Joy can exist amid suffering, says vocations speaker

BOSTON -- Joy, rooted in Jesus Christ, can exist even in the face of suffering, attested Sister Olga Yaqob, an Iraqi nun and hermit in the Archdiocese of Boston. Although Sister Olga has experienced war, separation from family and challenges in following her religious vocation, she has great joy, she said.

“Yes, I have suffered a lot in my life, but I am a very joyful person,” she said. “I am going to share that joy with you.”

Her reflections on Nov. 8 were part of the third installment of a four-part speaker series entitled “Christ Speaks in the City.” The lunchtime series, organized by the archdiocesan Vocations Office, is held each month at the Old Statehouse. The final speaker will be Father Darin Colarusso, a newly ordained archdiocesan priest and former United States Air Force navigator, on Dec. 13 at noon.

As a little girl in Iraq, Sister Olga experienced God calling her to become a consecrated religious sister. But she and her family were members of the Assyrian Church of the East, which had not had a religious community for women in 700 years, she said.

At 14 years old she visited a local Roman Catholic church for daily Mass and saw religious women for the first time and knew God was calling her to that vocation. Her family would not allow her to join the convent, and her father sent her to college, hoping she would find a husband there.

But when Sister Olga returned, she told her father, “God is still jealous for my heart, and I don’t think anyone can compete with Him.”

Without telling his daughter, he arranged a marriage for her. When Sister Olga discovered the engagement, she ran away from home to Baghdad. She lived with homeless people, and her family would not accept any form of communication from her for seven years. Even now she has limited contact with them and has never met many of her nieces and nephews, she said.

As a young child, Sister Olga also experienced the suffering of war. Anytime she hears the sound of helicopters, it reminds her of the bombings of her youth during the war with Iran. Her generation has also experienced three more wars and a dozen years of embargo, she added.

She served those affected by war as a religious sister after an Assyrian bishop gave her permission to start a religious community, the Missionaries of the Virgin Mary. She had waited 16 years to be a consecrated woman and finally wear her habit, she said.

“I fought so much for my vocation,” she said. “I am grateful to God for calling me to be totally His.”

Sister Olga privately continued Roman Catholic practices and spent seven years serving the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. She cared for those who lost loved ones and buried those who perished trying to flee war, she said.

“With these two little hands I buried so many people in the desert,” she said. “I had to be in a choice either to leave them where they died or try to respect their human dignity.”

In 2001, her bishop sent her to earn a master’s degree in pastoral care at Boston College. But first she studied English at Boston University and worked as a babysitter to pay for her living expenses.

She lived in a convent with American sisters, cared for American children and met American families, she said.

“They became my family,” she said. “I always say God sent me to Massachusetts to make me fall in love with America.”

Sister Olga has since completed her master’s degree and is a campus minister at Boston University. The students she cares for are away from home, sometimes for the first time, she said.

“I try to be a mom for them,” she said. “Sometimes students go to the Catholic Center just to wait in line for Sister Olga’s hug.”

Sister Olga professed her final vows in the Roman Catholic Church and became an archdiocesan hermit last year on Dec. 8. Although she still works as a campus minister to pay her living expenses, she spends every Saturday secluded in her convent apartment, praying, she said.

She added that she is proud to be from Iraq “the land of Abraham, the land of faith” and also to live in the United States, and prays constantly for peace between the two nations. Her life experiences and suffering, in Iraq and the United States, have taught her how to be joyfully rooted in Jesus, she said.

“Joy is something from within. If you are rooted in Jesus Christ, if you are rooted in God who is the source of joy that gives you hope, that gives you strength -- joy is a result of a heart that is overflowing with love,” Sister Olga said. “If your joy is by meeting Jesus, if your joy is by welcoming His birth in your life, your joy will be complete and no one can take it away from you.”

Ruth Barwick, a young professional who attends Mass at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine in Boston, said Sister Olga was both interesting and dynamic.

“What I was thinking the whole time was ‘This is a saint,’” she said. “I was so impressed with her spirit.”