In 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.
Fr. 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.
Novak 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.
Novak 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 16, 2014.
“[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 dead one.”
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 uncovered.”
“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 continues.”
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 written.”
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.”
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