Diminutive Mother Olga is a powerhouse of prayer
A serenity surrounds Mother Olga Yaqob that belies her 46 years.
Mother Olga, who was in New Orleans last month speaking to two Legatus groups, told a story of survival – living through four Iraqi wars, comforting and burying fellow Iraqis and living homeless after her parents disowned her for disobedience.
Looking back to her birth to an Assyrian Christian family in Kirkuk, Iraq, Mother Olga was one least likely to start a Catholic order; yet, she did – the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth – in the Archdiocese of Boston.
She credits God for the graces she needed to become the light today that shines for others.
Church dates to St. Thomas
The Assyrian Church – while quite different from the Catholic faith – was founded by St. Thomas the apostle in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Feasts such as Christmas are celebrated just like in Catholicism, and Mother Olga loved Christmas as a child because it brought the promise of peace to all people, including the warring Middle East. She longed to bring peace and hope to others and searched for a way to do it.
In Iraq, Mother Olga said no one has the freedom to choose faith – individuals live the religion they were born into. She angered her father when she started asking questions first about her Assyrian faith and then the faith of Catholic Chaldean neighbors whom she saw attending daily Mass and praying the rosary.
When he finally gave her permission to attend Mass – thinking that would rid Catholicism from her thoughts – the opposite happened. She was transfixed by the stained glass, nuns in habits who devoted their life to Jesus, and the notion that Catholics could visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament 24 hours a day.
“I felt in my heart that is what I was waiting to find, wanting to live the light of Jesus,” she said. “That was the beginning of the long stations of the cross in my life.”
As a high school senior, she ran away from home to a Chaldean convent to become a nun, only to be returned by the nuns. Her father then enrolled her in a boarding college, hoping she would find a man and forget Catholicism. After five years of college, earning a degree in biology, the only love she found was Jesus.
“No matter where you go in your life ... if you are called, you are called,” she said. “I knew in my heart that Jesus was jealous for my heart.”
Said no to arranged marriage
Unbeknownst to her, an arranged marriage awaited her return from college. When Mother Olga learned of this, she ran away from home again; only this time, she was disowned for dishonoring and humiliating her family. (She hasn’t spoken to them in 20 years.) She lived on the streets for five years, begging for food and medicine for herself and others.
This trying time opened her eyes to the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, something she never forgot.
“I lived one day at a time,” Mother Olga said. “I helped my people one person at a time. That developed my relationship with the Lord.”
As her faith story spread throughout Iraq, an Assyrian bishop ask if she would establish the first Assyrian women’s religious order in hundreds of years. She agreed, only if she had training. In 1995, the Assyrian leaders worked with the Dominicans to allow a year-long study before she founded the Marth Maryam Sisters – Missionaries of the Virgin Mary. She returned Iraq to call others to Assyrian sisterhood.
By 1999, she was dismissed from the order she founded when it was discovered she was teaching Catholic ways to Assyrian sisters.
“It was the darkest day of my life,” she said.
The Dominican Sisters took her in so she wouldn’t be homeless again, but enough people petitioned the Assyrian Church authorities to accept her back. She returned only to be put in isolation.
Jesuit missionaries visited in 2001 and invited Mother Olga to learn English and study for a pastoral ministry master’s degree at Boston College. Thinking separation might be good for her order and herself, she went.
The suffering of her people in Iraq during another war prompted a return to Iraq before finishing her second degree. In 2005, she finished her education in Boston and was received in the Chaldean Church, paving the way for acceptance into the Catholic Church.
Founded second order
Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley asked her to consider remaining in the United States to start a new, Catholic religious order – the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth – in the Archdiocese of Boston in late 2005.
Mother Olga’s affinity toward Mother Mary – who served others selflessly – prompted the order to adopt her name and a habit in Mary’s signature blue color. The name also reflects the importance of Nazareth, where Jesus spent 30 years of his life.
The name is “a daily reminder that Mary is our mother,” she said. “We should be true servants and disciples of Jesus – just as she was the first disciple – and bring Jesus to the world.”
The Daughters’ charism is “the human face of God to others and being present with joy,” like Jesus. The community works in prisons, volunteers at hospitals, visits the homebound and hosts and participates in retreats to “make the Gospel visible and alive.”
Mother Olga doesn’t see the circumstances of her life as coincidence. Her faith and love for Jesus deepens daily, something she said that is achievable “when you are deeply in union with God through the Eucharist and adoration.”
The rays of God’s “son” visually change a person just as the rays of the sun do, only Jesus’ rays penetrate deeply within hearts, not just on the surface, she said.
“You don’t see it minute by minute, but with the rays of the Eucharist, he is changing you, and people will see it in you, and you will see it in yourself,” she said.
The face of Jesus that she emanates attracted several Boston University students to whom she ministered to become “daughters” in her order. She currently has four fellow Daughters. Three more are preparing to receive religious vows and names on Sept. 8, and others are as postulants.
“For me, my faith is like the air I breathe,” she said. “I want to beautify his name with every beat of my heart.”
Discover more about the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth at www.dmnazareth.org.