Mother Teresa in the Balkans

The following article, published in March 2016 in the British Catholic magazine The Tablet, explores the original Balkan legacy – and the places associated with it – of one of Europe’s most famous modern Christian missionaries, Mother Teresa.

The timely article was published just nine months before the annual celebration of Mother Teresa’s mission- one that is of particular importance in 2016, considering the Vatican’s decision to make the Balkan-born nun a saint.

The article introduces readers to Mother Teresa’s life, legacy and travel destinations associated with her in the region. These include the Memorial House of Mother Teresa in Skopje, Macedonia; the new Cathedral of Mother Teresa in Pristina, Kosovo; and the shrine of the Black Madonna in the pilgrimage village of Letnica, near the Kosovo-Macedonia border, where as a teenager the famed nun had her vision of future service to the Church.

Readers interested in the general topic of the Catholic Church in the Balkans will also want to read my e-book (co-authored with Matteo Albertini), The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans. It is also available in Italian here.

Mother Teresa in the Balkans- The Tablet Chris Deliso 1

As the Church looks forward to Mother Teresa’s September 4th canonisation at the Vatican, her life and works are also being celebrated in her Balkan homeland- where several intriguing sites associated with the revered nun await pilgrims and travellers.

After her death in 1997, Mother Teresa was fast-tracked for sainthood by Pope John Paul II, being beatified in 2003. Pope Francis’ approval of her second miracle last December has now set the stage for her canonisation- to take place, fittingly enough, during the pope’s declared Jubilee Year of Mercy, the day before her annual feast day of September 5th.

Even for non-Catholics, Mother Teresa is an instantly recognizable figure, one eternally associated with piety and service to the poor and sick. Yet since her mission was carried out in India, not as many may be aware of her Balkan roots- and how her early experiences there shaped her and influenced her decision to make the long and uncertain journey that ended up becoming her life’s vocation.

Still less well understood is how the soon-to-be-saint’s legacy is inspiring new generations of Catholics in the region. Given this intriguing context and the excitement building for September’s canonisation, now is a great time to visit several key places in the region associated with Mother Teresa.

The first stop on the journey is Skopje, where Teresa was born in August 1910 as Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu. Today the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, Skopje then was part of the Ottoman Empire, as was neighbouring Kosovo, from where Teresa’s parents had roots. The nun’s memory is preserved particularly strongly among Albanians here.

Just a few years after the 2003 beatification, initiatives were being made for commemorating Mother Teresa in both Skopje and Prishtina (the capital of Kosovo, a 90-minute drive to the north). The latter would receive a grand cathedral, now mostly finished, while the former city committed to building a memorial house in her honour. Since the Bojaxhiu’s ancestral home has long disappeared, city planners chose an appropriate place to build the memorial house, and indeed one where the young Gonxha spent much of her time: the site where Skopje’s historical Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart had stood until the 1963 earthquake, an event that devastated much of the city.

Designed by noted local architect Vangel Bozhinovski, the Memorial House of Mother Teresa combines aspects of a cosy museum and a symbolic fusion of the traditional Ottoman-era home, with its stonework, gate and inner well, and the spiritual, crowned by a splendid chapel where masses are held on Tuesday mornings. (Visiting groups of pilgrims can also pray and hold special services here). There is also a small gift shop at the ground level, selling multi-lingual books about Mother Teresa and hand-made religious jewellery.

According to the memorial house’s director, Renata Kutera-Zdravkovska, “we receive over 100,000 visitors a year.” Noting that the museum has already gone through seven thick guest books since opening in 2009, she adds that this number of visitors has made the Mother Teresa memorial “one of Skopje’s most-visited sights.”

Here, friendly guides take the visitor on a chronological tour of Mother Teresa’s life- lending insight not only into her personal experiences, but into the history of a city and society of a bygone era. Historic photos, original handwritten letters, religious medallions and one of Teresa’s iconic blue-and-white saris are among the exhibits presented.

Yet beyond these physical remnants, one appreciates also the insights they provide into the sort of life the young Gonxha had. They attest to the inspirational priest whose letters from missionaries in far-off India sparked her passion, and detail the daily life of an eclectic, multi-ethnic city. And they reveal centuries-old traditions enjoyed by Catholic families like the Bojaxhiu clan, such as the annual summer pilgrimage across the Skopska Crna Gora mountain range separating Macedonia from Kosovo, to the village of Letnica for the Feast of the Holy Mother of God. It was there that the girl resolved, at the age of 18, to give her life to missionary work.

While the memorial house is worth visiting on any day of the year, special events, such as exhibitions and presentation of documentaries are held annually on Mother Teresa’s birthday (August 26) and on her feast day of September 5th. Kutera-Zdravkovska expects that the fall canonisation will be followed by even more special events that are yet to be announced.

Mother Teresa in the Balkans- The Tablet Chris Deliso 2

To continue the Mother Teresa trail in the Balkans, it is necessary to make a short drive north. While the ethnic Albanian population is predominantly Muslim in both Macedonia and Kosovo, the Catholic element is much more prevalent in the latter. It was thus no surprise that Prishtina was chosen as a site for a cathedral named in Mother Teresa’s honour. Probably the most impressive new structure to have emerged from this still poor, post-war state, the cathedral is fronted by statuary, flanked by white columns and lined with bright stained-glass windows along its upper length- an artistic depiction of Catholic history in Kosovo through the ages.

The cathedral is overseen by the charismatic and gracious Father Don Lush Gjergji. A priest since 1973 and author of some 15 books on Mother Teresa, he is certainly one of the world’s leading enthusiasts and experts on the soon-to-be-saint. Describing Mother Teresa as a “symbol of hope and resistance” for the Albanian nation, he links her with a succession of other notable Catholic leaders of Albanian origin, who fought for their faith in different ways, during historical times that were often challenging.

This view is shared by journalist and filmmaker Vjolica Hajdari, a Kosovo-born Albanian now based in Germany, and good friend of Father Gjergji’s. Visiting the cathedral and noting its symbolic importance, Hajdari (who has produced a popular documentary in German on Mother Teresa’s life) attests that “Teresa is very close to the Albanian heart, and a very important and inspiring person for our national values.”

Catholicism in Kosovo has long roots, but was reduced significantly during five centuries of Ottoman rule. And it was never particularly encouraged during the subsequent Royalist and Communist Yugoslav periods. But it is making a modest comeback, due to the concerted efforts of the Vatican and church supporters from elsewhere in Europe. According to Father Gjergji, the Prishtina cathedral currently receives 500 to 700 persons for Sunday mass, but not only city locals; “people come from other towns, while we also have internationals who live here, and even Muslims stop in,” he says. “It’s not a coincidence we named this church after Mother Teresa- following her example, we welcome all people with an open heart.”

The charismatic priest, who actually knew Mother Teresa personally (meeting her many times, relates that he was overjoyed with the selection of Pope Francis; “for four days before the conclave, I had prayed for the cardinals to choose someone from Latin America, who had the soul of Mother Teresa,” he relates. “When I later met Pope Francis, I could feel that he was such a man.”

Although Catholicism is not the dominant religion in Kosovo, it is anecdotes like this – and major constructions like the Cathedral of Mother Teresa – that attest to a certain vibrancy and dynamic energy that today’s visitors will experience here. Despite lingering poverty and occasional political discord, Kosovo seems to have drawn inspiration from its association with the Nobel Prize-winning missionary to go forward with optimism.

Outside observers are taking note. According to Marc Perry, an Englishman based in Prishtina, “Albanians in Kosovo be they Christian, Muslim or atheist, are very proud of Mother Teresa’s Albanian heritage. At the same time her canonisation rises above any singular sense of ethnic pride as she is also revered here as a ‘Mother of the World’.”

As an editor with Interfaith Kosovo (a joint project of Kosovo’s foreign ministry and the British Council), Perry visits the church and speaks with its leaders and parishioners often. Kosovo is still not on most travelers’ radar, but the country’s special association with Mother Teresa – especially in her year of canonisation – make the current time ideal to visit, “in order to experience spiritual authenticity in it’s traditional sense.”

As with the leaders of the Catholic church and Memorial House in Skopje, the leaders of Kosovo’s Catholic community are planning special events in the weeks following Mother Teresa’s canonisation. “We will all be at the Vatican for September 4th,” states Father Gjergji, “but in the weeks after, the spirit of Mother Teresa will be felt in Kosovo with events that we will organize.”

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There are regular direct flights from London Luton to Skopje via WizzAir. Travel by car, bus or train from Skopje to Prishtina is frequent, and takes from 1-2 hours. Those wishing to get off the beaten track can visit the Marian shrine at Letnica, a tiny village equidistant between the two cities, just over the Kosovo side of the border; it is best reached from the turn-off at Ferizaj. Letnica was where Mother Teresa, while still a girl on a summer pilgrimage, received her calling to a missionary life. The church, which contains a historic icon of the Madonna, has been visited each September by religious pilgrims since at least the 18th century.

Memorial House of Mother Teresa

Open Mon-Fri 10am-8pm

Sat 9am-4pm

Entry and tour free (donations accepted)

Tel. +389 2 3290 674

9 Macedonia St

Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa Square & Justiniani St, Prishtina, Kosovo

Tel. +381 38 220 455