The Albanian Reality
Albania is the only country in history to declare itself atheist. This means that belief in God was a crime against the state, punishable, to say the least, by death or hard labour for life in prison.
It was only in the early nineties, with the downfall of the communist dictatorship, the last one to collapse in Europe, that he doors were open to foreigners. For almost half a century, the country was completely isolated from the rest of the world.
Giving back Religious Freedom
The first Catholic missionary to enter Albania was Blessed Mother Theresa of Culcutta, who is of ethnic Albanian origin. With her, she introduced her sisters and Fr Gary Walsh, a Canadian Catholic priest whom she had met in India. On 25th March 1992 he opened a house in Korçë, the third one in Albania, with Fr Gary as the spiritual director of her sisters there. Immediately curious people started to attend Mass and the first baptisms were held on Christmas day of 1992. A small Catholic community was born.
Our Society was the second missionary group to establish itself in Korçë, on 6th April 1993. The idea had originally came to Mgr Philip Calleja, chairman of SOS Albania, who invited the Society to open and run an English-speaking middle high school, following the signing of an agreement with the mayor. As a result, three of our members were sent to start this ambitious mission. On 27th September 1993, Preca College (Kolegji Preka) www.precacollege.org opened its doors to its first intake of fifty students.
The school, whose aim is to prepare students on European standards of education, was an immediate success. Today, 15 years later, the school has gained a good reputation not only in Albania but also in universities within and outside Albania, mostly in Greece, Italy and the USA. More than fifty percent of the students who graduated from our school are studying today in America, Greece, Malta and other countries, and most of them are achieving excellent results.
We are aware of the importance of educating the person as a whole. Thus we do not concentrate only on the academic aspect of education, but are always keen to form our students’ characters, basing ourselves on good human values, which are, after all, Christian. We think we have also been quite successful in this regard, as most of the letters we receive from our old students reveal.
The SDC Centre
Opening a Centre of our Society was a priority from the very beginning. However, this was not possible before we learnt the language and built an appropriate house. In the meantime much preparatory work was carried out: we acquainted ourselves with the people, we gave catechism lessons to those who were preparing themselves to receive Confirmation and we even prepared some adults for Baptism.
Early in 1995 our residence was ready, and so on 19th March of the same year we formally opened our centre, setting up two classes and having lessons on weekdays with an outing on Sundays. Presently we have three classes in our Centre and two other classes in the school which we use as a second centre to cater for children and adolescents who live on the other side of the city.
Most of the boys who attend are not baptised Catholics, as they come from an atheistic environment, yet the fulfilment we feel while working with them is great. One can clearly see them grow as human persons by learning how to better communicate with each other and with foreigners. Some even manage to understand the English language quite well. Our centre is a hive of evangelisation and catechesis, as well as of human promotion and socialisation.
The riots of 1997
In the early months of 1997 riots broke out throughout the country, as a result of the collapse of the pyramid schemes. People were promised to be given an interest of 100% after three months if they invested their money in these schemes. In the beginning small sums of money were invested and the promised interests were returned. Later people grew more daring and invested bigger sums. Some even sold their houses in order to invest the biggest sum of money they could possibly procure. Then, in January 1997, everything collapsed.
One can imagine how badly this catastrophe hurt the people, who were already very poor. Full of despair and anger, they broke out in anarchy. It was at this time, in March 1997, that our residence and the school were attacked and looted. We had to run away to Greece. After, when we learnt that all our belongings had been stolen, we went to Malta and had to stay there for seven months.
In June, three Members returned to Korce in order to carry out the annual examinations to the students. We were especially concerned with the fourth-formers who needed the school-leaving certificate in order to graduate and be able to enter university.
We returned to Korce on 5th October 1997 in order to re-open the school. It was no easy task but we found much support from the parents and the staff of the college. Things are now back to normal and democracy has given way to dictatorship. Albania is now also an aspiring country to join the European Union.
It is good to know that Korce is not a Catholic city. The majority are Orthodox Christians or Muslims; subsequently, our catechetical activity in Korce cannot be very thriving. The north of Albania is of Catholic tradition which can prove to be much more fertile ground for us, although our Society is not short of challenges and opportunities. Hopefully the SDC will never be short of Members who volunteer to make these opportunities come true.