Mother Teresa of Skopje

Mother Teresa in June 1981. (Photo: Darry Heikes / AFP-Getty Images)

"There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much."
—Mother Teresa

Today Mother Teresa's closest company is young Skopje skaters. They like the smooth marble and the many curbs and sharp edges around her small square. Skater blogs on the Web indicate that the best skating ground in Skopje is next to Mother Teresa.

She would not mind this company, many would agree. Amid a siege of Beirut in 1982, she negotiated a ceasefire between the Israeli army and the Palestinian guerillas to save some other young persons. Children had become trapped in a hospital near the front line. Mother Teresa made the war stop and lead the Red Cross to take the children to safety.

By giving the Mother Teresa Award to several deserving humanitarians last week, Skopje quietly paid its respects to its greatest native.

Mother Teresa was born here in the Vlach neighborhood on Aug. 26, 1910, in what was then the Ottoman Empire. There is confusion concerning the exact date of her birthday. According to some sources, it was a day later, on Aug. 27. That was, however, the date of her baptism in the Jesus Heart Church. It was this day she considered as the beginning of her Christian life.

The church, which no longer stands, was right where Mother Teresa's monument is now—half-way between the Stone Bridge and the Old Train Station, in the center of town. She went there with her school friends and sang in the church choir. The church was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake. As that was the Communist era, authorities were not eager to restore it.

On this very spot, the government is now building the Mother Teresa Memorial House. Foundations were laid in May and the memorial should be completed by the end of the year. It will comprise a monument, an exhibition, an open gate, and a shrine. A local architect, Vangel Bozinovski, won the project in an international competition. The structure should combine traditional style with architectonic materials never before used in the country.

Mother Teresa lived in Skopje until she was 18, when she left for Ireland to join the Sisters of Loreto. From there she proceeded to her true home, Kolkata (then Calcutta), India. In all truth, she always felt her real home was with the poor.

"By blood I am Albanian, by citizenship Indian, by faith a Catholic nun, by calling I belong to the world, but my heart belongs to the heart of Jesus,"—these words of the great missionary were cited by Anton Sereci, a novelist, at last year's 10th anniversary of Mother Teresa's death commemorated in the Macedonian parliament.

Sereci was one of the recipients this year of the Mother Teresa Award. The prize regularly goes to people with strong humanitarian engagement, or who have dedicated themselves to researching the great woman's life.

The Saint of the Gutters, as Life magazine once called her, was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, in a family of Albanian descent, originally from Skhoder, Albania. She was the youngest child of Nikola and Drane Bojaxhiu.

Her father died when she was eight years old, after which her mother raised her as a Roman Catholic. Early in her childhood, she became fascinated by stories of missionary work. At the age of 12, she decided to commit to religious life. She left Skopje in 1928, at the age of 18. The rest is history.

No ranking of great contemporaries can be even imagined without her name. Consistently over the years, Gallup polls found Mother Teresa to be the most admired person in the United States. A poll from 1999 conducted in the United States ranked her "the most admired person in the 20th century."

"She is the United Nations. She is peace in the world," former United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar once said of Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa returned to her native Skopje several times over the years—in 1970, 1978, 1980, and 1986.

In 1980, a year after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the city of Skopje declared her an honorary citizen. She died on Sept. 5, 1997

In her unselfish giving, she also gave something to her place of birth. And it is a lot. It is the right to associate itself with this contemporary saint.

When Zubin Mehta, the celebrated conductor and a great humanitarian, visited the country last summer for the Ohrid summer festival, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski gave him a small statue of Mother Teresa. Skopje should be proud of being able to claim even a little bit of Mother Teresa's greatness.

The recent book Mother Teresa of Skopje by Stojan Trencevski, a dedicated researcher of the great woman's life and president of the association with the same name, explores the life of the Bojaxhiu family in Skopje over generations and sheds light on her childhood years. The book stresses the emotional connection Mother Teresa kept with her native town over the years.

Whether using her actual words or applying skillful narration, Trencevski in his book has Mother Teresa say, "If there had not been for Skopje, there would not have been me. There would not have been Mother Teresa."

Skopje should be proud. It gets a chance to show that greatness and love can grow everywhere.

From Osservatorio sui Balcani.

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