MOTHER TERESA - A Biography by Meg Greene, chapter name SKOPJE


Located in Macedonia, in a region that was formerly part of Albania, the city of Skopje was a bustling commercial center at the beginning of the twentieth century. The city, which straddles the Vardar River, rises ap- proximately 800 feet above sea level. The summers are long and dry, the winters damp, cold, and foggy. Not large by contemporary standards, Skopje had a population of 25,000 at the turn of the century.

Founded during the third century B.C. by the Dardanians, early descen- dants of modern-day Albanians from Illyna in the western Balkan Penin- sula and Thracians who lived north of ancient Greece, Skopje, then known as Skupi, later came under the control of the Romanians. By the sixth century, the area fell under the domination of a Slavic people known as the Beregheziti. It was they who gave the city its current name. By the ninth century, owing in part to the weakness of the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul in modern Turkey), Albania came under the dominion of a succession of foreign powers including the Bulgarians, Norman crusaders from France, the Angevins of southern Italy, the Venetians, and the Serbs. The Serbian oc- cupation that began in 1347 was especially hard, prompting huge numbers of Albanians to migrate to Greece and the Aegean islands.

A few decades later the Albanians confronted a new threat. The Turks expanded their empire, known as the Ottoman Empire, to include the Balkan Peninsula. Invading Albania in 1388, the Ottoman Turks, by the middle of the fifteenth century, had succeeded in occupying the entire kingdom. The Turks may have occupied the land, but they had less suc- cess governing the Albanian people. In 1443, Gjergj Kastrioti, also known as Skenderbeg, rallied the Albanian princes and drove the Turks out. For the next 25 years, operating out of a mountain stronghold, Sken- derbeg frustrated every Turkish attempt to regain Albanian territory. His brave fight against one of the mightiest powers of the time won esteem throughout the Western world, as well as securing military and financial support from the Kingdom of Naples, the papacy, Venice, and Ragusa (a province in Sicily located on the southwest side). With Skenderbeg’s death in 1468, however, Albanian resistance gradually eroded, allowing the Turks to reoccupy the kingdom by 1506, again incorporating it into the Ottoman Empire. Even after his death, however, Skenderbeg’s legacy of resistance strengthened Albanian solidarity, kept alive a sense of na- tional identity, and served as a source of inspiration in the ongoing strug- gle for national unity and independence.



The Turks established their dominion over Albania just as the Renais- sance was beginning in Italy. Turkish domination of the Balkans cut the region off from contact and exchanges with Western Europe. As a conse- quence, Albania had no chance to participate in, or benefit from, the em- phasis on human capabilities and accomplishments that characterized the Renaissance. Not only did the Balkans miss out on the Renaissance, but the Turks’ conquest of Albania also caused great suffering and vast de- struction of the economy and commerce as well as traditional art and cul- ture. To escape persecution, about one-fourth of the Albanian population fled to southern Italy, Sicily, and the northern part of the Dalmatian coast. Countless others who remained converted to Islam, the religion of the Ottoman Empire.

Although the Turks ruled Albania for more than four hundred years,

they failed to extend their authority throughout the kingdom. In the highland regions, the Turks exercised only a formal sovereignty. Beyond the reach of the government and the military, the Albanian highlanders refused to pay taxes, to serve in the army, or to surrender their weapons. They did, however, attempt to appease the Turks by offering an annual tribute to Constantinople. Even those Albanians who did fall under Turk- ish sway proved difficult to manage. They rose in rebellion time and again against their conquerors.

To quell Albanian resistance, which was motivated as much by the de- fense of Christianity as by the desire for independence, the Turks initiated a systematic effort to convert Albanians to Islam. By the end of the sev- enteenth century, approximately two-thirds of Albanians had embraced Islam. Like their counterparts who had earlier converted, these men and women became Muslims not primarily from religious conviction but to es- cape the exploitation and violence directed toward Christians. Those who refused to convert, for example, endured a crushing tax burden from which Muslims were exempt. The so-called process of Islamization aggra- vated the religious fragmentation of Albanian society, which had began during the Middle Ages. The residue of this religious division persisted into the nineteenth century when leaders of the Albanian national move- ment used the rallying cry “the religion of Albanians is Albanianism” to overcome religious division and foster a sense of national unity.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was weakening. Turkey, known as “The Sick Man of Europe,” was having trouble maintaining its hold on its many possessions. Sensing an opportu- nity to break free of Ottoman domination, the Albanians, along with other Balkan peoples, sought to attain their independence. In 1878, the leaders of the Albanian independence movement met in Prizren, a town in Kosovo, to found the Albanian League of Prizren. The league had two main goals. First, to unify Albanian territory, which the Turks had split into four provinces: Kosovo, Shkodra, Monastir, and Janina. Initially, the League of Prizren advocated not Albanian independence, but the cre- ation of an autonomous Albanian state within the Ottoman Empire. Sec- ond, the league initiated a movement to promote Albanian cultural nationalism, emphasizing a distinctly Albanian language, literature, art, and education. Although the Turks suppressed the League of Prizren in 1881, the nationalist spirit of the league lived on. Inspired by the league, Albanian leaders met in the town of Monastir in 1908 to adopt a national alphabet. Based mostly on Latin, this alphabet supplanted several others, including Arabic and Greek, then in use. It is impossible to overestimate the value of an Albanian national language to the drive for national iden- tity and independence.

In addition to repression, however, Turkish leaders promised to reform

their administration of Albania to give the Albanians greater power to determine local affairs. When in 1908, however (the same year in which the Albanians adopted a national alphabet), a group called the Young Turks, bent on modernizing and strengthening the empire, seized control of the Turkish government, they ignored previous commitments to the Albanians. Frustrated at this turn of events, Albanians took up arms and in 1912 forced the Turks, in effect, to grant Albania near independence. Alarmed at the prospect of an independent Albania, Albania’s Balkan neighbors, who had already made plans to partition the region, declared war on Turkey in October 1912. To prevent the annihilation of the country, Albanian delegates met in Vlorë and, on November 28, 1912, issued the Vlorë Proclamation in which they formally declared Albanian inde- pendence. In the midst of these ethnic, national, and religious conflicts, a child was born in Skopje who would one day try to overcome these differ- ences in order, as she said, to do God’s work on earth.



One of the most ardent nationalists in Skopje was the independent building contractor and wholesale importer of food named Nikola Bojax- hiu. The son of a large and prosperous family that had long engaged in various commercial enterprises, Bojaxhiu moved from Prizren to Skopje because of its growing reputation as a trading center. An ambitious man, Bojaxhiu quickly bought a house in Skopje and in a short time acquired a number of additional properties. Among his first ventures was supplying medicine to one of the leading doctors in town. He later went into part- nership with an Italian businessman who traded in a wide variety of goods including oil, sugar, cloth, and leather.

By all accounts, Bojaxhiu was a more-than-capable businessman; he was fluent in five languages and had traveled extensively throughout Eu- rope, the Near East, and North Africa. In addition, he was heavily in- volved in local politics, serving on the town council, and his contracting firm helped to build the first movie theater in Skopje. A patron of the arts, Bojaxhiu was also a faithful member of the local Roman Catholic Church. In time, Bojaxhiu took a wife, marrying Dranafile Bernai in Prizren, the city in which the Albanian League was created and where Bojaxhiu had once lived. The couple soon returned to Skopje, settling into a spacious house with a large garden. Before long, Dranafile gave birth to three chil- dren: a daughter, Aga, was born in 1904; a son, Lazar, followed in 1907. On August 26, 1910, the couple welcomed their second daughter and last child, Agnes Gonxha. A day later, on August 27, Gonxha, which means “flower bud” in Albanian, was baptized at the local Catholic Church.

As an adult, Gonxha spoke little of her childhood, saying only that it had been pleasant. What information there is about her early life comes from her brother, Lazar, who, in describing their childhood together, also remembered it as carefree and peaceful. Although a strict discipli- narian, Nikola also took special delight in his children. Rarely did a day pass when they did not eagerly await his return home, and he often brought them trinkets as a token of his fatherly affection. Bojaxhiu also entertained his children, for he had a talent for storytelling, and re- counted for them the sights he had seen and the people he had met on his travels. Then, too, the Bojaxhiu household was often crowded with the visitors who regularly stopped by to talk business or politics with Nikola.

Drana Bojaxhiu, or Nana Loke (“Mother Soul”), as the children called her, was a traditional Albanian housewife who looked after her husband and children. During the day, she cooked, cleaned, and mended clothing. As soon as Nikola returned home, though, all work stopped. Drana put on a clean dress, combed her hair, and made sure the children were present- able to greet their father.

Like her husband, Drana was a stern taskmaster and had little patience with foolish behavior. One of the few stories that Gonxha told about her early life illustrated her mother’s attitude toward what she considered fri- volity. One evening as the children were chattering, their conversation grew sillier. Drana listened but said nothing. At last she left the room and turned off the main electric switch, plunging the house into darkness. Gonxha concluded: “She told us that there was no use wasting electricity so that such foolishness could go on.”1 Drana passed this trait on to her youngest daughter; as an adult, Mother Teresa objected to wasted time and wasted words.

Agnes Gonxha resembled her mother in other ways. A bit plump like Drana, Agnes also had her mother’s oval face and distinctive nose; she was unmistakably her mother’s daughter. Her brother recalled that Gonxha was also generous and helpful, even though her behavior some- times got her into trouble. Gonxha, for instance, helped Lazar to scale the cupboard and steal their mother’s jam or desserts. Needless to say, Drana did not approve.



All the Bojaxhiu children learned early the idea “Faith and Father- land,” or “Fe Y Atdhe.” This ideal became deeply embedded in their thinking, and remained strong throughout their childhood. The strong nationalist pride of the Albanian people, personified in their father, Nikola Bojaxhiu, became a constant in their lives. Lazar remembered his father telling him and his sisters never to forget whose children they were and from what background they came. Besides opening his home to polit- ical discussion, Nikola also provided financial assistance to the cause of Albanian independence. November 28, 1912, when Gonxha was only two years old, marked a joyous day in the Bojaxhiu household. On that day the Albanians declared their independence, and Nikola and other pa- triots played and danced well into the night.



Nikola may have passed on to his children a sense of ethnic identity and nationalist pride; however, it was Drana who nurtured the children’s spiritual growth. Almost every evening, the Bojaxhiu family gathered in the living room to recite the rosary. Drana also oversaw the children’s evening prayers. A devout Catholic who went to Mass almost every day, Drana not only made sure her children practiced their religion but also in- corporated it into their everyday lives. This was easier said than done. The Roman Catholic community in Albania was small; fewer than 10 percent of the population declared themselves Roman Catholic. Al- though few in number, the Roman Catholic community in Skopje and throughout Albania was close-knit.

Not only did Drana practice religious devotion, she also believed deeply in the spiritual value of good works. She was always available to help those in need. In this practice, her husband supported her and Gonxha aided her. On any given day, Nikola left with Drana enough money to help the poor children or adults who came to the house. Com- monly, the less fortunate not only received a hand out from the Bojaxhiu family, but also took meals with them, reminding the children that the needy were also part of their larger human family. “Some of them are our relations,” Drana once told her children, “but all of them are our people.”2 One of the strongest of Lazar’s memories is of his mother taking in a woman stricken with a tumor and nursing her back to health. Besides tak- ing strangers into her home, Drana visited the poor in theirs, taking them food, money, and medicine. On these occasions, Gonxha often accompa- nied her mother, helping her as she made her way from family to family of- fering both spiritual and material comfort. Drana’s Christian charity offered a powerful example, helping to mold Gonxha’s spiritual life and to shape her destiny.

When the time came for the children to begin school, they attended classes held in Sacred Heart Church. For four years, the Bojaxhiu children studied in the Albanian language. At the fifth year, they began to learn in Serbo-Croatian. Upon leaving the church school, the children went to public schools where all the instruction was given in Serbo-Croatian. Early on, Gonxha distinguished herself as a gifted and disciplined student.



Nikola’s participation in Albanian politics continued even after inde- pendence. When, in 1919, Albanian leaders tried to acquire Kosovo, Nikola traveled to a political gathering in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. While at- tending a banquet, Nikola fell seriously ill. Alarmed at her husband’s condition, Drana sent Gonxha to find the parish priest. He was not at home. Growing more desperate and not knowing what to do, Gonxha went to the Skopje railway station hoping to find a priest. Luck was with her. She did locate a priest who agreed to see her father. The situation was grave. Nikola was dying. The priest arrived at his bedside in time to administer Extreme Unction, today known as the Sacrament of the Sick, which Catholics receive when they are expected to die. Just as the priest finished performing the rite, Nikola began to hemorrhage (bleed internally) and was rushed to the hospital. Emergency surgery failed to save him. Gonxha’s robust and outgoing father was dead at the age of 45. The doc- tors and family were convinced that his political enemies had poisoned him, though no conclusive evidence ever emerged to prove the allegation.

Overnight, life in the Bojaxhiu household changed. Following Nikola’s death, his partner took over the business and left nothing for the family. In addition, even though Drana had the right to estates that her family owned, she had no documents to prove her claim, nor did she have the time, inclination, energy, or money to pursue the matter through the courts. Only the family home remained.

Nikola’s death devastated his wife; Drana fell into deep, prolonged, and often incapacitating grief. Responsibility for the younger children fell in- creasingly on the shoulders of the oldest, Aga. After several months, Drana began to emerge from her mourning. At least the family had a place to live, though Drana wondered how, with her husband’s resources gone, she could provide for her children.



Fortunately, Drana Bojaxhiu was possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit and soon set about rebuilding her life and supporting her children. She handcrafted embroidery and was soon not only selling her handiwork, but marketing the various types of cloth and carpets for which Skopje was fa- mous. Lazar remembered accompanying his mother to the textile factories where Drana met with the managers who sought her advice on designs and materials to boost sales.

As the family’s financial status improved, the Bojaxhiu household once more became a place where the poor could come for a meal and some- times a bed. As soon as she could, Drana again began to set aside money to help those in need and, despite her busy schedule, still found time to visit the poor. At least once a week she called on an elderly woman whose own family had abandoned her. File, a poor alcoholic woman, also benefited from Drana’s care and largess. Six orphan children came to live in the house. Drana continued to impress upon her children the importance of helping the less fortunate. When you do good, she told the children, do it quietly, without calling attention to your own virtue.

Drana always found creative ways in which to instruct her children. Summoning them one day, she asked them to inspect a basket in which a number of good apples rested. She then placed a rotten apple in the bas- ket and covered it. The following day, she had the children inspect the apples. They discovered that many of the apples, so luscious the day be- fore, were now beginning to rot. The moral was simple but profound: it takes only one corrupt person to corrupt many others. She then reminded her children to stay clear of bad company lest they suffer the same fate as the good apples in the basket. Drana’s influence on her children was ex- traordinary, especially after their father’s death. Despite her need to work and manage a business, and despite her devotion to the poor, Drana still spent time with her children, who benefited immeasurably from her guid- ance. So powerful was Drana’s presence that Gonxha recalled “Home is where the mother is.”3



As the children grew older, Drana insisted that they become more in- volved in the activities of their local parish church. Besides her mother, the Sacred Heart church exercised the most influence on young Gonxha. The church was not only important for its religious teaching, but, as a center of Albanian culture and identity, also reinforced the nationalism of the Bojaxhiu family.

Of the three children, Gonxha most readily became involved with the church. She early showed a tendency for religious devotion. When she learned to play the mandolin, it was the church to which she offered her talent. Along with her sister, Aga, Gonxha joined the choir; together the girls earned a reputation for their clear voices and frequently sang solos. “I was only twelve years old.. . when I first felt the desire to become a nun,” Mother Teresa recalled.4 Much beyond that information, she re- vealed little about the circumstances that prompted her vocation. Throughout her life, Mother Teresa maintained that her religious experi- ence was private. She would not discuss it. What made her calling ex- traordinary was that at age 12 Gonxha had never seen a nun. Yet, her desire to pursue a religious life did not come as a surprise to her mother. Of her three children, Gonxha suffered from the poorest health with a chronic cough and weak chest. Drana believed that if her youngest was not the first to die, she would be called to God in another way. Although at 12 Gonxha believed she had received her life’s calling, she did nothing more about it. For the next six years, she continued her schooling and par- ticipated in church activities. There was, for the moment, no more talk about becoming a nun.



Father Franjo Jambrekovic, a young Jesuit priest of Croatian descent, arrived at the Sacred Heart parish in 1925. He was destined to exert a great influence on Gonxha. Among the many innovations that Father Jambrekovic carried out was the introduction of a parish library in which Gonxha soon passed countless hours reading. Father Jambrekovic also es- tablished the Sodality of Children of Mary, a Catholic organization for young girls that the Jesuits had created. Gonxha joined. Finally, Father Jambrekovic started a Catholic youth group that sponsored walks, parties, concerts, and other outings for the boys and girls of the parish.

Most important for Gonxha, Father Jambrekovic passed on to the members of Sacred Heart news of the missionary efforts that the Jesuits had undertaken. In 1924, he explained, a group of Yugoslav Jesuits had gone to Bengal, India. From their outpost, the missionaries wrote impas- sioned letters describing the horrible conditions under which the poor and the infirm lived. Father Jambrekovic read some of these letters to in- terested parishioners. On occasion, a missionary came to Sacred Heart to discuss the Jesuits’ work in India and to solicit donations. Father Jam- brekovic was enthusiastic in his support of these efforts, and spoke often about them. Gonxha assisted by pointing out to the younger children the location of India on a world map. After the arrival of Father Jambrekovic, she also became more active in the prayer groups of the sodality, which of- fered prayers for the success of Catholic missions. She told a cousin who was earning extra money by giving mandolin lessons to send the money to the poor in India.

The zeal with which Father Jambrekovic spoke of the Jesuit missions in India sparked a renewed sense of devotion in Gonxha. She was already immersed in church activities, singing in the choir, helping to organize parish festivals, and teaching the younger children their catechism. Her love of teaching and her deep religious fervor prompted her to consider the possibility of doing missionary work. As a young girl, she had dreamed of working with the poor of Africa. The more she heard about the mis- sions in India, however, the more she was drawn to the possibility of work- ing there.



By the late 1920s, Gonxha had grown into an attractive young woman, mature beyond her years. A good student, neat and clean in appearance, self-disciplined, and well organized, she had already earned a reputation in the community for her friendliness and willingness to help anyone. Like her mother, she cared for anyone in need.

But Gonxha was struggling with her decision to become a nun. A gifted writer and poet, she often carried a small notebook with her in which to record her poetry and reflections. She continued to play music with her friends and, at times, entertained thoughts of becoming a writer or a mu- sician. Many of her friends regretted that she did not pursue these careers, for her talent was unquestioned.

Trying to decide what do to with her life, Gonxha turned to Father Jambrekovic for advice. During their discussions, she asked how one knew whether the calling to serve God was genuine. Father Jambrekovic ex- plained that if one was truly called, that person would feel such deep joy at the decision that there could be little doubt. In later years, Mother Teresa acknowledged that there was no doubt in her mind about her deci- sion, stating simply that God had made the choice for her.

By 1928, when she was 18, Gonxha was spending more time at the shrine of the Madonna of Letnice, located a short distance from Skopje on the slopes of Black Mountain. There she prayed for guidance. The place had a special meaning to Gonxha. Among the highlights of the parish year was the annual pilgrimage to the chapel of the Madonna. When Nikola was alive, the family often made the journey in a horse- drawn carriage, joining many others on their pilgrimage. After her hus- band died, Drana made the journey twice a year: once with a group and once alone and on foot. Gonxha had always looked forward to this trip, but because of her health, Drana sometimes kept her at home. It was at the Shrine of the Madonna that Gonxha sought affirmation of her deci- sion to become a nun.

One day, after returning home from a visit to the shrine, Gonxha informed her mother that she had made up her mind to become a nun. Be- cause of her interest in missionary work, she intended to apply to the order of the Loreto Sisters, an Irish branch of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary who worked with the Jesuits in Bengal. Drana shut herself in her room. When she came out the next day, she gave her daughter her blessing, but also warned her that in choosing to become a nun, she must turn her life over to God without doubt, without fear, without hesitation, and without remorse.

By this time, Gonxha’s brother, Lazar, had been away from home for several years, attending school in Austria and then later joining the newly formed Albanian army as a Second Lieutenant. When Lazar received the news of his younger sister’s decision to become a nun, he wrote to her ask- ing whether she was sure about her decision. Gonxha replied, “You think you are important because you are an officer serving a king with two mil- lion subjects. But I am serving the King of the whole world.”5

All too soon, the time came for Gonxha to leave. She was to travel first to Paris, where the Mother Superior of the Loreto Sisters was to interview her to determine whether Gonxha was acceptable to the order. On Au- gust 15, 1928, the Feast of the Assumption, Gonxha traveled for the last time to the shrine of the Madonna of Letnice. Later, she attended a con- cert by the Sodality group, which was given partly to honor her, and had her photograph taken. That evening, guests came to the Bojaxhiu home to wish her farewell. Many of her friends and family brought gifts; one of those she most treasured was a gold fountain pen that a cousin gave to her. The next day, Gonxha went to the Skopje railway station. Her mother and sister traveled with her as far as Zagreb; friends gathered to wish the Bojaxhiu women a safe journey. Gonxha cried and waved her handker- chief from the train window in farewell. The threesome made the most of their time in Zagreb. Finally, on October 8, Gonxha, accompanied by an- other young woman, Betika Kanjc, who also hoped to join the Loreto Sis- ters, boarded the train to Paris. As Gonxha made her way to the train, her mother and sister returned to Skopje. Waving goodbye, Gonxha bid farewell to her mother, whom she never saw again.



  1. Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa—The Spirit and the Work(New York: Image Books, 1986), p. 9.
  2. Kathryn Spink, Mother Teresa(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1997), pp. 6–7.
  3. Spink, Mother Teresa,p. 6.
  4. Navin Chawla, Mother Teresa: The Authorized Biography(Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1992), p. 3.
  5. Spink, Mother Teresa,p. 11.