The curious, human side of me wanted to see her, to hear her speak, to possibly even meet her. The hungry, spiritual side of me wanted to witness the holiness of her devotion, to have it rub off on me, move me, inspire me.
I arrived at Hearthstone Manner for the annual Catholic Women's Lenten Conference alone, knowing no one. Entering a hall filled with 1,200 chattering women, I scanned the sea of heads looking for a familiar face.
Browsing the neatly stocked vendors' tables, I caught a glimpse of the tiny figure garbed all in blue. It was Mother Olga Yaqob, the "Mother Teresa of Baghdad" and foundress of a new order of nuns, the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2011. I learned she would be one of the featured speakers at this event.
Prior to getting my event ticket, I didn't even know who she was. So, using what my kids taught me, I "Googled" her. As I finished my research, I couldn't help but be drawn to Mother Olga. Born in Kirkuk, Iraq, 45 years ago, she has lived through four wars, losing family and friends through separation, starvation and thirst.
She devoted her life to helping the poor and destitute of Baghdad, forming a movement called "Love Your Neighbor" with young Christian and Muslim volunteers. She begged for food and medicine while ministering to and praying with the prisoners of notorious Abu Ghraib.
As the first Assyrian nun in more than 700 years, she was asked to form a religious community for women by the Assyrian bishop. He eventually took the order from her because of her devotion to the Catholic Church, which began as a young girl watching her neighbors pray the rosary, attending Mass every day. It became a lifestyle of faith she longed for.
Defying her family, Mother Olga fled an arranged marriage, but not before putting her brother on a plane to London in order to save him from having to fight in the first Gulf War.
As I read on, I thought, "this is the stuff of movies." I was mesmerized by her profound, captivating story; a stark contrast to my American way of life. This bold Iraqi woman is amazing, courageous, strong and determined.
Back in Baghdad, she studied at the Chaldean Catholic Seminary, graduating summa cum laude. This won her a full six-year scholarship to Urbaniana University in Rome, but she gave the scholarship to a seminarian. Hearing this, two Jesuits teaching in Baghdad were able to obtain a full scholarship for Mother Olga at Boston College. She spoke no English when she came to America in 2001, but in two years she had obtained a master's degree in pastoral ministry. She converted to Catholicism in 2006.
As the Lenten Conference was drawing to a close, someone informed me that Mother Olga was in the back corner of the hall giving out hugs, something she loves to do to help compensate for all the loss of life she has witnessed. I practically knocked my chair over to get there.
I stood in line behind several women as each one took her turn behind the curtain for a private chat and hug. As I was greeted by her beautiful, youthful, smiling face, Mother Olga embraced me with a hug that one gives to an old friend or a loved one. At that moment, I truly felt God's love. At that moment, I was given a little taste of heaven by a living saint.
Joycelyn Bila, an artist and a writer, is a new Amherst resident and parishioner of St. Gregory the Great Church.