Prishtina, August 11 2013 —Dust, shoe prints, electric cords, wood boards, piles of dirt, slates of marble yet to be laid, and bottles of empty water sporadically cover the smooth, light gray and white marble floors in Mother Teresa Cathedral. Construction has been underway for five years, and it will be many years before it is completed.
Thick wooden doors stand three stories tall. But its expansive floor and tall doors are more than just wood and stone; they represent something much bigger.
“The main goal is to create a church which opens its door and its heart to everyone, following Mother Teresa’s example,” said General Vicar Don Lush Gjergji. “She joined people from different religions whether Buddhist or Muslims or Jewish or Christians or atheist. She brought them all together, and we want to follow that.”
Don Gjergji isn’t physically large — he stands 163 cm tall— but presence is felt in any room. His sway is born of humility, but also from the calm strength in his voice when he talks about his experiences.
Don Gjergji said that during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo, a major from the Serbian army approached him after midnight and threatened his life. The major said he suspected Gjergji of hiding KLA soldiers and guns in his church.
“I had three things wrong with me,” said Don Gjergji. “I was Albanian, I was Catholic, and I was alive.”
Don Gjergi’s eyes filled with tears as he recounted the memory. He took a moment to wipe his eyes with a white handkerchief, then continued recounting the story.
He recalled that he assured the Serbian major that he was not hiding soldiers. He took the Army officer to the basement of the church and showed him 35 children, the youngest of whom was two months old.
“I told the major, ‘If you think that these children under 19, orphans, all of them without parents, being sheltered by me during bombings,’” Don Gjergji’s strong voice wavered and tears rolled down his cheeks. He paused. “— If you believe these are members of the army, then yes, I am their leader.”
Don Gjergji said three nights later the major returned with cookies and bags of candy.
“It is this damn war that is bringing us in situations like this,” Don Gjergji recalled the major saying. “Because you never did anything to me and I never did anything to you, but all this is happening simply because of war.”
Don Gjergji has written 16 books on Mother Teresa, the beatified nun who devoted her life to helping people in extreme poverty. He knew her for 29 years, through many opportunities to travel with her.
Born in Skopje, Macedonia, she lived most of her childhood in Prizren, Don Gjergji said, and “devoted herself to God” in Letnica.
He said his “deep admiration” of her vision to love every person “regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or socioeconomic status” is exactly why they are naming the cathedral after her.
“She was a prophet of our time,” said Don Gjergji. “I do not admire her because she was an Albanian or Catholic, but because her vision was truly great.”
The design of the Cathedral and its huge dimensions might seem counter to Mother Teresa’s life of humble service, but they do reflect her boundless compassion and the enormity of her influence.
Inside the sanctuary, when visitors lift their eyes toward heaven, they see enormous, wooden trusses supporting a vaulted ceiling, 10 stories high. Construction workers, at their tasks high on the walls, are dwarfed by the scale of the ceiling.
Each of the 56 columns has three to four rounded marble pillars around them, but all are unfinished, built about 2 meters high.
The 40-meter long area reserved for the pews, called “the ship,” will be able to seat about 1,200 people. It ends at a set of scaffolding which reaches to the ceiling, where a worker drew gallons of paint to the top through a lever and pulley system.
Painter Ardian Zetëfi has been working inside the cathedral for a year. His green shirt had many splotches of grey paint.
“I have no idea when I think this will all be finished,” said Zetëfi ,as he uncrossed his arms and motioned around the cathedral. “A few years.”
Until the cathedral is ready for masses to be held, Catholics continue to attend St. Anthony’s Church, which can seat about 400 worshippers and often accommodates another 100 who stand during the services.
According to Don Gjergji, the building of the cathedral has cost 5 million euros so far, and depending on how much the decorations and 19 stained glass windows will cost, they could spend another 2 million euros.
He explained the cathedral will be funded primarily through Kosovar citizens, who donated 80 percent of the 5 million euros, while 20 percent came from outside Kosovo. He hopes the cathedral will be completed within another five years.
The cathedral will be blessed and a mass held on September 5, the 1,700-year anniversary of the Edict of Milan, which was a decision by Emperor Constantine for Christians to be able to have “free and unrestricted opportunity for religious worship” in 313 A.D.
More than1,000 worshippers will be let inside for the mass, and it will be a part of a three-day ceremony that includes tours of the cathedral on September 3 and a philharmonic concert on September 4.
Until then, and for years afterward, the painted but undecorated walls. of the cathedaral will continue to echo with the voices of workers, shouting instructions to each other.
In a portion of the cathedral that forms a clover-shaped area called “the Presbyterian,” sits a gradually ascending, unfinished altar.
The screeching sound of an electric saw meeting marble reverberated within the cavernous cathedral. Arton Emimi kneeled on his kneepads and slowly cut along the rounded edge of the marble slate to make a perfect fit. Grey dust rose around him, illuminated by the sun from two large, clear windows.
Emimi and Naser Ismajli have been working with marble and granite stone on the altar for three months with “Paradiso,” the company they work for. They are Muslims, and think the altar will be finished in a couple weeks.
“Religion is not important, in this instance. I feel very proud that I have taken part in constructing the cathedral, because these kinds of cathedrals usually last for thousands of years,” said Ismajli with a huge smile. “It is an important part of our history. Lots of people will visit this place, and I help build it.”
Mother Teresa Cathedral is in the heart of Prishtina thanks to a promise from Kosovo’s first president, Ibrahim Rugova, who was dedicated to a country of religious tolerance.
The structure’s 80-meter-high clock tower (more than 24 stories) is the highest point in Prishtina., and another tower will be eventually be added.
Dardan Dodaj, the architect who oversees the construction, stood in a clean, stripped shirt tucked into blue jeans. as he watched the work progress.
“This will serve as an object of peace for all Kosovars,” said Dodaj. “This place will stabilize because it will have a youth center for all youth, no differences in religion or anything else.”
Dodaj said that the youth center in the basement will be focused mainly on culture, including music and art.
Don Gjergji said he hopes the center helps “to develop and an opportunity for a joint culture,” whether or not it is spiritual, and that its displays of culture will be open to all people in Kosovo.
He added that the center further displays Mother Teresa’s ability to talk with anyone, and thinks dialogue between different faiths and people groups is crucial to unification.
Don Gjergji said people constantly ask him if Mother Teresa’s final resting place will be at the Cathedral. He said “that might happen but that is not the important part…her soul is with us,” so we should follow her example.
At the top of the clock tower, the wind roars. The expanse of the city spreads out in all directions, and the mountains in the background are clearly visible.
The congested roofs of red-brown houses and grey, concrete buildings naturally draw the eye to open spaces of land, especially those with grass. Nothing sticks out more than the University of Prishtina Library and the unfinished, abandoned Serbian Orthodox church next to it.
“Right now, we are going to have to accept our own differences to unite,” said Don Gjerji. “We need to unite with each other, because that will bring our differences out, but it will also enrich us and complete us if we find ourselves in unity.”
(Ian Joyce is a reporting intern with KosovaLive in collaboration with Miami University in the United States)
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