Sister brings presence of prayer, Eucharist to Quincy protest

QUINCY -- Mother Olga Yaqob learned about the death of George Floyd the same way many people did, from news reports.

On May 25, Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis, died in police custody after being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. A widely shared video recorded by a bystander indicates that a police officer knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, even as Floyd said he could not breathe and passersby pleaded on his behalf.

In a June 5 letter to parishes, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley addressed Floyd's death and the Church's responsibility to fight the "moral cancer" of racism.

He said that the protests "have been calls for justice and heart wrenching expressions of deep emotional pain from which we cannot turn away. They call us to affirm the inestimable value of every person's life. They call us to redouble our commitment to foster respect and justice for all people. They call us to uphold and defend the truth that Black Lives Matter."

In a June 6 interview, Quincy mayor Thomas Koch said what happened in Minneapolis was "outrageous, unacceptable."

"I'm certainly understanding of the outrage due to that," he said.

The publication of the video of Floyd's arrest and death prompted protests against racism and police brutality across the United States. In some cities, including Boston on May 31, protests culminated in looting and violent clashes between police and civilians.

It was in this context that Quincy's leaders learned through social media that a Black Lives Matter protest was being organized in their own city on June 2. Mayor Koch said they were "hoping for the best but planning for the worst," arranging for police to be present and make sure that protesters, residents, and property were safe during the event.

The night before the protest, the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth held Eucharistic adoration in their convent to pray for peace during the event, and the following morning they had a Mass for the same intention. But Mother Olga, the founder of the small religious community, felt called to do more, "to be out there with people and for people."

"I wanted to be in solidarity with people who have been hurt or confused or upset by what happened," she said in a June 6 interview.

She also wanted to be there for the police officers, most of whom are "people of the community," and some of whom have loved ones in the Quincy parishes.

"Behind each one of them, there are children and spouses and mothers and fathers. I was there to let them know that I'm grateful for their service," she said.

Mother Olga said she was inspired by a story about St. Clare's "confidence in the power of the Holy Eucharist in times of war and destruction."

In 1241, St. Clare's convent, the San Damiano Monastery just outside of Assisi, was attacked by an army on their way to invade the city. St. Clare held a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament up to an open window and prayed for Christ's protection, since she could not protect the sisters or the city. The army then turned away.

Mother Olga, who is an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, decided to follow St. Clare's example and "take our Eucharistic Lord to the center of Quincy in the time when people were afraid of violence and destruction that had taken place in the surrounding cities."

"Just like St. Clare, I too believed that I cannot stop the violence, change people's minds or hearts about what is happening, but the Lord can," she said in a June 6 email.

Before the demonstration began, Mother Olga went to the mayor's office and offered to pray with Mayor Koch, his staff, the chief of police, and some officers. Then, with her pyx containing the Blessed Sacrament under her scapular, she went out among the people.

She carried a large candle to signify the presence of the Eucharistic Lord and to show "hope in the midst of so much anger and darkness." She also carried a bag of rosaries and offered them to police and protesters, promising them that she would be praying for their safety during the event.

"It was really beautiful to see how disarming it was to carry a candle to people and give rosaries. Obviously not everybody knew I was carrying Jesus on me, but I truly believe it was the power of the Eucharist that was touching people's hearts to stay calm and even be receptive to dialogue," Mother Olga said.

According to local publications, approximately 4,500 people gathered for the protest, which began outside Quincy City Hall. The organizers gave speeches and listed the names of African-Americans who, like Floyd, died at the hands of police. At one point they asked everyone to kneel in solidarity. Mother Olga did not chant or applaud, but she knelt and prayed for a peaceful night and for God's grace to touch the people's hearts.

"It was a wonderful visual to see a woman religious there, representing, in the best of ways, our Church and our faith," Mayor Koch said.

The formal program was followed by a march down Hancock Street, one of the city's main streets, and back to City Hall.

There were no reports of injuries or destruction of property. One person, who was not a Quincy resident, was arrested for brandishing a knife at police before the demonstration began, but no other arrests were made that night.

"The message was really a message of peace," Mayor Koch said.

Mother Olga said the police worked "tirelessly" to keep the city safe that night.

"I do believe it was the goodwill of the citizens, who the Lord blessed with his peace, and also the hard work of our police officers that made what happened in Quincy very exceptional," she said.

Mayor Koch said he was proud of the city and grateful that the event went peacefully.

"A lot of prayer by a lot of folks leading up to it, I think, certainly made a difference," he said.

When asked what she hopes will happen now, Mother Olga said she hopes for an "atmosphere of dialogue."

"I hope there may be openness to dialogue for people who have concerns about discrimination or violence towards people of different ethnic groups. I pray that their voices will be heard," she said.

She added, "It's not about fighting, it's about the right to ask for equality, for respect."