga Yaqob has seen a lot in her 49 years, having lived through four wars in her native Iraq and started a new life in America. But she had never witnessed a birth like the one that occurred at a local Boston area hospital this past month.

“She was with a woman who was going through a very difficult labor, so she dropped to her knees and started praying,” said Pat Dembrowski, a case manager at a women’s shelter where Mother Olga ministers. “The medical team asked her to remove herself from the floor, which she wouldn’t do until the baby was born safely—which he was. There was a point where they were losing both the baby and the mother. Mother was there the whole time. … We attributed [the safe birth] to her faith and the faith of the mom because the baby’s heart had stopped beating.”


The little one and his mom are now home from the hospital and doing well. They live at Friends of the Unborn, the shelter in Quincy, Mass. Mother Olga and eight Daughters of Mary of Nazareth have lived at nearby St. Joseph’s Convent since last October and regularly attend Mass in the chapel at Friends of the Unborn.

Mother Olga has been like a mother to several women at the shelter, as many are immigrants and alone in this country. She knows what it’s like. When she was still relatively new in Boston, she was diagnosed with cancer and had to go through the treatment by herself in a foreign country.

Growing up in Iraq made her tough, to be sure, but she attributes her resiliency to faith. She said that from a very young age she has had the grace of abandonment to divine providence.

“If I have eight sisters today and I die 10 years from now and still have eight sisters, praise the Lord,” she said recently, discussing the religious community she started five years ago. “That’s his will. If it happens that sisters will come after I die, praise his name. That’s his will. I’m just doing his work. This community is not mine; it’s his.”

Mother Olga discussed her own background and her current work in an interview with Aleteia and in a recent talk at the Portsmouth Institute in Rhode Island.

Born in Kirkuk, she grew up in the Assyrian Church of the East. In 1980, when she was 13, her country and neighboring Iran entered into a long and bloody war. Because of a belief that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons in schools, her middle school was bombed.

“I saw so many dead bodies around me, from classmates and teachers,” she recalled. “At age 16 I volunteered in my church because we had five, six funerals every day. They used to bring burned, dead bodies from the war zone. We couldn’t even identify them. … I used to watch family members come close to identify their loved ones: a new bride, pregnant, who spent just a month with her husband before he was deployed, coming to identify her husband and she couldn’t even see his face because they just brought the lower part of his body, hearing all these words, witnessing the sorrow and grief of my people, year after year.”


She clung to hope. “My strength and my courage was from the cross; it was from Jesus, who promised … our fortitude and courage is not of human beings but of heavenly power,” she said.

Then, in 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. The ensuing Gulf War “took my country back 200 years,” Mother Olga said. “We used to walk miles and miles to find an old well to get water. We didn’t have electricity. I used to volunteer in a children’s hospital, where we had just one incubator, and watching babies die without making it to get to that incubator, and watching the grief of parents.”

The embargo the West imposed for the next 12 years prevented Iraq from recuperating, she maintained. “We ended up with 60% of the people not able to read or write. How can we expect a country to rebuild itself [with such a high illiteracy rate] and without any resources when the country is under embargo?”

Still refusing to despair, she started a movement called Love Your Neighbor, gathering Muslims and Christians to beg for food, clothes and medicine for those left handicapped from war, elderly people who had lost their homes, and their young children.

“When I hear what is happening in my country — about persecuted Christians and what Muslims are doing to Christians — this is a foreign thing to me because I worked bringing Muslims and Christians together,” she said. “That’s why I studied Islam, I studied the Quran from cover to cover, in order to work with them and build bridges between Christians and Muslims, so we can rebuild our country and heal the wounds of our people from those wars.”

George Martell

In 1995 she established the order of Marth Maryam Sisters—Missionaries of the Virgin Mary, the first order of religious sisters in the Assyrian Church of the East in 700 years.

She went to Boston for studies in 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, and in 2003, her host country led an invasion of her native land. She returned to Iraq and ministered to both Iraqi people and US troops. “I felt I was called to be that bridge,” she explained.

In time, she returned to Boston to finish a Master’s degree but soon had to undergo treatment for her cancer. With no local Assyrian Church of the East to belong to, she decided to become a Roman Catholic. She was hired by the Archdiocese of Boston to serve in campus ministry at Boston University. Kathleen Troost-Cramer had just begun working on a doctorate in theology and was exploring the possibility of returning to the Catholic Church after several years away. She approached campus ministry and found Sister Olga, whom she remembers as “amazingly, incredibly open and welcoming and nonjudgmental.”

“She had this way of being totally honest with me about the Church’s teaching and some of the choices I had made in my life, but also a depth of compassion that I found to be very rare,” said Troost-Cramer, who finished her Ph.D in May and does online teaching as well as writing. “I was attending an Episcopal church at the time, but told her I was somehow moved to say the rosary. I said it felt like Mary was trying to reach out to me. She said, ‘When you pray each bead it’s like taking a step toward Our Lady and Our Lady takes a step toward you.'”

George Martell

After five years at BU, Sister Olga felt ready to go home, but Cardinal Sean O’Malley invited her to stay and discern the possibility of starting a new community. The archdiocese—and the Church at large—was going through its own turmoils since 2002, when The Boston Globe began an expose of the clergy sex abuse scandal and coverup.

“He really wanted to emphasize the face of the motherhood of the Church, to bring that healing, the face of mercy, into the archdiocese,” Mother Olga recalled. “Because of the scandal, a lot of people left the Church…and to reach out to those who had been hurt, wounded, to be able to be present in the local Church.”

The Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, a private association of the faithful, was founded in 2011. It focuses on the corporal works of mercy, serving in hospitals, nursing homes, and parishes. The community is guided by Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s “spirituality of Nazareth.” As the community’s website explains:

He lived his life imitating the example of Mary and Joseph in Nazareth, so are we called to live in a daily intimacy with Jesus. Starting our daily life with Jesus in prayer and adoration will transform us so that we may become little vessels of His presence wherever we serve. Our prayer life is nourished by daily Communion, Eucharistic Adoration, Sacred Scripture, and Marian devotions.

Cardinal O’Malley asked an old professor of his, fellow Capuchin Father Robert McCreary, who specializes in the spirituality of Nazareth, to assist in the formation of the community.


“They are very dedicated to the Church,” Father McCreary said of the young sisters. “They live community life, they’re prayerful and they serve the poor. … The spirituality of Nazareth has a lot to do with the simplicity of life that [Mother Olga] would want her sisters to live,” he said. “She would want them to be very approachable, like a neighbor. She would want them to be very prayerful, like the Holy Family would be at Nazareth, but aware of the neighborhood…and what needs there are. Her young sisters are taught to be very gracious and hospitable in any context.”

That graciousness intersects with what Mother Olga sees as a growing need for bridge-building in a world beset by fear. Asked about Muslim-Christian relations in the midst of terrorism and uncertainty about Middle Eastern refugees, Mother Olga said:

Sometimes I teach my daughters words like ‘Salaam Alaykum,’ and tell them, ‘Whenever you see Muslim women, especially those in hijab, just try to greet them in their own greetings, just as a sign of acknowledgment. And they’ve seen the difference over the years, even if it’s in the grocery store or at the gas station or CVS…. They tell me, ‘It’s amazing, Mother, just how one greeting can open the door for conversation.’ It makes them feel like ‘I respect you or I’m not afraid of you.’

But is she worried about the Church in her homeland being persecuted out of existence? “The Church has experienced persecution from the 1st century, but the Lord has always promised us He will triumph,” she said. She recalls a time when Muslims and Christians lived not only as neighbors but as family, baking for one another’s holy days and minding one another’s children.

“My Muslim neighbor would never come to my church and blow himself up to kill my brother and sister who shared the same table, the same bread, the same milk, the same cup of water,” she explained. “But what you see today in Iraq and Syria are people who have suffered so much from war and violence, and extremists who came from elsewhere into my country because the borders were open after war, and took advantage of the brokenness of my country after all those wars, took advantage of the brokenness of my people and brainwashed them.”

Of her current life, she says, “Spiritually the Lord has entrusted me with the cross to raise this new community in the Archdiocese of Boston, the diocese that has suffered so much, and to be that source of hope. … I have said yes, not because I believe I have something to offer, but because I believe in the one who can do this work, and I am only following in the steps of the one who said yes 2000 years ago. She teaches me every day how to believe that there’s nothing impossible for God.”


Christians in the Middle EastIraqIslamist Militants
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