BY CHRISTIE L. CHICOINE/
The faithful of Our Lady of Shkodra, an Albanian ethnic parish in Hartsdale, gather outside the church after the 11 a.m. Mass on Aug. 21. The parish is happy about the canonization of St. Teresa of Kolkata, who was also Albanian.
The Montenegro native was referring to the Sept. 4 canonization of St. Teresa of Kolkata.
“This event brings the whole Albanian community together. As Catholics, naturally, we thank God for another saint in heaven. And it’s a time of celebration for the whole Catholic Church.”
“But for us Albanians,” Father Popaj continued, “this is also an honor for our people.”
Albania’s history tells the story, Father Popaj said, of the country’s strength amid struggles. “The people that occupied our country, they always wanted to divide the people, and change them, alienate them from one another.”
“The more they struggled,” he said of the Albanians, “the stronger they became in that unity with one another.”
“This is what Mother Teresa brings out,” Father Popaj said, “the Albanian character, being determined when she gave her word to Christ.”
“For the Albanians, to give somebody your word, it’s like giving your life. We call that in Albanian ‘besa,’” comparable, he said, to making a covenant. “It’s a trust.
“Mother Teresa was always Mother Teresa—morning, midday, midnight—and her mission never changed,” Father Popaj said.
Not only is the canonization a happy time for the Albanian people in general, the pastor said, it is an especially pleasing time for Our Lady of Shkodra parish and for the Mother Teresa Center, a cultural center located in the church basement.
The center is home to the parish’s religious education program and is used by prayer and dance groups for interfaith gatherings and as a place to organize festivals, carnivals and Albanian Heritage Day, held in June.
The parish of 2,500 registered families spans New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “Our people, they’re good people…very generous people…dedicated people, they’re wonderful,” Father Popaj said. “I’ve been blessed with these people.”
And they’re faithful. “They travel sometimes more than an hour by car—and then consider the traffic and the tolls and this and that. Nothing stops them. They come.”
Father Popaj will accompany 90 of his parishioners to Rome for the canonization through a parish pilgrimage Sept. 1-10.
“She did so much for the world and she did so much for us as Albanians. And so, this is the least we could do, go and celebrate the day of her canonization.”
That celebration “is something that really brings us closer to God, first, and also closer to her mission,” Father Popaj said. “It really inspires you to do greater works and be more dedicated to God and, especially, to the needy and the poor like she was.”
Father Popaj will serve as a concelebrant of the canonization Mass.
The priest had the pleasure of meeting Mother Teresa a number of times including shortly after he was ordained a priest in 1985. They are memories he cherishes.
Father Popaj and the late Archbishop Rrok Mirdita (then Father Mirdita, who for years ministered to Albanians in New York, including as pastor of Our Lady of Shkodra and administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel Albanian Catholic Center in the Bronx before he became archbishop of Durres-Tirana, Albania) interviewed Mother Teresa on their radio program while she was visiting the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx.
“She was naturally Mother Teresa, very nice, extremely humble, extremely simple,” Father Popaj said. During the program, she shared with them that the only prayer she said solely in Albanian was the Act of Contrition, “and she proceeded to say that in Albanian,” Father Popaj recalled.
After Father Mirdita informed St. Teresa that Father Popaj was then a newly ordained priest, “she knelt in front of me, asked me for my blessing as a newly ordained,” Father Popaj said. “And then she kissed my hands, both of them, but the palms of my hands, where the oils were, imagine,” he said of the oils from the anointing at the ordination rite.
“I was awestruck,” Father Popaj said. “I didn’t expect her to kneel, I definitely didn’t expect her to kiss both of my hands. Usually, people kiss the back of your hands, but not the palms.”
That gesture, he said, demonstrated her respect for the priesthood. “She was an inspiration for me, all the time…You just think of her mission—she had nothing and she served everybody. God provides. Let go and let God. And, always be kind to people—always. Also, to the people that don’t agree with you, you still show kindness and love to them, too.”
Those examples, from her, “helped me tremendously for my personal spiritual life and also the spirituality of a parish.”
Father Popaj has served as pastor of Our Lady of Shkodra since 1998 and served the Albanian parish as administrator, 1993-1998. He also served at the former Our Lady of Good Counsel Albanian Catholic Center in the Bronx. He was parochial vicar of Our Lady of Shkodra, Greenburgh, 1989-1993, and St. Lucy’s, the Bronx, 1985-1989.
The first time Father Popaj saw Mother Teresa in person was in 1976 when she visited his childhood parish, Our Lady of Good Counsel in the Bronx. “I was 15, 16 years old when I first encountered her. I hadn’t even started the seminary years yet,” which he began as a junior at Cathedral Prep in Manhattan.
The Mass was celebrated outdoors. “I thought I saw the presence of God in her,” Father Popaj said. “She was amazing, to me and to everybody. It was a beautiful experience.”(America’s Largest Catholic New York Newspaper)