With zeal for humility, she brings a new order to town

The nun students cherish as ‘Blue Lightning’ is leaving BU to found first new order here since 1945

Sister Olga Yaqob talked with a parishioner in St. Francis Chapel at the Prudential Center. Sister Olga Yaqob talked with a parishioner in St. Francis Chapel at the Prudential Center. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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It was May 2001 when Sister Olga Yaqob arrived in Boston. She had graduated top of the class in seminary in her native Iraq and was offered a scholarship to study ministry and spirituality at Boston College. First, she had to learn how to speak English. She studied for two years in an intensive program at Boston University.

“I cried a lot,’’ said Yaqob. “I never thought I’d learn this language.’’

As an Assyrian Christian nun, Yaqob always wore an ankle-length habit with a veil. In the months following Sept. 11, 2001, people often mistook her for a Muslim, with her olive skin and covered head. She was detained at airports, and when she sat down next to people on the T, they’d change seats.

But she got her master’s degree from BC, converted to Catholicism, worked as a campus minister at BU and was promoted to university chaplain. Her most recent accomplishment had not been achieved in the Archdiocese of Boston since World War II: she founded a religious order of sisters.

Daughters of Mary of Nazareth is one of many initiatives the archdiocese is taking to restore faith among area Catholics, following the priest sex-abuse scandal, the closing of several churches, and the declining attendance at Mass, Yaqob said.

“I feel the church is like a ship, and in the last few years, this ship was almost sinking,’’ said Yaqob, 44. “Cardinal Sean came at the right time and helped our ship get safely to shore. Now, we need renewal and repair for the ship to go back to the ocean.’’ As she speaks, she interjects “Thanks be to God’’ and “God-given grace’’ in every other sentence, and on her wedding-ring finger wears a silver band with “Jesus’’ inscribed on it, along with a rosary ring.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley sought out Yaqob to found the new order because of her experience at BU. “She has served as a guide and spiritual mentor to young men in formation for the priesthood and women in formation for the consecrated life,’’ he said in a written statement.

So far, she has six recruits, four of them from out-of-state whom she met through her ministry at BU, two others she met within the archdiocese. Two other orders are forming as well, in Weymouth and in Bellingham.

They will be the first orders founded in the archdiocese since 1945, when Cardinal Richard Cushing invited the Poor Sisters of Jesus Crucified and the Sorrowful Mother to relocate from Pennsylvania to a motherhouse in Brockton. Currently, 20 sisters live there.

“Cardinal Sean has a particular interest in the ongoing renewal of religious life,’’ said Sister Marian Batho, the cardinal’s liaison with men’s and women’s religious communities. There are 1,800 sisters in the archdiocese, many in retirement; the median age is 73. “We need new members,’’ said Batho.

Yaqob has no illusions about the difficulty of finding women to join. “In Western culture, where people have everything, it’s hard for them to sacrifice, to obey, to commit.’’ Then there’s the priest scandal. “People are hurt and it takes time for them to heal and feel trust again.’’

Founding an order and becoming a sister or nun — nuns live cloistered lives, sisters do not — are processes that take many years. (Yaqob’s postulates will be called daughters, in keeping with the order’s name).

Yaqob is looking for a motherhouse, either a closed convent or rectory. Working with a canon lawyer, she has started writing the constitution and rules of life, which will spell out their mission. “We will be doing a lot of physical labor ministry, working with homeless people, prisoners, people in hospitals and shelters,’’ said Yaqob, who volunteered in the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison for seven years when she lived in Iraq.

The entering novices must be between the ages of 18 and 30, “mature enough but not burned out,’’ she said. Her six are between 22 and 29; she declined to identify them since they have just begun the process of “discernment,’’ or application.

“The younger the better in terms of adjusting to community life,’’ she said. “In Western culture you see kids with their own cars, cellphones, iPods. In community life, they won’t have that. It’s a very simple life.’’ The women will wear habits.

Yaqob, who will be known as “Mother’’ within the order, is proposing a fourth vow in addition to poverty, chastity, and obedience: humility. “I feel it’s so humbling to be a light of the candle, even if I am a small candle, and to give that light to people,’’ she said.

Her main focus is to finish out her work at Boston University, which she will leave at the end of the month. Striding briskly around campus in her powder-blue habit, Yaqob has become a popular figure among students and faculty. “Sister Olga!’’ is a cry often heard. At 4-foot-10 and 100 pounds, she is known variously as “The Blue Flash,’’ “Blue Lightning,’’ and “Blue 911,’’ because students often turn to her with their troubles.

“We’re going to miss her,’’ said the Rev. Robert Allan Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel and chaplain to the university. “She is a very loving person and she really loves the students.’’ Yaqob has 966 friends on Facebook, many of them students, and most of her photos show her with them.

Ask her what she does for fun and she’s at a loss. “Women in my country don’t do any sports. I just read. My vocation is my whole life.’’

In 2007, Yaqob went to Iraq to visit the American troops at Christmas. The chaplain in the Green Zone asked her if she’d have a private lunch with some service members from Boston. She agreed. “Their first question was: ‘How are the Red Sox doing?’’’ Alas, Sister had no inside information for them.

Bella English can be reached at