Only one and a half hours away from Skopje is the tiny village of Letnica, Kosovo. Jingjing and I wanted to go there and continue our pilgrimage for Mother Teresa. In a little church there, she heard her calling to serve the “poorest of the poor.” Hotel Ibis in Skopje, Macedonia arranged for an English-speaking cab driver to take us to the Church of Black Madonna in the hamlet. They did not know how to do help us in Razlog, Bulgaria.
CHURCH OF BLACK MADONNA
A Black Madonna is a statue (or painting) of dark-skinned Mary, especially those created in Europe in the medieval period or earlier. There are about 450–500 Black Madonnas in the continent, at least 180 in France (5 are in the Philippines!). There are hundreds of non-medieval copies, and some are in museums, but most are in churches or shrines. A few are associated with miracles, attracting pilgrims.
One such statue carved more than 400 years ago is inside the handsome, whitewashed Catholic Church that dominates the semi-deserted Kosovo village of Letnica. Each August the tiny hamlet transforms for the Feast of the Black Madonna when thousands of pilgrims come. The picturesque village was once home to a substantial community of Croats, who abandoned this poor corner of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s wars. They return to their homes during the festival. Many others come, swelling the number to tens of thousands, setting up improvised shelters across the churchyard and the surrounding valleys.
Part of the town’s fame is due to Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, better known today as Mother Teresa. In 1928, she came to Letnica when she was 17, and, while on this pilgrimage with her parents, she decided to become a missionary and dedicate her life to charity. Also, many claim to have seen tears coming from the statue’s eyes during the festival while others have experienced miraculous cures. Some travel great distances barefoot while others carry stones in their hands or even mouths, as their predecessors have done for centuries.
THE REMNANTS OF WAR AND LITTLE ALBANIA
Kosovo borders Macedonia and Albania to the south, Montenegro to the west, and Serbia to the north and east. It was part of Serbia in the Middle Ages until the Ottoman Empire took control. With the defeat of the Ottomans late in the 19th century, parts of Kosovo were ceded to both Serbia and Montenegro. Then both countries became part of Unitarian Yugoslavia after WWI.
Long-term severe ethnic tensions between Kosovo's Albanian and Serb populations left Kosovo divided with long-standing inter-ethnic violence. The Kosovo War of 1998–99 ended with a NATO military intervention and the country became a UN protectorate. On 17 February 2008 Kosovo's Parliament declared independence and has since gained recognition as a state by 108 UN member states, but not the other 85. Serbia is one of them but it has accepted that Kosovo institutions are exclusively operated by Kosovo's government. 23 of 28 members of the EU recognize Kosovo.
We saw remnants of ethnic violence during our trip to Letnica. It was heart-breaking to see many abandoned and war-ravaged homes that dotted the countryside. But there was also great scenery with the mountains and the rivers, especially with the sun going down on the trip back. But the most interesting part of the trip was Little Albania that lies between Skopje and Letnica. There was even a landmark, a map of Albania on a berm, built by the Albanians nearer the border. Mostly Muslims, the section was dominated by mosques. And our friendly cab driver pointed out how homes within a family are duplicates of each other. They are called brothers’ homes, two, three or more at a time!
We had very little time in Skopje but the five-hour pilgrimage we made to Letnica, Kosovo was a revelation. You do not need to stay in a country for a long time to feel its pulse. And a pilgrimage does not have to be to a faraway place to be meaningful. The little church in Letnica inspired the Catholic in us and Little Albania breathed life into our search for peace in the world.