Revisiting the Life and Death of
Father Richard J. Novak, C.S.C.
Prepared for the
Holy Cross History Association
27th Annual Holy Cross History Conference
Salt Lake City, June 2008
Mary Ann Novak
3701 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20008
This paper is an exploration of the life and death of Fr. Richard Novak, C.S.C. The resources
still incompletely researched include a trove of family letters and papers, the National Archives outside of Washington, DC, and Pakistani
court reports and transcripts. The available resources in the Holy Cross Eastern Province Archives in North Easton, MA, the Michael
Novak Archives at Stonehill College in North Easton, MA; the Foreign Mission, Generalate in the Notre Dame University Archives, and
the Holy Cross Indiana Province Archives at Notre Dame, IN, provide much detail of what is known and understood about Father Novak's
life and death as do the interpretive memories of many of Father Novak's colleagues. This paper also attempts to identify unresolved
issues regarding Father Novak's death and his life.
Richard James Novak was born on August 2, 1935, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the second
son of Michael and Irene Novak. Michael and Irene were first generation American born Slovaks whose parents had fled the Empire of
Austria-Hungary between 1870 and1900. Their parents had reacted to severe Hungarian oppression and the "Magyarisation" movement that
had clamped down on the use of the Slovak language and suppressed their culture. Richard's paternal grandmother, Johanna, arrived
in NY on the USS Friesland in August 1900 at age 15, and within a year met and married Stephen Novak. Stephen was a Slovak immigrant
15 years her senior, a widower with three children, but he had the necessary U.S. citizenship. He died 10 years later, leaving Johanna
a penniless widow with seven children. Nonetheless, Johanna faithfully contributed to Matica Slovenska, a society dedicated to the
preservation of the Slovak language and culture, a substitute for national political institutions prohibited by the Kingdom of Hungary.
Father Novak's maternal grandfather Ben Sakmar, who emigrated to avoid being drafted into
the Hungarian army, arrived in the USA in December of 1900 at the age of 21. In his 61 years in the US, he used his native language
most of the time in order to preserve it. Ben often told his family that his inheritance to them was the Catholic faith, especially
a strong devotion to the crucified Lord, to the holy cross.
Before leaving the empire of
Austria-Hungary on October 31, 1900, Ben had a tall wooden cross placed near his home in Brutovce on a steep hillside in the Carpathian
mountains that overlooked the Spis valley. Later he sent money back to have the cross replaced with a full metal crucifix enshrined
in a wooden frame with a metal fence enclosing the shrine and a small plaque recording his prayer for the safety of his family. It
is there to this day, with
By 1944, when the family picture below was taken, Richard had two more brothers: James
Joseph, born in 1939, and Benjamin Edward, born in 1943.
He was confirmed Richard James Michael Novak by the Most Rev. Hugh C. Boyle at St. Pius
Church in McKeesport, PA on May 27, 1947. In August
of 1947, his older brother Michael left home by train for Holy Cross Seminary at Notre Dame, IN, following a cousin who had departed
to study for the priesthood at Notre Dame the year before. This brought the whole Novak family into close contact with the Congregation
of Holy Cross. It was only natural then that when Richard's grandmother Anna Sakmar suddenly died of a stroke in 1952, Irene asked
Michael's superiors at Holy Cross about an appropriate memorial for her mother. When advised that a tabernacle and an altar were needed
in East Pakistan for the new Notre Dame College, Irene's father Ben Sakmar agreed to donate the funds for the tabernacle in his wife's
name. His three children then donated the altar in their parents' memory, a more fitting tribute than they realized at the time.
Called Nick by his friends and Richie at home, he was an honors student at Johnstown Catholic High School, a member of the Student
Council, a sports reporter, a literary staff writer, a member of the orchestra and the band playing the clarinet. In early 1953, Nick
won a competitive examination for a $500.00 Rev. James A. Burns Memorial Scholarship to attend Notre Dame University in South Bend,
Indiana. He planned to take a combined engineering and law program when he entered Notre Dame in September of 1953, immediately enrolling
in ROTC and joining the famed marching band.
However, by January 1954, Nick, now known as Dick, decided to join the Holy Cross order
and, according to the Holy Cross Eastern Province archives, on February 1, 1954 he entered the seminary at Notre Dame. In June of
that year, he elected to join the still new Eastern Province of Holy Cross, which his brother Michael had chosen for his novitiate
in 1951. Both Fathers Bob Malone and Jim Denn reported that they and their classmates were disappointed Dick had left the Indiana
Dick Novak entered the newly established Holy Cross Novitiate at Bennington, VT, and on
August 15, 1954, he received his holy habit. Many of his classmates at Bennington remember him well. "His classmates loved him," Joe
Skaff told this author in conversations at Stonehill. Joe explained how he, Dick, Bill Gleason and Jim Donohue started the "Good Neighbors
Club", which required them to go around to celebrate a classmate's birthday with paper hats, kazoos, and tin drums before the bell
for the 5:30AM rising. 
Father Bill Condon, after recalling Dick's love of pranks, noted
about him in the novitiate: "Dick was a very serious novice, very intense, very spiritual, and kept silence better than most. He was
kind, considerate, gentle of others, and engaged in no disputatious fights."
Segreve said that "Richard never pushed himself on you; he was a very low key guy. You accepted Dick Novak as Dick Novak or not; he
was self-directed, knew where he was going. The essence of Richard Novak was that he was complete, integral. He was a very calm and
Bill Braun, another fellow novice of Dick's at Bennington, recalled that
"his smile is what stands out. He saw through things; he never had a need to get even or prove himself to anyone. He was obedient
to the rule, but he saw human kindness and charity as more important than the rule."
was at Bennington while taking his vows as a religious on August 16, 1955, that Dick first declared his intention to become a missionary,
and Father DePrizio, then Provinical Superior of the Eastern Province, asked him to wait another few years until he "was certain enough
to fight for the Missions." 
According to his brother James Novak in an introduction to his 1993 book, BANGLADESH: REFLECTIONS
ON THE WATER, Dick's announcement caused an unexpected reaction:
1955-1958: Studying at Stonehill
In September 1955, Dick joined his older brother at Pius X Seminary at Stonehill College
for Michael's senior year. Brother Herman Zaccarelli, C.S.C. wrote:
At Stonehill, Dick was known for his dry, mischievous humor, his bright imagination and
his love of the outdoors. He was active in sports and, slight though he was at about 5'11 and 130 lbs 
, he was well known for being
tough, wiry, and playing football smarter than almost anyone else. In his 1958 Stonehill yearbook, and in the living memories of his
former classmates, he is credited with being the creator and driving force for via Paludosa, a land bridge and short cut the seminarians
built across the boggy fields to the classrooms, allowing them to avoid the 'beltway' which circled the grounds the long way to Donohue
Upon graduating magna cum laude from Stonehill in 1958, Dick was sent for the summer
to lead pilgrimages at the Oratoire Saint-Joseph in Montreal, of which he said in a letter to Father DePrizio:
Dick was assigned to Le Mans, France, for his theological studies on the recommendation
of Superior General Christopher O'Toole 
, and on August 16, 1958, Dick made his perpetual profession. But on August 25, he wrote
to Fr. DePrizio of his concern that Fr. DePrizio might not send him to France because of Michael's recent decision to return home
from Rome, and he reiterated his own desires:
1958-1961: Studying for the Priesthood
On September 14, 1958, Dick sailed to France on the S.S. Homeric from Montreal for his
theological studies at the University of d'Angers. On arrival in France, he wrote Father DePrizio:
Several people told me that Dick learned the language in remarkably short time, showing
his aptitude and respect for indigenous languages. Pere Daniel Deveau wrote in January 2008:
After describing a mission in Mers-les-Mains in the summer of 1960, Dick showed his love
for France in a letter to Father DePrizio:
From left to right : Daniel Deveau (Canada), William Norris (Indiana Province), Charles Bodin (France), Claude Richard (France), Gérard
Roquet (France), Roger Marchand (France), Jacques Choquette (Canada), local superior, unknown French postulant, Bill Persia (U.S.
Eastern Province of Priests), Charlie Stahler (Indiana Province), Richard Novak (U. S. Eastern Province of Priests), Robert Morin
(Canada), Archibald Keilen (Indiana Province), Henri Bourgeois (U.S. Eastern Province of Priests). 
Dick also arranged for bicycles for all the seminarians and led them on weekend and mission
trips throughout France. Father Bill Persia, C.S.C., a fellow seminarian in Le Mans, said of Dick:
Dick's ability to immerse himself in the culture was evident in his travels through the
countryside that he described in his many letters to Father George DePrizio. Dick adopted the French beret and noted in an October
newsletter entitled French Follies '58
: "Have bike and beret; will travel." Dick is pictured on bended knee in front of his fellow
seminarians on a trip in 1959. 
In the spring of 1961, he received his S.T.B. cum laude.
His ordination that June is memorable for several unusual reasons, in addition to the obvious attainment of his sacred priesthood.
For one, he was scheduled to be ordained with great pomp and ceremony with the French seminarians by Archbishop Chevalier of Le Mans
at the 11th century Cathedral of St. Julien at 8:30AM on June 29, 1961. The invitations were all printed that, including those for
his First Mass to be held in Johnstown, PA, in August. Instead, at the last minute, when he heard that Archbishop Lawrence Graner,
C.S.C., of Dacca 'and the Indes Orientales', as the local paper in Le Mans noted, would be passing through Le Mans on that day, he
asked permission to be ordained by him, symbolic of his commitment to the missions.
Archbishop Lawrence Graner, C.S.C. at ordination of Father Richard Novak, C.S.C., Notre Dame de Sainte Croix, Le Mans, June 29, 1961 
Permission granted, he was ordained alone 'in all simplicity,' as a French paper reported, in Notre Dame de Sainte Croix at 9AM on
June 29, 1961, the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. Father George DePrizio, his Provinical Superior, Pere Gagnon, his parents Michael
and Irene, and a dozen of Dick's seminarian friends, were present.
The second reason Dick Novak's ordination is so memorable is that Archbishop Graner tripped
while descending to distribute communion and the Holy Hosts scattered across the altar steps. Even then superstitions were whispered,
and this event was recalled by many upon news of his death, including by Fr. Bartley MacPhaidin, C.S.C., in a verse of a poem he wrote
dedicated to Father Novak:
While in France, Dick continued to consider taking the fourth vow, recognized as the missionary
vow, "discussing it with the Director in France from the 1st year on." 
While assigned to Washington following his ordination
in 1961, he wrote in the same letter to Father DePrizio: "Although I have not spoken of the Missions for three years, the thought
of this apostolate has not been far from my mind during this time." This time his request for the foreign mission was approved, and
he was assigned to the Foreign Mission Society under Father Arnold Fell, C.S.C. 
the Fall of 1961, Father Dick Novak reported to the Foreign Mission Seminary in Washington, DC, where he chose to be the first Holy
Cross priest to study Arabic and Islam in a systematic way, to support Christianity's earliest dialogue with Islam, to become an interlocutor
between the two religions. He hoped to find a bridge between the two religions, with the idea of continuing the dialogue which St.
Thomas Aquinas had begun in his Summa Contra Gentes nearly seven centuries earlier. In the process, he fell in love with Bengal and
the study of Arabic, and was strengthened in his strong desire to become a world-class expert on Moslem and Christian relations. In
this alone, he was seen as a model for many of the young Holy Cross seminarians. The late Father Richard Mazziotta, C.S.C. noted in
a January 1994 Memorial Liturgy for Father Novak, held only a few months before his own premature death, that twenty-five years earlier:
It is clear from the letters found in the various Archives that Fathers DePrizio and Fell
had a program in mind for Father Novak, which certainly entailed his beginning his desired Islamic studies, but their long range plans
for achieving the program weren't fully revealed. On September 22,1961, Father Fell writes Father DePrizio:
On September 30th, Father DePrizio responded to Father Fell:
On October 2nd, Father Fell outlined an immediate course of study for Father Novak, beginning
with an initial study of Arabic at Harvard, and a course in Cultural Anthropology, recommended by Dr. Frank of the Department of Semitic
Languages at Catholic University. But he notes in his letter his concerns about Father Novak:
Father DePrizio responds quickly with approval on October 5th:
1962: His first year preparing for Missionary Work
Thus, Father Novak began his course of studies at Catholic University, and made his Foreign
Mission vow on February 2, 1962 in the chapel of the Holy Cross Foreign Mission Seminary, completing the Special Missiology Program
in May of 1962. He spent the summer of 1962 at Harvard University studying Arabic as planned. He was then assigned to the Oriental
Institute in Barisal, East Pakistan, for the study of the Bengali language, and the study of the culture and history of the Bengali
In October 1962, he left the United States for the last time, traveling to Lebanon
for ten days on his way over to visit with the extended family of Joe Skaff. In this picture he is shown with his sister Mary Ann
leaving his family home in Johnstown, PA.
In November, Father DePrizio wrote to Father Novak on his trip:
1963: His first full year as a Missionary in East Pakistan
a stunning view of the snow-capped Tatra Mountains above green expansive valleys. This deep commitment to the Catholic faith through Christ on the cross, and the value and the importance of preserving indigenous culture and language, were to reverberate throughout Richard Novak's life.
When he announced the [missionary] vow to my father, a strange thing occurred. After we left the Novitiate House in Bennington, Vermont,
my father, suddenly and uncharacteristically, pulled our car to the roadside and stopped. Then he cried. Recovering his composure,
he told me he had had a vision that had seemed so real: he had seen my brother stabbed. As my father was a man of intuition but not
of visions, this demonstration of emotion greatly impressed me….. 
It is true that Richard Novak's story of love for his fellow men and women was indeed short, but he was a powerful example to me and
our community…. I lived with Richard and his brother Michael at Pius X Seminary in the early 1950's for approximately two years. During
his seminary days, it was his Joy and Peace [sic] that I especially remember. The living situation in the seminary at that time was
extremely difficult. I never heard Richard complain about anything. His simplicity of life was evident. He stood out as a seminarian
for his peacefulness and his genuine sense of humor. It was apparent to me that his goal was to be a missionary at the service of
the poor. He spoke about this with me and others. Richard was always a true example to me that 'God is revealed when we love one another.'
The space between Richard's birth and death was a short span of years in which he did love his flock, and he laid down his life for
them. I consider him a martyr and a saint. 
I hope I may become worthy of the honor of wearing the Crucifix, that I may become a worthy religious of Holy Cross…..[working here]
makes us realize the greatness of the Priesthood for which we are preparing. And to desire more that we may use these years of preparation
to make us more worthy to 'go unto the altar of God, who gives joy to our youth.' 
I am anxious to study theology, and willing to do it wherever I am sent, certain that wherever obedience sends me I will find fulfillment
of my vocation….I do not feel that anything which occurs should take away from the dedication of myself which I made the 16th last….I
find it constantly necessary in everything I do to reaffirm a decision to be a good Religious and a good Priest…. 
If first impressions are the most important, then I should not have troubles at all over here. Of course, a life without troubles
would be most boring, so I'll manage to find some --- as soon as I learn the language. 
I remember him as a quiet and peaceful young man, more on the intellectual side than the usual American seminarian. He loved to discuss
ideas and concepts. He also was a man of prayer, and he led a simple life…..he learned the language very early. I considered him as
a very bright mind. 
It was a good and deep experience, Father, and thus extremely hard to describe. But it sure was delicious to live among the Frenchmen,
and have the occasion to see their manner of living and thinking. 
He was the lone American sent to Le Mans following graduation in 1958; he provided care and concern for all of us that followed, and
led reconstruction of the living quarters: installing showers, and a new furnace. Dick translated notes so that we could study, and
ordered English books for the library. He convinced Pere Gagnon to buy us bicycles so we could travel, and he traced out a plan of
action for all our trips, wrote to different seminaries to arrange for us to stay there, just had everything set up in advance. Richard
had a great simplicity, even in the way he dressed, no errors in his appearance. He didn't flaunt his intelligence, but was always
analyzing and looking ahead: he was visionary, way ahead of Rome, even as they were preparing for Vatican II. He used beautiful liturgies
and songs. Dick was not afraid to express his opinions; if he thought something was right, he said so, even if it was far out or might
offend someone: The truth was the truth. He was straightforward, and people admired him for that. He couldn't sit by and do nothing,
Who could have told nine hundred days ago
White priest, gathering white hosts,
That God would ask your Christ-life to unite
host of thousands dying with you
And value with your own the Orient-rich life
Asked by the Prophet's holy hair 
We seminarians often spoke about Father Novak. As the first priest to study Arabian philosophy, he seemed the epitome of the new Catholic
missionary, one fully immersed in another culture, and someone sympathetic to a different religion. Struck down by the same people
who were the subject of his openness, he seemed the prototypical imitator of Christ, a priest whose life and passage schooled us in
what ministry and witness would mean in the open Church of Vatican II. 
Your telephone call the other day concerning the assignment of Father Richard Novak took my breath away, and perhaps I was not responding
with the normal reflexes. I called him and informed him of the decision, after talking it over with Father Harrington, and advised
him to say nothing about it until you had written Father Bernard. He was, of course, quite elated with the assignment….If he is to
emphasize Islamic studies, it will be necessary for him to begin some study of Arabic immediately. 
Father Novak is an excellent worker and has a strong intelligence. He should be able to do well in specialized language study as well
as missiological studies. I think this is a good opportunity for you to develop one of those specialists that you have frequently
spoken about. 
It was necessary for him to register quickly, and we told him to do so, presuming that the course outlined would meet your approval…..This
is not, as I am sure you know, an easy field he is choosing, and he will certainly need to be the excellent worker and strong intelligence
that you described him to be. 
The Program you have outlined for Father Novak seems excellent. Be sure that whatever you decide for him to do and study meets with
my full approval. As far as I am concerned he is entirely in your hands. Although the program will be a great challenge, I am certain
that Father Novak will respond to it well. So far as I know he is a good worker and will keep at it faithfully. 
I enjoyed hugely your description of the ten days spent in Lebanon. That paragraph of your letter should be amplified into a monograph…You
have this great blessing of being able to draw readily from every facet of your experiences, ----spiritual, temporal, cultural. 
During studies at Barisal, he was bored by being kept indoors in classes and asked to be
when he promptly joined the third-grade boys in their classes at Kishore Primary School in Barisal - 'after falling
behind the fifth graders', he joked in a Pakistan Letter. 
Then, Father Novak was sent to Dacca to be an instructor in logic
at Notre Dame College. One of his first acts in Dacca was celebrating Mass on the altar donated in honor of his grandparents. "We
were so happy when Richard told us he was there saying mass on it…at Notre Dame College. Back in '52 or '53 we never expected a son
of ours to say Mass at that particular altar! Dacca seemed so remote." 
Irene Novak wrote to Fathers DePrizio and McKee.
In October of 1962, Dick received a letter from Wilson Bishai, an Assistant Professor of
Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, commenting very favorably on the research potential
in an essay Dick had sent him about "the clash between Israel and Canaan," and referring to a visit Dick had had with them and wishing
him "the Lord's blessing as you serve him in East Pakistan." 
Dick had a deep interest
in the Bengali people, culture and language, and, as Fr. Gus Peverada noted in his vignette on Father Novak, "He would often visit
local families and he was frequently seen at the Tejgaon Bottomley Home Orphanage, where he loved to play with the children and practice
his Bengali with them. He slept on a native chowki and often wore the chaddar…" Father Richard Timm, C.S.C., wrote of Father Novak:
He was very friendly and likeable and showed his unmistakable interest in people. The kids at the orphanage loved him and liked to
play and converse with him. He got around to more places than most of our men who have been here for many years. People everywhere
still remember him. I used to worry about him, though, because it seemed to me that his liberal spirit was liable to get him into
trouble sooner or later. 
In a letter to his parents in January 1963, Father Novak stated that "I just learned that
I shall probably spend 2 years at ND College in Dacca after I finish my year here, and then, if plans continue, should go to Montreal
for studies. There is talk about attending a summer school in Morocco, but that's still vague yet." 
This uncertainty remained
in the background for all of them.
Father Fell was clearly working from a plan for Father
Richard, and he wrote Father Richard in February 1963:
Incidentally, and I know you understand that this and much of the rest I write you is confidential (nothing like being quoted overseas
to raise the hackles). I recently wrote to Father McKee again and reminded him that I did not want you put into definite work under
ecclesiastical authority but rather in a Community house, i.e., the College or Moreau House. I would have no objection to your teaching,
or taking courses in your line at Dacca University, but with some consideration of your having some time to visit other parts of the
mission and soak up as much knowledge of the mission operation as possible. This before returning to this country or elsewhere for
further studies in Islamics. Just how long you should stay over there this time cannot be specifically determined right now. Maybe
a year, a year-and-a-half, or two years. Perhaps you would need the latter period to really absorb some of the mission life and flavor.
I also mentioned to him that if he could not so base you (and I do not see why not) in a Community house, then to send you back home.
Some correspondence suggests that the plan was to bring him back quickly for advanced studies,
likely within the year. In June, Father Novak told Father Fell that he was "awaiting a meeting of the Equivalence Committee at Dacca
U to see if I can go for the M.A. in one year." 
Instead, the word came back, he wrote Father DePrizio in August, that "…the
final decision was that it will take two years. I would not have to go to class; merely to appear for the final exams; but since I
am not sure how long Fr. Fell and yourself are going to leave me over here, I don't know whether two years will be soon enough." 
He began work on a Masters in September 1963 although Father Fell did not give his final approval that he could stay the full term,
despite strong pleading by Father Novak. He gained many admirers while studying at Dacca University, including Dr. Ghani, Vice-Chancellor
of Dacca University, Dr. Habibullah, Head of the Department of Islamic History, and Dr. Rahman, Provost of Dacca Hall.
Dick's name was submitted for membership in the Bengali Academy and the Asiatic Society of Dacca in 1963, 
one of the first
Americans to be admitted. He noted that he was translating from the French a work from the Sorbonne on Bengali phonetics.
1964: Beginning his second full year in East Pakistan
The entire decade of the 1960's was marked by great ferment in East Pakistan as this Bengal
province sought to define its identity within the larger Moslem state. "Trouble had been brewing between East and West Pakistan since
their union in 1947, which was based solely on the fact that East Pakistan was predominantly Moslem," as Father Richard W. Timm, C.S.C.,
noted, "and many felt that such an unwieldy combination based solely on a common religion, would not last long." 
Separated from West Pakistan by almost one thousand miles of Indian territory, East Pakistan was essentially a Bengali Province, in
both language and culture, whereas West Pakistan spoke several languages including Urdu. There was considerable turmoil in East Pakistan
when it was commanded to adopt Urdu as its language and to alter its culture in the 1950's. By the 1960's Syed Abid Hussain, a former
Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia stated quite frankly in his 1965 book ''The Destiny of Indian Muslims":
There has been a re-emergence of Muslim communalism. This is, as a matter of fact, the same movement of religious communalism which
had started shortly before 1947, had temporarily subsided after partition and is now coming to the surface again. It is sponsored
by a small section of religious leaders but is becoming fairly popular among the middle class and to some extent among student. 
Thus, in these days Moslem riots were easily set off against the long-settled Hindu minority,
and such was the case in January 1964 when the theft of a Muslim relic - the "Prophet's holy hair" in Father MacPhaidin's poem --
at Srinagar in Kashmir triggered ferocious Moslem attacks against Hindus in East Bengal. Over 29 people were killed. This event sparked
retaliation against Muslims in West Bengal, where over 100 were killed by January 13th, and from there the riots spread. Holy Family
Hospital in Dacca was operated by the Catholic Medical Missionaries, and its 100 beds were crowded with victims of the riots in those
early days of January 1964. These were sights and conditions that greatly disturbed Father Novak as he traveled around Dacca on his
bike on January 15, Sister Lourdes reported to Father McKee. 
According to Sister Mary Lourdes, Administrator of the Holy Family
Hospital, "Fr. Novak came on several occasions [during the riots] to ask if he could help as we brought in the wounded. He was distraught
at the sights on the street." 
Sister Angela, Superior of the Medical Mission Missionaries, wrote of Father Novak: "He could know
no rest because he wanted to become personally involved in the suffering of the people." 
A US Government report dated Washington January 16, 1964, in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential
"The major scene of the Hindu-Muslim rioting has shifted to Pakistan at Narayanganj, a few miles south of Dacca in East Pakistan,
a minimum of 300 Hindus were killed on January 13-14.... One such demonstration in Khulna, East Pakistan, deteriorated into anti-Hindu
riots in which at least 27 persons died. A factor which undoubtedly contributed to the atmosphere in which these riots took place
was the Indian policy of expulsion from Assam of Muslim immigrants from East Pakistan. [Pakistani] President Ayub, in a strong letter
sent to [Indian] President Radhakrishnan January 13, said that already 20,000 Indian Muslims had crossed into East Pakistan since
the Calcutta riots began. There are still 10 million Hindus in East Pakistan and over 44 million Muslims in India." 
The turmoil in Dacca and environs resulted in the imposition of martial law in the area,
but as is often the case, it restricts all but those with the worst intentions. This is the environment in which Father Novak went
suddenly missing in January 1964. For many years, the details were unknown to the family, and many of those I have learned are shocking.
In any case, briefly, this is what I have been able to piece together, and this account resolves many questions.
Father Novak had visited the Holy Family Hospital to see how he could help several times on January 15th, and had been turned away.
Late on the evening of January 15th, Sister Mary Lourdes asked Sister Maria Goretti to call Father Novak the next morning and ask
if he would help locate the family of a student nurse at Holy Family hospital as she could get no word of her father who worked at
the Dhakeshwari Cotton Mills nor of any of her family. When contacted that next morning, Father Novak immediately offered to call
or go to Narayanganj to enquire about them. 
On January 16, 1964, Father VandenBossche
was acting for Father Eugene Burke, Superior of Notre Dame College, who was traveling with Father Robert McKee, the Dacca District
Superior, to Bandhura. Father Novak came to him early that morning and told him of the call from Holy Family Hospital asking him to
help locate the Hindu family of the student nurse at the jute mills near Naranyanganj. "He informed me that he was going to go looking
for them, having had no success on the phone. I gave him my permission, but made him promise he wouldn't cross the river. What could
I do?" Father VandenBossche said to me, "I couldn't stop him from going." 
On that same
morning of January 16th, Sister Mary Lourdes said she arrived early at Notre Dame College in an ambulance to pick up Father Bill Graham
on an emergency errand, when Father Novak came out dressed in his white cassock, full black trousers, and a light blue jacket. Father
Novak stopped to speak to Sister Lourdes through the back seat window, and he confirmed that Sister Maria Goretti had called him and
that he was leaving to make enquiries about the nurse's family. He then spoke briefly to Father Graham in the front seat, according
to Sister Lourdes, got on his bicycle and pedaled away while they left on their own emergency errand. 
When Fathers McKee and Burke returned to the College that evening of the 16th and learned that Father Novak was missing, they began
to search for him. "In the afternoon [of January 16th]," Father VandenBossche indicated, "I went to Comilla to replace Father Dan
Kennerk, and I didn't know he was missing until Father Burke called me late that evening enquiring into Father Novak's whereabouts.
I told him what I knew at that time." 
For Fathers McKee, Burke, and Graham and the
Holy Cross community in Dacca, the next two weeks were suspenseful, stressful and uncharted territory. The day-by-day details are
extremely intricate, grotesque and riveting. They spent each day searching the Narayanganj area with police escorts, walking miles
to villages, crossing and recrossing the river, and investigating hundreds of corpses: "All the bodies were bloated, distorted and
practically naked." 
The Notre Dame Chronicles in Dacca on January 22, 1964, indicate
that the search party found "a Pharmacist who identified without a doubt Father Novak, who stopped there for directions at about 10AM,
giving them a definite positive lead for Fatullah." 
That same day they also made an assessment that:
"they could not establish that a man like Father Novak actually crossed the river. The only definite facts of all searches so far:
1. Pharmacist at Fatullah at about 10AM directed Father Novak to Narayanganj, on January 16, 1964.
2. Father Novak spoke to Msgr.
D'Costa at St. Paul's Church, Narayanganj, about 11:00 A.M on the 16th January, 1964.
3. Father Novak was at Luxmi Narayan Mills at
about 1:00 P. M. on the 16th January, 1964 and went to the ferry ghat. 
It was not until January 24th, eight days after Father Novak disappeared, that a witness
by the name of Ashraful Huq came to the College. He reported that his maidservant saw the murder of Father Novak occur sometime after
1300 hours by five men, whose names were known. Father Novak was on a boat coming across the Sitalakhya River when, near the landing,
he was attacked by two youths on board. When he struggled, the youths called out for others to come and 'kill another Hindu.' Huq
was able to offer vivid details from his maidservant about Father Novak's last moments:
He reached for his cross which he wore about his neck and held it out to them, saying 'I am a Christian.' He spoke in Bengali to the
youths. But they paid him no heed. Three new youths responding to the calls as the boat docked helped overcome him, dragged him ashore,
and while four youths held Father Novak down, one of those on shore named Yunus had a sword, and he stabbed Father Novak twice in
the neck and chest, and he died rapidly. 
Other witnesses testified to the enormous amount of blood from the stab wounds, according
to the Chronicle Records. The Holy Cross search party had in fact stood on the spot near Fatullah where Father Novak was murdered
at several times during the investigation, and saw the blood-stained area, but did not know at that time that it was where Father
Novak had died. Partly to spare Father Novak's mother the gory details, Father McKee, whose meticulous reports on these events make
gripping reading, did not write all the details he knew to the Novak family. But he did advise them and Father Novak's superiors in
the US that, even though Father Novak's body had not yet been located, he was "morally certain" they should go ahead with the requiem
Masses in North Easton and Dacca on January 27th.
Only on January 29th were the searchers
informed that the police had captured the actual murderer, named Yunus, who confessed to stabbing Fr. Novak, and that they were in
possession of Father Novak's cycle, watch and glasses:
At the Narayanganj police station, Father Burke saw Father Novak's watch, glasses, and cycle and positively identified them beyond
any doubt….YUNUS was brought in chained or tied to another man who was very dark and is said to be one of the men who assisted in
throwing Father Novak's body into the river. There was no exchange of words between us. 
Thus, two days after the formal requiem masses were held in Dacca, in North Easton, MA,
and in Johnstown, PA, the intensive search for Father Novak ended in East Pakistan.
30, the American Consulate General in Dacca, Pakistan, filed a "Final Report of the Death of an American Citizen" with the State Department
in Washington. Not long after this report, the newly elevated President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, called Michael and
Irene Novak to express his condolences on the murder of their 28-year-old son, Father Richard Novak, C.S.C. This tragic news was followed
so closely the horror of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
When they learned that Father Novak's killers had been apprehended, his parents appealed for leniency, claiming there had been enough
suffering and pain already. The Trial Court in Dacca nevertheless sentenced to death by hanging the one who had stabbed Father Novak,
and sentenced the four others to serve life imprisonment in a decision issued on October 3, 1964.
But on December 22, 1964, the Dacca High Court confirmed the death sentence passed on Yunus Ali on appeal and, on its own motion to
the four other accused to show cause why they should not also get the extreme penalty of law, sentenced all five persons to death
on the charge of killing Father Novak. Mr. Justice B. A. Siddiky in issuing the judgment 'observed that it was a coldblooded murder
and that the offence was proved beyond reasonable doubt.' 
In May of 1966, the Supreme
Court of Pakistan confirmed the death sentence passed on Yunus Ali who had "killed Father Novak an American missionary by dagger blows,"
and the Court reinstated the original life sentences for the other four.
McKee ordered and had placed a marble memorial stone at the 17th century Tejgaon Holy Rosary Church on January 4, 1966, at a cost
of 258 rupees. 
Father Novak's beautiful chalice, made in France with the melted down
gold and silver of his parents' wedding rings and other family jewelry, is preserved and used for daily Mass at the Holy Cross chapel
in North Easton, MA. It has been used by the priests of the Eastern Province in Father Novak's memory since Father Joseph Lehane,
C.S.C. brought it back from Dhaka in 2001.
Remembrances and Responses to Father Novak's Death
In all, Father Novak spent over one third of his life as a member of the Holy Cross Congregation,
some ten years. Though he served as missionary for just fifteen months, he made a strong impression on people, and the lasting effects
of his work are still remembered. He is remembered as a scholar and as a model by Holy Cross seminarians and priests in the 44 years
since his death.
In his moving funeral oration on January 27, 1964, in Johnstown, PA, Fr.
He was one of the most fearless young men I ever met, and one of the most selfless, which combined to make him most adaptable for the work of a missionary. He was constantly looking for an outstanding challenge and he found it in his decision to dedicate his life to the apostolate to the Moslems, admittedly one of the most difficult of all apostolate. In twelve hundred years Christianity has never really built a bridge to Islam. Yet, that is what Dick chose, and went off unquestioningly, fearlessly and selflessly to Pakistan.
In recently contemplating Father Novak's life, Father Ernest J. Bartell, C.S.C. said:
Fr. Fell had a plan for Richard -- we all did. We surely miss the many contributions Richard would have made to our Holy Cross global
ministries. He brought a clear perspective on the faith we shared that enriched our commitment to mission. Richard would have used
his intellectual abilities to enlarge and integrate our understanding and relations with other cultures, perhaps especially with respect
to Islam. Richard would have been a leader for Holy Cross in developing a musicology to meet the needs of today's Church. 
Father Germain-Marie Lalande, Superior General of Holy Cross, wrote on January 27, 1964,
to Father Robert McKee in Dacca:
In the course of a private audience with the Holy Father [Pope John the XXIII], I informed the Holy Father of your great trial. The
Holy Father's immediate reaction was: martyrdom. As you can well understand, the nature and reasons for Father Novak's death will
have to be ascertained before we can speak of martyrdom...This is God's mysterious way of building up His Church….
Fr. Germain Lalande, in telling Pere Daniel Deveau, C.S.C. of Father Dick's death shortly
thereafter, asked if Pere Deveau was surprised:
and I answered 'no'. There was something radical about Dick's zeal: I think he would not even have thought about the risks in store….I
certainly share the idea that Dick died for his faith and for the service of people in need. He was a man of prayer and of deep Christian
Further, Pere Deveau wrote:
I have known Dick as an even-tempered young man with a shy smile, yet I never doubted that behind that he had guts, a great courage
and a lot of determination. Christ's words "Don't be afraid!" had already resounded profoundly in his soul. There was something in
him that reminds me of St. Therese of the Child Jesus: simplicity, genuineness and daily quiet determination. When I hear someone
mention "that good men die young", I think about [Richard]. I can say that in my younger years as a religious I met a dedicated young
religious in whom there was no falsehood and no vain pretense. He truly was a disciple of Christ, and his death simply cannot have
been worthless: he had too much price in the eyes of God. 
As Father Alfred D'Alonzo, C.S.C., showed in his extensive discussion of martyrdom in his
paper on Father William Evans, C.S.C., who was murdered in Bangladesh in 1971, "It is widely understood that a Christian Martyr is
one who gives his life for the tenets of his faith, who gives witness to his faith, who dies while performing acts of mercy." 
In an undated note in the Holy Cross Eastern Province Archives, Fr. DePrizio wrote to 'Father Bob'[presumably McKee] thanking him
for a letter regarding Father Novak: "I really think that given his good intentions, etc. we have a martyr for our Missions. I knew
him well-through the years --- have a great deal of his correspondence and have been amazed at the charity of the man and priest."
Tantalizingly, he concludes the short note with: "More later. See you in Rome."
Willy Raymond wrote to this author:
I entered the seminary in the fall of '64 so your brother Richard was already considered a martyr in Holy Cross at that time and as
a new seminarian I was very interested in the heroism of this young priest who was killed while on a mission of charity. 
Family Reminders through the Years
Three of Father Novak's siblings have visited Bangladesh since his death. His brother James
lived and worked there for many years, mostly because of Father Novak, and he wrote a book on the country, as mentioned earlier. He
told family members, on his first visit there in the early 1970s, that he received a call from the hotel manager just after he got
to his room, who said some people were in the lobby for him. Since he was not expecting anyone, he went down mostly out of curiosity.
A long line of Bengali men and women were waiting quietly in a line, and as Jim came out of the elevator, they came toward him and
one by one, kissed his hand and told him how much they loved and revered Father Novak and wanted to pay their respects to his family.
In December1996, at a memorial service held in Dhaka for Father Novak's brother James Novak,
the student nurse whose family Father Novak had sought that final day in 1964 approached Jim's family members to give her condolences
on Jim's death, and to assure them that Father Novak's charity would never be forgotten.
Likewise, Father Novak's brother Michael has had several instances reminding him of the young priest's effect: An older worker at
the Dacca Hilton in the late 1980s hurried across the lobby to him, took his cuff, and asked if he was the brother of Father Novak?
On Michael's nod, the Bangladeshi knelt down and kissed his sleeve, saying it was respect for Father Richard, whom he regarded as
a good man, and whose memory he continued to reverence. More recently, in Brussels in about 2000 at a conference on democracy, two
Bangladeshis approached Michael at the dinner to tell him that Fr. Richard's memory is still cherished in Dhaka. And within the last
few years in Casablanca, a Lebanese Muslim engaged to a Bangladeshi related to Michael that his fiancée spoke to him about Father
Richard, of how he was still fondly remembered, and that some said there should be a public statue to him.
Father Novak's nephew Joseph, son of James Novak, is currently serving as Political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia and recently
received a note from a former U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh:
It is great to hear from you. While I never knew your father, I did read about and learn much about your uncle from long-serving priests
teaching at Notre Dame, the Archbishop and freedom fighters. Father Richard is admired to this day. 
There are many more stories his family has related of people contacting them around the
world. In about 1967, Michael received a clipping which said that "a horse named Father Richard finished in first place in Calcutta
in the seventh race." Another story is of special interest: Michael Novak and his wife Karen were planning to travel to Dhaka for
the dedication of the Father Richard Novak Memorial Library at Notre Dame College in August of 1995. When Michael went to the Bangladeshi
embassy in Washington to pick up their visas, he was asked to wait until the Ambassador arrived. An hour passed, and he began to think
their visas were being denied. Another half hour later, the Ambassador explained that he had wanted to personally thank Michael as
the brother of Father Novak to whom the Ambassador felt he owed his career. Father Novak had been his logic teacher at Notre Dame
College and in that year of schooling, he himself had won the national prize in logic, which he credited to 'Father Novak being such
an extraordinary teacher.' That award greatly advanced his reputation and career, he said, and that is what led to him becoming Ambassador
to the United States of America.
I had the pleasure of meeting that same Ambassador
at a reception at the new Bangladeshi embassy in Washington, and heard his words of gratitude to Father Novak directly. Several other
diplomats who had also studied under him remembered him with reverence. During my visit to Bangladesh in 1983, I was constantly reminded
by people there of how much effect Father Novak had on many people in his less than 15 months in the country, how much they remembered
him and prayed to him and for him. I was introduced everywhere I went as the sister of Father Novak, and the reactions of Bangladeshis
were very moving those 20 years after his death.
Pope John Paul II told Michael that he
had remembered Father Novak at the Mass he celebrated during his 1986 visit in Dhaka. In 2003, at Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome,
Michael Novak came by surprise upon a ceremony honoring the martyrs of religious orders of the 20th century. One by one, names were
read aloud of those members of religious orders who had been killed, and a candle was lit for each one. The name of Father Richard
J. Novak, C.S.C., along with that of Father William Evans, C.S.C., was read aloud, and two candles were lit in the darkness.
Conclusion: The Quest Continues
I hope this paper recalls this young priest to Holy Cross, and clears away some of the
misconceptions and mysteries surrounding his character, his life and his death, even as I continue to explore unresolved issues. In
1964, only a few, sparse details of Father Novak's death were revealed to the Novak Family. Somehow, perhaps inadvertently, the family
was left with the impression that Father Novak had acted imprudently. Over the years, the family has learned that a few of his colleagues
in Bangladesh were angry at him. Some gave the impression that he had gone out that day on his own, unbidden, reckless, independent
and immature. One suggested that he was disobeying orders. It is possible that Dick's characteristic courage, independence, and religious
zeal, prized by some of his Superiors, did not always sit so well with others in Dacca. For the family's part, parents and siblings
were willing to wait for the judgment of the Church and of history, and we really did not know enough about the details.
When this author began searching the archives in earnest in 2006-07, she discovered that others knew important details soon after
his death and that these details were meticulously committed to writing. Maybe others in the community thought that they knew more
than they did; certainly there is evidence in the records that they wanted to spare Richard's mother Irene, in particular, many of
the gruesome details.
In any case, witnesses and records now put to rest two major concerns
raised about Father Richard's actions on January 16, 1964. There is conclusive evidence that Father Novak was asked to go by Sister
Lourdes to undertake a mission of mercy and that he did not go out on his own during the riots. Second, there is conclusive evidence
that Father Richard sought out and received permission to go out to see what he could find regarding the Hindu family of the nurse
in the hospital - a nurse he had never met. As the Principal of Notre Dame College, Father Bill Graham, put it in his remarks on Father
Novak's disappearance and death:
For Father Novak it did not matter that he had never seen the family, had never seen the employee concerned. Here was a good deed
to be performed, an opportunity to put into action his desire to be of service. And for him a task undertaken had to be completed….He
never reached his destination. Yet, in a more profound sense, he gloriously arrived at his goal: He gave his life in a journey of
We do not know the motive for the attack on him. The issue of robbery as a motive is unclear
from the records we have. We do not yet know enough about the killers, their previous and later histories, though it was an email
received in 2003 referring to one of those killers serving as a 'bat boy' to a jailed journalist friend of James Novak that sharpened
this author's interest in learning more.
We do not know if the death sentence against
YUNUS Ali, who was seen and convicted of stabbing Father Novak to death, was ever carried out. Nor have we found any records to verify
that they were all released in 1972 following the general amnesty after the War of Independence.
We do not know what happened to his personal belongings, his cassock and other clothes, his bicycle, his watch, his holy cross, except
to assume that those identified by Father Burke and McKee were taken by the police as evidence for the trial and retained by them.
We do have two sets of his glasses in the Michael Novak Archives at Stonehill College, though it is not clear which of these he was
wearing on January 16, 1964.
Above all, we do not know for sure what happened to his
body. The stories related to us are conflicting and confusing. Newspaper articles at the time of this death, and again at the time
of the trials of the murderers, spoke of his body having been found. Then, on August 21, 1995 at the consecration of the Novak Library
at Notre Dame College in Dhaka, an old man approached Michael Novak and grasped his hand tightly. The man was unusually tall, Michael
related to this author, and he said he had been the detective at the time of the murder. This detective told Michael he had discovered
a detached skull along the river bank, and had taken it to a dentist, and achieved positive identification of Father Novak's teeth.
Can this be verified? Who was the dentist? Is that skull in Father Novak's memorial grave in Dacca? I intend to continue seeking the
answers to these questions.
The tasks ahead are something like a detective story. Many
records are incomplete, missing, or contradictory, such as which church in Dhaka holds or held the altar and tabernacle donated in
memory of Anna and Ben Sakmar? Also, many records have yet to be fully searched or obtained, particularly from the National Archives
in the United States and in the Pakistan courts. For the murder of Father Novak occurred in what was then East Pakistan, not Bangladesh,
and all the records at those courts are under the jurisdiction of the Government of Pakistan. Moreover, I have not found nor reached
all those who might know of these long-ago events in 1964. I hope to track down these witnesses in the days ahead and more completely
document Father Novak's life and death.
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This page was last updated on 10/19/2013.