Pride rushed through the hearts and veins of Albanian Americans as they watched Albanian President Bujar Nishani unveil a statue of St. Teresa of Calcutta in Bensonhurst last Sunday, Sept. 25.
Hundreds gathered for the ceremony at the corner of Bay Parkway and 62nd St., where the figure of the Albanian-born nun cradling a child in her arms has been installed on St. Athanasius’ parish grounds.
“Today is very special,” President Nishani said when he addressed the crowd. “Our dear mother, St. Teresa, is with us.”
Iron Will, Boundless Love
Describing her as a woman of “iron will” and “boundless love,” the Albanian president called his countrywoman “a saint of hope, of compassion, of unshakable trust in God.”
“Mother Teresa is the most precious gift that the Albanian nation has generously bestowed to all mankind,” he said.
“I’m convinced that all of you, and everyone else who lives in Brooklyn, will be inspired and take the example of the life and work of the Albanian saint.”
Joining President Nishani were Albanian community leaders who organized this effort along with State Sen. Martin Golden and Msgr. David Cassato, St. Athanasius’ pastor. Invited guests included an imam, rabbi and Orthodox priest. Also in attendance was Bronx Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj, the son of Albanian immigrants.
Albanian Presence in Bensonhurst
“There’s a strong Albanian community in Bensonhurst,” Msgr. Cassato said. “They’re Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic – and they all claim Mother Teresa. It just shows the inclusive love of God.”
Albanian Roots, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the Albanian-American community in U.S., and its president, Marko Kepi, raised funds for the statue from individuals and groups, including St. Finbar Church, Bath Beach, and provided labor for the installation.
Behind the statue, a banner was also donated that bears the saint’s image and words: “By blood, I am an Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the heart of Jesus.”
Albanian-born Shpend Koleci broke out in applause with the rest of the crowd as the figure was revealed. Although he is Muslim, he loves his native-born saint.
“She was Albanian and she was fighting for human rights,” Koleci said. “We are all proud to see her here.”
Young girls and boys attended the ceremony in customary Albanian garb, and young Julia Balaj was dressed in the signature white and blue-striped sari of Mother Teresa. Children sang and danced at a street festival after the formal program.
Albanian-born Arjana Frasheri will see the new statue every weekday as she rides the B6 bus to work. But she still wanted to be among the first to see it Sunday. She and her husband, Genci, stood on the corner for nearly an hour before the unveiling.
“This is important for us,” Genci said. “We respect her because she is from our home.”
Having lived most of their lives under communist rule, the couple says they have no particular religion, but they believe in God and they believe Mother Teresa is a saint.
“She was a small lady who had a big heart,” Arjana said. “She helped a lot of people without money.”
At morning Mass, Msgr. Cassato spoke about the impact Mother Teresa’s words and actions have had on countless people around the world, including the monsignor himself.
He recounted meeting the future saint in the Bronx, and the challenge she gave him.
“She looked at me in the eyes with her wrinkly face, handed me a medal of the Miraculous Medal, and said to me: ‘Be a good priest. Take care of God’s poor people,’” he said.
“Indeed, this is what her life was all about. She showed God’s inclusive love to all people.”
And that means everyone, Msgr. Cassato said, admitting that sometimes even he gets conflicted about giving to panhandlers, unsure if the money will go toward buying dinner or drugs. It is then that he remembers what Mother Teresa told him.
He pointed to the day’s Gospel from Luke about the rich man suffering in hell for failing to help his poor neighbor Lazarus in life, and the modern example of Facebook CEO and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who is committing $3 billion to eradicate diseases in the world today.
That is how Janice Schiavo aims to live her life. She tries to walk in the saint’s footsteps by feeding the homeless in her native Bay Ridge. She works at the local senior citizens center and hands out sandwiches to people she meets in the park.
“I believe that in this life we have to give something back,” said Schiavo, a member of Our Lady of Angels parish, who feels blessed to have seen her role model canonized in her lifetime.
“She gave an example for the whole world to follow,” added Albanian-born Musa Pacuku, a Muslim man from Staten Island, who hopes that passersby will see the statue as a “symbol” of the goodness each person is capable of achieving in the world.