The decades of unknown history hidden behind the Iron Curtain are a treasure trove of stories waiting to be told, heroes and saints waiting to be celebrated.
One of these stories pertains to St. Teresa of Calcutta, an event which very few people know about. I learned about it years ago from Albanian writer Marcel Hila, whom I had asked for information for an article I was writing on Pjeter Arbnori, a Catholic known to many as “the Mandela of the Balkans” for having survived almost 29 years of imprisonment in a communist gulag. I knew Arbnori had met Mother Teresa, so I asked my friend Marcel if he could tell me about it. Marcel didn’t have any information as to the friendship between Mother Teresa and Arbnori, beyond the fact that they had met in New York, but he did have something else to tell me, not about Arbnori but about Mother Teresa.
His account began in September 1985, when Marcel was a drafted soldier in unarmed and under-equipped unit—the lowliest outfit in the Albanian army, the one where they put the men who were considered dangerous to the communist regime. Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha had died on April 11, but his regime was still in place, and although there was no war going on, it employed the soldiers in the construction of bunkers, tunnels, and trenches to prepare for the defense of the homeland against the “enemy.”
It was here that one day a new soldier arrived, demoted from the Republican Guards, the army’s most élite corps. As the Republican Guard’s members were handpicked for their loyalty to the regime, this demotion looked very fishy to the barefoot men in Marcel’s unit. “We were all afraid he was a spy,” he told me, “so we fell silent when in his company. But one day, at lunch, I made up my mind to ask him what he could possibly have done to land up in our unit. He answered quite simply that he had had a brawl with another soldier, and he was there with us as punishment. ‘Well, it certainly must be difficult here for you, coming from such a prestigious corps, where your work load was light and you had boots on your feet. Here we break our backs with work, and they don’t even give us shoes to wear.’”
“At this, to everyone’s surprise, he smiled and exclaimed how lucky he was to have left the Republican Guards, whose job it was to stand guard at the tomb of Enver Hoxha: ‘You have no idea what it is to be there at night! You hear sounds, noises, screams, the earth trembles below your feet—it’s as if there were groans coming from an abyss. It’s torture. Over 20 people in my unit have ended up in a psychiatric ward from being there. Coming here has rescued me from all this. Sure, I work harder, but at least I don’t have to listen to that hell.’”
Albania was still under the heel of one of the longest and most savage tyrannies of the 20th century, which kept the country totally isolated from the rest of the world. So when they heard this fellow rant about sinister phenomena at the tomb of the feared dictator, the soldiers of the despised unit immediately scrambled away from the table. Whether reckless or sincere, this man represented a potential danger to them, under the constant scrutiny of the regime, so they all wanted to be quick to show they were distancing themselves from him.
This was how Marcel and his army mates learned about the bloodcurdling night-time phenomena, which made even soldiers quake with fear.
Four years after this encounter, in August 1989, Mother Teresa arrived at Tirana airport, met by a top-level commission of dignitaries and by none other than the widow of Enver Hoxha, who took Mother directly to her late husband’s tomb.
This was a great surprise to everyone, since in the course of almost 60 years, Mother Teresa had never been allowed back into her native country, and had always been refused visa requests for her mother and sister to visit her in the West, even for medical purposes. Not only that, whenever there was something wonderful about her in the media, the state-controlled press carried the news with sarcasm, leveling insults at the saint and generally treating her like an abomination that the nation should be ashamed of.
So when the people, and particularly the faithful Catholics, read in the papers that Mother Teresa was consorting with the regime it a terrible blow: how could she possibly allow herself to be exploited to polish up the memory of the dead dictator?
It was only four years later, in 1993, that Marcel was to hear more of the story, from Dom Gjergji, the priest from Kosovo who had accompanied Mother Teresa on the trip home to Albania. Dom Gjergji told my friend that Mother had been invited to return to her homeland by Nexhmije Hoxha, the widow of the dictator, who hoped that the holy woman’s intercession could get rid of the unearthly phenomena that plagued her husband’s burial spot. The letter asking her to come was taken to her by Ylli Popa, one of the most faithful men of the regime, and Hoxha’s translator.
Immediately after her arrival, Dom Gjergji relates, Mother Teresa was whisked to the tomb, where she remained in prayer for quite a while. After that she was finally allowed to visit the graves of her mother and her sister, who had died in Albania in 1971 and in 1974, respectively, without her having been permitted to see them.
Was Mother Teresa’s prayer of intercession answered? Did the terrifying phenomena around the dictator’s tomb cease? So it seems, Marcel reports: since then there has been peace and quiet, by all accounts.
Subsequently the door of Albania remained open to Mother Teresa; she was even able to establish houses for the Missionaries of Charity there. Apart from the story of supernatural phenomena, her gesture of praying at the tomb of a man whose regime had caused her so much suffering is itself a testament to St. Teresa’s sanctity and capacity to forgive.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on September 9, 2016.)
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