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

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

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.”

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George Martell/Archdiocese of Boston CC

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.'”

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George Martell Archdiocese of Boston CC

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.

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George Martell/Archdiocese of Boston CC

“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.”

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