TIRANA, Albania — Sitting on the steps outside St. Marie’s church after mass in this capital city, 12-year-old Tereza Njebza notes that she was born on Oct. 19, 2003, the day that Mother Teresa — who has Albanian roots — was beatified as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Her father named her after Mother Teresa, who officially becomes Saint Teresa of Calcutta on Sunday. When Tereza was younger, some use to call her Mother Teresa. "I didn't like it at first," she said. "Now I embrace it.”
Mother Teresa, whose parents were ethnic Albanians, visited this Balkan nation in 1991. It was just after the fall of Communism, a dark period that saw all religions banned under former dictator Enver Hoxha. Today, religion of all faiths flourishes in the country, which is majority Muslim, and its youth barely remember the days when people prayed in secret and only spoke about religious figures in whispers.
As Pope Francis prepares to make Mother Teresa a saint at the Vatican, people in her ancestral homeland are celebrating their most famous daughter with Albanian roots.
"She made Albanians really proud. And because it's getting really talked about, Albanians are going to be talked about even more now," Tereza said. "It's not that she just got famous, but she also helped lots and lots of people and that's good, too."
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Mother Teresa's parents are from what is today Kosovo. She was born as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, the former capital of the Kosovo Vilayet during the Ottoman Empire and today’s capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Mother Teresa’s dedication to helping the poor has left an imprint on her fellow Albanians of all faiths throughout the Balkans.
In Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians make up 93% of its 1.8 million citizens, locals said they were thrilled over her sainthood.
"I am a Muslim, and I am proud of her because she's done so much for so many people and she made history," said Mimoza Xhemshiti, 29, an Albanian Kosovar and translator, as he stopped on Bulevardi Nënë Tereza (Mother Teresa Boulevard) in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. "That's what makes us, maybe, better people."
A few hundred feet away in Pristina is the Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa. Built in 2007, it is still under construction. But that hasn’t stopped people from visiting or attending mass there.
Astrit Dedaj, 26, is an Albanian Kosovar and student who volunteers at the church by guiding visitors to the bell tower for panoramic views of Pristina. He thinks Mother Teresa's sainthood is remarkable.
“It's the most beautiful thing that can happen to Albanians during these last years or even these last centuries because Mother Teresa represents not only the Albanian nation but she also represents all the women of the world," he said. "She showed that the world can provide great love equally to all people.”
There are few people who knew Mother Teresa as well as the Rev. Lush Gjergji, a Catholic priest from Kosovo who was her close friend for 29 years. He has written 15 books about her life.
He recalled speaking to her and discovering that she loved one of the songs sung in Albanian dedicated to the church’s Black Madonna statue in Letnica. That is the village in southern Kosovo where she spent her childhood summers and heard her calling in 1928, and which is famous for the more than 400-year-old wood statue.
Mother Teresa translated that song into English and taught it to the nuns in Calcutta, where she lived and worked for nearly 70 years. Gjergji said he heard the song while attending mass in Calcutta and told Mother Teresa how moved he was to hear it sung in India.
Gjergji also fondly remembered the last time he saw Mother Teresa, just a few months before she died in 1997 in Calcutta, India, just shy of her 87th birthday.
The priest met her in Rome and noticed that she was losing weight. He asked her how she was feeling. He said she replied: "Fine, I do not have time to grow old and die because God asks for a lot of work from me."