mid-January, 1964, Irene and Michael Novak received the devastating
call that their second son, a missionary priest, Richard, was missing. A
few days later, confirmation came that their 28-year-old son was dead.
Many questions, however, remained about how he had died while serving in
the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
The youngest of five
children (and the only girl), Mary Ann Novak, who was 13 at the time of
her older brother's death, has written a new book unpacking the mystery
that surrounded Fr. Novak's murder, The Making of a Martyr. Many of the details, Novak uncovered, were concealed from the family to protect her mother from the painful truth.
Novak, caught in the end of Muslim-Hindu violence in 1964 before
Bangladesh declared its independence, had been sent to Dacca (now Dhaka)
as a missionary, teaching at the Notre Dame college. While on an errand
to help a Hindu nurse get word of her family, Fr. Novak was murdered by
Muslim youths who wanted to "kill another Hindu," though Fr. Novak made
it clear he was a Christian through his language skills and holding up
the Cross around his neck before he was stabbed to death.
explained that the shock of her brother's death and the unknowns that
surrounded it overshadowed the memories that she had of her beloved
sibling and overtook his identity in an unnatural way. "Sometimes, it
seems that the victim is the one person overlooked, ignored, forgotten: a
cluster of translucent, conflicting memories refracted through other
people's words," Novak says in the preface. Returning to these memories
and mysteries had to have been something of a balm to an old wound and a
new joy to remember Richard, "our sweetest brother," as she calls him.
started her research in 2006, and presented her findings in a paper to
the 2008 Holy Cross History Association. She then raced to prepare it as
a book in time for the 50th anniversary of Fr. Novak's death: January
"[I]n the process of preparing this book," Novak told
CWR, "and also of reading hundreds of his letters we had gathered for
another book we hope to get out this year, I came to know Richard again,
and what a delight it has been to find the living Richard, not just the
Catholic author and diplomat, Michael Novak, the
eldest brother of the family, told CWR that: "It was a great comfort for
me to learn details about Dick's death that Mary Ann's long researches
"Even more," Novak added, "I was touched by the way
she narrated her findings: calmly and with a beautiful combination of
detachment and sweet memory. As the 'baby' of the family, the youngest
child and only girl, she and Dick had a special bond. Her loyalty to him
Even brother Ben Novak, who had many reservations
about the project, had a change of heart. "Last night I finished reading
your book on Richard. I cannot hide that I was worried you might go too
far in this martyr and saint stuff. I imagined Richard in heaven
cringing over it. But you did not at all do that. You wrote with an
admirable brevity, clarity, and directness that is absolutely beautiful.
Indeed, I imagine Richard very pleased and proud at what you have
After all the years of work and the many decades of not
knowing the full truth about her brother's death, Mary Ann says, "I am
most pleased at bringing back our brother to us."