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Mother Teresa: The saint and her nation, by Gëzim Alpion

15 October 2021

Bernice Martin ponders a puzzling aspect of Mother Teresa’s life

GËZIM ALPION, an Abanian sociologist, is the leading expert on Mother Teresa, but his new book is as much about Albanian identity and issues of nationalism as about the saint’s life and legacy. Alpion admits that it is not a hagiography, but says that he is not a New Atheist, hostile to religion, but “a spiritual rationalist”. Very little of the book is about why the Roman Catholic Church declared Gonhxe Agnes Bohaxiu from Skopje a saint. What interests him is her relationship, or lack of it, to her Albanian roots.

A great deal of the book covers the history of the Albanian people, now scattered across the Balkans with concentrations in Kosovo as well as in the modern Albanian state. Alpion emphasises the ready acceptance of Christianity “in apostolic times” by Albanians in what was then Illyria, and the persistence of Crypto-Christianity among many of them after coerced conversion to Islam under Ottoman rule. He claims that throughout their turbulent history, Catholic Albanians were often “a pariah people”, but, like all Albanians, were prone to make common cause with other Albanians of different faiths.

He charts the effects of Albanian independence and Serbian expansionism after the end of the Ottoman Empire and, from the later 20th century, of the collapse of communist Yugoslavia, and the renewed Balkan wars that followed. He examines the policies of the Vatican, emphasising its wooing of the Serbian Orthodox at the expense of the remnant of Albanian Catholics.

The heart of Alpion’s argument is the puzzle of why Mother Teresa’s Albanian identity seems to have been of so little importance to her, even though the Albanian State now claims her. He scours family biographies and uncovers Albanian nationalists among her paternal family, including her father, whose dramatic death when she was a child was probably the result of poisoning by his political enemies. Her maternal relatives were unusually wealthy for a peasant family, possibly through involvement in blood feuds, or even as paid killers.

Alpion believes that all this murkiness, plus her early experience of wider family bereavement, may explain her eagerness to leave nation and family at 18 for a missionary sisterhood, and, in due course, to take Indian citizenship. From the time she joined the order, the Irish Loreto Sisters treated the new novice as not fully European, and consigned her to teaching lower-status pupils in Bengali alongside the Indian staff.

At £85, this book is unlikely to attract many readers outside academe, but it tells a fascinating story that enriches the history of the modern Balkans, although readers who want more about St Teresa, including her “dark night of the soul”, might profitably consult Alpion’s other publications.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Mother Teresa: The saint and her nation
Gëzim Alpion
Bloomsbury £85
Church Times Bookshop £76.50

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