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Sister Olga Yaqob Named University Chaplain for BU’s Catholics

For God, Church, and BU

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

Sister Olga Yaqob, the University’s new Catholic chaplain, at Splash. Photo by Melody Komyerov

A teenager, alienated from her family over unbridgeable religious differences, grows up to be a lay minister and then a nun in war- and Saddam-ravaged Iraq. She feeds the needy, cares for prisoners, even claws graves for the dead with her hands. She finally comes to the United States, knowing barely a word of English.

It’s not the CV you’d expect of the leader of BU’s Roman Catholics, especially when you add “hermit” to her bio (as a professed hermit, she spends Saturdays alone, in contemplative prayer). But Sister Olga Yaqob was appointed the Catholic university chaplain by the Archdiocese of Boston, effective July 1.

In her new position, Yaqob is one of seven university chaplains who assist the Rev. Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel. Yaqob succeeded the Rev. Paul Helfrich, reassigned to Florida by his religious order after 10 years as the University’s Catholic chaplain. She filled in as acting chaplain last year during Helfrich’s sabbatical, but her permanent appointment posed a logistical problem: as a woman, the leader of the University’s Catholic community cannot celebrate Mass, a function reserved by the Church for its all-male priesthood. So while she’ll replace Helfrich in the administrative office, newcomer the Rev. Clifton Thuma will replace him on the altar, celebrating the three Sunday Masses and four weekday Masses and handling other priestly duties.

“Other university chaplains did comment on that—‘So you do everything for Father Paul except celebrating Masses?’” says Yaqob, 44. Asked if she agrees with the Church’s stand against ordaining women, the new chaplain beams and replies, “100 percent,” even though, as acting chaplain last year, she scrambled to schedule 38 priests each semester to cover Masses. Yaqob is not the first female Catholic chaplain—Helfrich’s predecessor was also woman.

Representing a church whose leadership’s public face is all male, often older, and has been criticized for remaining silent about child abuse by priests for years, Yaqob—youthful and gregarious, with a ready smile for people on first meeting—has become a campus icon.

“People are like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen that nun, she’s the one running around everywhere,’” says Keith Esposito (CAS’11), a Catholic Center committee member. “I jokingly call her Blue Lightning.” (Yaqob, a part-time member of the Catholic Center ministry since 2002 and a full-timer for five years, gets by on five hours’ sleep a night.)

“She has such a genuine heart that everyone who meets her feels like they are truly special, and that gives them a great sense of peace,” says Michael Zimmerman (CAS’11), president last year of the center’s undergraduate executive board. “She also works many long nights in order to make everything run smoothly, but would never complain to anyone about it and considers it a privilege.”

At the University’s annual Splash welcome for freshmen, Yaqob handed out Catholic Center brochures, displaying the ebullience that wins such plaudits. Even amid the hundreds of students crowding Nickerson Field, a 4-foot-10-inch nun with a BU baseball cap perched atop her habit tends to stand out, especially when she gives her signature hug to one and all, even freshmen she’s just met. She and Esposito exchanged bear hugs. “I missed you, too, Sister,” he said as a barely able to speak Yaqob laughed with startled joy at seeing her friend, who had spent spring semester studying in Geneva.

“The first time I actually talked to her, she just came up to me and started talking—and I didn’t know who she was,” Esposito says. “She was just smiling and asking me about my life and my parents and my brother. She really embodies a lot of those core values that you want to see any Christian have.”

That makes Yaqob an endearing and admired representative of a church that takes controversial and sometimes unpopular positions: on artificial contraception, premarital sex, gay rights, female ordination, and abortion. Yet she sees Catholic teaching, part of a 2,000-year-old tradition nurtured by some of history’s great minds, as ideally suited to a university.

“The Church presents reasonable and articulate explanations for each of her teachings,” she says. “The evidence is plainly laid out for any person to examine it. In fact, the Church requires that its followers use their gifts of reason in engaging the teachings of the Church, thereby coming to understand them more fully and thus interiorizing them. I have found that young people, particularly those engaged in the intellectually stimulating university environment, are not only willing to ask the tough questions, they are also willing to grapple with the answers in search for a deeper understanding. As our Catholic students gain deeper insight into the teachings of our Church, they are often led to embrace them more fully.”

“Sister Olga is a treasure,” agrees Hill, Marsh Chapel dean, who counts her as “a dear family friend” and a valued leader of BU’s Christmas Eve and Good Friday interdenominational services.

Yaqob grew up in an Iraqi family belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East, which is a Catholic Church, but with its own patriarch. She wanted to be a nun, but the Assyrian Church at that time didn’t have nuns, and her parents forbade her to leave the family’s ancestral denomination. After graduating college, she was told to take her brother to London to avoid service in the first Gulf War. But she learned before leaving that her family had set up an arranged marriage for her there. She prayed much of the night, put her brother on the plane the next day, and defying her parents, fled to Baghdad.

She founded a lay ministry to provide food and supplies to Iraqis after the Gulf War, sometimes working with child paupers jailed for stealing. The Assyrian Church, deciding to reinstate nuns for the first time in seven centuries, asked her to launch an order. But she loved the Roman Catholic practice, and Jesuits in Iraq arranged for her to come to Boston College for a master’s degree. Speaking barely a word of English, she learned the language at BU’s Center for English Language and Orientation Programs.

At BU, she resides on Ivy Street, where she founded a counseling program for women students called Nazareth House. The program provides support for women facing issues ranging from homesickness to a family death.

Another part of her chaplain’s job will be fundraising. Partly due to budget cuts from the archdiocese, she must raise lots of money from Catholic donors and others in the coming year—about $200,000—just to reimburse the archdiocese for salaries, she says.

Yaqob says her faith in God and respect for Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley sustain her in meeting her new responsibilities. She has only kind words for O’Malley, who has had to grapple with a devastating clergy sex abuse scandal and parishioner anger over budget-necessitated church closings. “The cardinal has carried a huge cross,” she says. “If there is any way that I can lighten his cross, by creating a strong Catholic community on a non-Catholic campus”—her voice lowers solemnly—“I would be willing to give my life.”

The rest of her passion comes from the BU community. “It’s just very humbling to see how far the Lord has led me. I truly love Boston University, and I love the people who have welcomed me here on this campus.” When it came time to make her final vows five years ago, in a break with tradition and with the cardinal’s permission, she chose to do so at Marsh Chapel, although it’s not a Catholic church.

With her own family distant, she says, “BU has become a family for me.”

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