TORRINGTON – There were no wrong answers at St. Peter/St. Francis School Feb. 25 when the celebrated Mother Olga Yaqob visited the school to share her thoughts about Lent.
"Why should we pray to Mary?" she asked the young students in grades one through four who were seated with her in a semicircle on the floor of the gym. The answers included, "Because she gave us Jesus," "She taught us to be good" and "She taught us to obey God."
Everyone who ventured a response received praise from the diminutive, blue-habited, brown-eyed Mother Olga. Many got high fives.
Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart is founder of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth in the Archdiocese of Boston. She was born and raised in Iraq, where as a lay woman she ministered to young men and women of Christian and Muslim faiths. She received Iraq’s Humanitarian Award for her service to the poor.
In 1995, she established the Marth Maryam Sisters, Missionaries of Virgin Mary, the first order for women religious in the Assyrian Church of the East in 700 years.
She came to the United States in 2001 and earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Boston College. She was received into the Catholic faith in 2005 and made her perpetual vows two months later that same year. She opened Nazareth House, an apostolate of prayer and discernment for young women, in 2009 on the campus of Boston University. With Cardinal Séan Patrick O’Malley’s permission, she founded Daughters of Mary of Nazareth in 2011.
Cheryl Considine, a mother of one of the students at St. Peter/St. Francis, became acquainted with Mother Olga last year when her husband, Timothy, was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Mother Olga visited Mr. Considine, prayed with him and brought him comfort until his death in October. Her kindness prompted Mrs. Considine to approach Jo-Anne Gauger, principal, and arrange for Mother Olga to visit the school.
All eyes were on Mother Olga as she entered the gym, where she invited the students sitting on the bleachers to join her on the floor.
"Why did Jesus die for us?" she wanted to know. She invited Ellie Ercoli, a first-grade student, to answer a related question: "Do you know how much your mom and dad love you?"
Ellie stretched her arms out from her sides and said, "They love me this much!"
"Yes! Awesome!" Mother Olga said. "She looks like the cross. Can we say this all together? ‘God loves us this much!’"
Mother Olga and the students all extended their arms out to form a cross.
"You all were amazing this morning," she told the students at the end of her talk. "We should take you to the seminary and religious convents to teach the sisters and the seminarians."
As the younger students filed out and the students in grades five through eight arrived, Mother Olga was asked why it is important to talk to the students.
"Because they are the future of the Church, really," she said. "They need to see the beautiful human face of the Church, the motherhood of the Church."
Did Mother Olga learn anything from the children?
"Oh my goodness, they are full of life and full of attention," she said. "It reflects the passage from the Scripture when Jesus said that until we become as little children we cannot enter the kingdom of God, because they are just so spontaneous in the receiving and speaking from their hearts. They are all so receptive."
Her talk to the older group was similar, but she added the importance of almsgiving and service.
As she said beforehand, "Here in the United States, we have so many resources, we have so many things, and unfortunately sometimes we take that for granted. So I will speak to them mostly about children I have served in Africa and in Iraq and Honduras and how we can help. As Mother Teresa used to say, not all of us need to go to Calcutta in order to be missionaries. Calcutta can be in our own hometowns."
Mrs. Gauger was impressed with Mother Olga’s ability to connect so easily with the children. "I think it was very inspiring for everyone," the principal said. "I think the children were drawn to her immediately because she’s just so gentle and soft-spoken. She kept the children’s attention. She spoke differently to the younger children than she did to the older children, but I think overall she gave them all the same message, that God loves us and that their relationship with God is very important in their lives."