Consoling the heart of Jesus

This story appears in the Iraq feature series. View the full series.

Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart bursts through the door, arms flung wide in anticipation of an embrace. "How brave of you to come," she says, hugging me as if I were her long-lost sister. Outside the convent window, a January blizzard whirls, and the nun, an Iraqi native, marvels that anyone would drive in such conditions.

Olga Yaqob, 48, is barely 5 feet tall, clad in a Marian blue habit. In her hands are rosary beads, which she fingers constantly. When she reaches up to tenderly clasp my head, I smell perfume.

Boston University used to call this popular nun "Blue Lightning," a reference to Yaqob's boundless yet intensely focused energy. After six years as a part-time campus minister, she became the university's Catholic chaplain in 2010, the second woman to ever hold that position. Today, she is founder and superior of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, a fledgling community of women religious in the Boston archdiocese.

How Yaqob, a victim of war, became a religious leader in the very country that bombed her homeland is a remarkable tale, a testimony to faith's ability to inspire an unfettered life. Since youth, she has wanted "to console the heart of Jesus." That deceptively simple desire has required harsh leave-takings, produced astonishing accomplishments, and compelled her to cross oceans and straddle divides many would consider unbridgeable.

Born and raised in Kirkuk, Iraq, Yaqob is the middle daughter of a family who are proud members of the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient tradition with a long history of persecution. Assyrians have their own patriarch, celebrate seven sacraments, and allow married priests, although bishops must be celibate. By Yaqob's telling, her journey from these origins to Roman Catholic nun was long and tempestuous. "I fought for my vocation a lot," she said.

As a young child, Yaqob often slipped away to church "to sit with Jesus." Her desire to become a nun began when, at 14, she joined her Chaldean Catholic neighbors in a Marian celebration. Their stained-glass windows, icons, statues, the tabernacle with its candle burning 24/7, as well as the nuns, enthralled the young teen. None of these existed in her tradition. "I just wanted everything to be like these people," said Yaqob, who has described that day as "an epiphany" and "the beginning of the many stations of the cross in my life."

At home, Yaqob told her parents she wanted to become a nun. The announcement "terrified my poor father," she said. Celibate women dedicated to the church were not a part of their tradition, and he could not fathom why his daughter would give up her ancient Assyrian heritage.

Like a teen mad with love, Yaqob persisted. When she was 16, Chaldean nuns from the local convent petitioned her father and her Assyrian pastor and bishop to allow her to pursue a vocation as a religious. "That will never happen," all three said. At 17, she ran away from home to the convent, but the nuns, fearing accusations of kidnapping, quickly brought her home. At 18, she was sent to college in Arbil, a nun-free city north of Kirkuk where her father hoped she would meet a man.

There, amid the Iran-Iraq War, Yaqob made "a bargain with God." If she could not become a nun and heal souls, she would be a doctor and heal the wounded. In her first year of medical school, the Gulf War interrupted those plans.

It was far more devastating than the conflict with Iran, Yaqob said. "In a very few months, so many people died. So many places were destroyed. Really, that experience put my country back almost 200 years. We used to walk miles to get dirty water and boil it in order to drink it the next day. There was no running water, no electricity, no gas."

At 23, she defied her parents and went to Baghdad instead of England where an arranged marriage awaited. It was a costly act. "I've already told all my neighbors, I used to have five daughters, but one of them has died," her father said when he learned of her decision.

Penniless and cut off, Yaqob begged refuge from a family of strangers in Baghdad. For three years, she lived in their storage shed in exchange for domestic work. U.S.-backed sanctions marked those years with intense suffering, she said. Yet the experience affirmed her call to live a life of service. She founded Love Your Neighbor, a movement of Muslim and Christian youth who went door-to-door collecting food and clothing for the homeless. She ministered to Baghdad's poorest, including the imprisoned at Abu Ghraib, for which she received a humanitarian award from Saddam Hussein's government in 1997. She begged her way into Pontifical Babel College, a Chaldean Catholic seminary where she obtained a master's in philosophy and theology and was awarded a full scholarship to study in Rome, which she refused.

Word quickly spread of the "crazy young lady" who relinquished a visa and marriage in England to minister to the poor of war-ravaged Baghdad. During Yaqob's third year at seminary, the very same Assyrian bishop who had rejected her petition to become a nun asked her to establish a religious community. In 1995, Yaqob founded Marth Maryam Sisters -- Missionaries of the Virgin Mary, the first order of women religious in the Assyrian Church of the East in 700 years. She was 29 years old.

Tensions troubled the new community, much of them with Yaqob's bishop, who thought her order too Catholic. When two American Jesuits at the seminary offered her a full scholarship to pursue a master's at Boston College, she reluctantly accepted. "I was terrified," she said. "I didn't want to leave my people or my country. But [the Jesuits] thought that because of the challenges I was facing, it would be better if I came to the U.S. to give some space to the community." She cried the first time she heard Mass in English. "I'll never learn this language," she told the American priests.

Yaqob had barely begun her master's in pastoral ministry at Boston College when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and she rushed back to her homeland. In her absence, her community had been radically transformed, and the war's devastation had embittered Iraqis against Americans, a people she had come to know and love. She felt torn between her "two families" and torn between two faith traditions. You must decide, her bishop said while she was there, whether you are an Assyrian Christian or Catholic.

The Assyrian sister chose to be Catholic. "For me, my faith became like the air that I breathed. I couldn't imagine myself changing all that," she said. Yaqob formally entered the Roman Catholic church on Sept. 8, 2005, in Boston. Two months later, Cardinal Sean O'Malley received her perpetual vows as a diocesan hermit. In 2007, she became a U.S. citizen.

The Boston archdiocese has warmly embraced their nun from the Middle East, showering her with several awards. Yet for all this, she has not forgotten the losses that preceded this new life. When she and George W. Bush happened to cross paths at a conference in 2012, Yaqob told the former president, "I pray for you every day, that you will receive peace and healing, because I don't know how you slept after the night you made the decision to bomb Iraq." Bush's reply, as recounted by the nun, was disarmingly humble: "I always rely on people's prayers, but it means a lot that somebody like you prays for me."

Today, Yaqob is wholly focused on nurturing the women in the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, the new order she established in 2011 at O'Malley's request. A contemplative and apostolic community, the sisters follow the spirituality of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, French soldier turned nomadic hermit, who developed his charism of evangelization by example while living among the Muslims of Northern Africa. Yaqob is back ministering in the prisons. Last year, she and the sisters were in Honduras for a short mission.

"I tell the Daughters the Catholic church gives us three symbols for Christ," Yaqob said. "Christ in the crib. Christ on the cross. Christ broken in the Eucharist. In each one, his arms are open wide to the world." Demonstrating the point, Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart stretches out her arms once again.

[Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a longtime NCR contributor.]