This past July, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, CSSR, stood in the center of Christendom’s new Christ the King Chapel—a long way from his home of Erbil, Iraq. As he walked through the chapel, in its various stages of completeness, the Archbishop remarked on the pressing need for new sacred spaces in the world that serve as reminders of Christ’s forgiveness and mercy.
When the Archbishop made his visit to Christendom, little did he know that two alumni would stand nearby as he addressed this need just a few short months later in his home country. In September of last year, Archbishop Warda installed two new Catholic chapels in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil, Iraq—an event witnessed by alumni Madeleine Post ’18 and Ryan Farrell ’21, who are now serving as teachers at Mar Qardakh School in Iraq.
What drove both alumni to a region marked by so much war and grief? That story begins over the past few years, as Archbishop Warda started pioneering various new Catholic institutions in Iraq, striving to bring national healing for Christians and Muslims alike in the region. One of Archbishop Warda’s collaborators in these efforts was Andrew Youngblood ’93, the director of curriculum for the Chesterton Network Schools.
Youngblood traveled to Erbil in March and August 2021 to partner with Archbishop Warda in bringing the Chesterton high school program to Mar Qardakh International School. The experience of working with the Archbishop and the Mar Qardakh community deeply impacted Youngblood.
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“The Archdiocese of Erbil is a center of the Church in Iraq and one of the oldest Catholic communities,” says Youngblood. “They are carrying on the living tradition that dates back to Thomas the Apostle. They have known great persecution and suffering for hundreds of years, but more so this past decade. But they are not a community of victims. They are a resilient and joyful people who live and preach a message of forgiveness to a land full of pain and suffering. It is a great privilege to work alongside the people of Erbil as they rebuild their lives and reclaim their dignity.”
After returning from his visit to Erbil in March, Youngblood spoke with fellow Christendom alum Post about his experience.
“That conversation was truly a witness to me,” recalls Post. “It reminded me that there are spaces in the world, sometimes very unlikely, where the Church is actively growing. While I often find myself discouraged at the state of the Church in the world today, I felt encouraged by Andrew’s experience, and I wanted to learn more.”
Inspired to support the Church in Erbil, Post, who was serving as a full-time Religious Studies faculty at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, joined Youngblood in Erbil in Au-gust 2021, co-leading a two-week training for teachers at Mar Qardakh International School.
“Before I left for that teacher training, I went to Mass,” says Post. “I remember sitting in the church, fearing that I would have nothing to offer the teachers at Mar Qardakh. I had just four years of teaching experience and still felt so new to the field. Yet when I looked at the relief of Jesus with his Apostles hanging above the altar, I instantly had the distinct sense that Jesus was speaking to me: ‘Do you think any of these Apostles were perfectly equipped for the mission I had in store for them? Do not rely on your own talents. Rely on my grace.’ I instantly felt a renewed sense of courage for the journey I was about to make.”
When Post arrived in Iraq, she instantly fell in love with the school, its faculty, and its students. Even more so, she was moved by the level of need within the school community.
“Recruiting firms, graduate programs of education, and service programs exist in the United States, helping schools to find, develop, and retain teaching and school leadership talent. No such resources exist in Iraq,” says Post.
By the middle of the two-week training, Post sensed that God was calling her to remain in Iraq in service to Mar Qardakh. She quickly decided to make her two-week visit much lengthier, joining the school as the middle years program coordinator and director of the Chesterton Academy of St. Thomas the Apostle (CASTA).
Post would soon no longer be alone in Iraq, either. Alumnus Ryan Farrell also joined Mar Qardakh International School as full-time faculty of middle years religion and theology in CAS-TA. After a few short months, Farrell has felt the deep impact of serving in the region and teaching the truth of the Catholic faith in the heart of Iraq.
“The world often looks to the greatest examples of suffering as reason to doubt divine goodness,” reflects Farrell. “The Chaldean community in Erbil is a living testament to exactly the opposite reality. Despite what they have endured and continue to endure, there is a great and very obvious hunger for the faith and a pious acceptance of the teachings of the church. One might expect to have difficulty stirring engagement with the faith among schoolchildren, but the greater difficulty in the case of Mar Qardakh is meeting the demands of tremendous student curiosity and desire to understand what they believe. Truly, they are an inspiration to the entire Church.”
When Farrell and Post both graduated from Christendom, they were given the charge to go out into the world and “Restore All Things in Christ.” Neither expected they would be called to do so in Iraq just a few years later, but both see it as an incredible opportunity to help bring healing to the region.
“I believe that I am partnering with an incredible Catholic community to restore all things in Christ,” says Farrell. “It was through my Christendom liberal arts education that I encountered Goodness, Truth, and Beauty in a new way. This encounter deepened my relationship with God and instilled a zeal for the liberal arts within me. By helping CASTA students access a liberal arts education through the Chesterton curriculum, I truly feel that I am fulfilling Christendom’s mission to ‘restore all things in Christ’ here in Iraq.”
Before they both arrived in Iraq, Pope Francis visited the region for the first time, speaking words that have provided a mission statement for the work that Post, Farrell, and Youngblood are hoping to accomplish in CASTA at Mar Qardakh.
“How cruel it is that this country, the cradle of civilization, should have been afflicted by so barbarous a blow, with ancient places of worship destroyed and many thousands of people—Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and others—forcibly displaced or killed,” said Pope Francis, referring to the destruction caused by ISIS from 2014 to 2017. Pope Francis addressed listeners from the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mosul—the site where ISIS had threatened to behead the Pope during their occupation of the city.
“Today, however, we reaffirm . . . that hope is more powerful than hatred, that peace is more powerful than war,” the Pope continued.
Pope Francis’s message of forgiveness, peace, and restoration in Mesopotamia, truly “the cradle of civilization,” for both East and West, encapsulates the work that Christendom alumni are hoping to accomplish in the region. Working closely with Archbishop Warda, Farrell, and Post both anticipate serving in Iraq for a number of years. It will be a sacrifice to be away from their families for such a long time, but both are already beginning to see the fruits of Catholic efforts in the region.
Post and Farrell both reside at McGivney House while living in Iraq, an apartment compound for Catholic internationals. They witnessed the installation of two new chapels in McGivney House by Archbishop Warda in September—a chapel for residents and guests on the main floor of the compound, as well as a small adoration chapel located directly across from Post’s own apartment.
“The chapels are a gift to the international Christian com-munity here in Erbil, and a reminder that we are all members of Christ’s Body, the Universal Church,” says Post.
All mankind stands in need of healing, forgiveness, and restoration. The work of Post, Farrell, and Youngblood, in union with Archbishop Warda, is oriented precisely toward that goal, helping to bring healing to a region in desperate need of it, while also providing a charge to people across the globe to seek out their own healing from Christ who, through the blood of His Cross, “binds up all our wounds.”