In 1967, communist dictator Enver Hoxha proclaimed Albania the world’s first atheist state. Under his regime, all forms of worship were banned in the Balkan country. Many believers, including religious leaders, were arrested and/or executed. Houses of worship were turned into warehouses and movie theaters.
But, as often happens, persecution merely served to drive the faith community underground, where it thrived.
One example of that was the life of Sister Marije Kaleta, a Franciscan Stigmatine nun from the north of Albania. Her uncle, a priest, encouraged her to enter the convent in the 1940s, years before Hoxha came to power, when the nation’s Muslim majority and Christian minorities were still able to practice freely and live in peace. But Sister Marije wasn’t able to profess her final vows before authorities closed her convent and sent her home to live with her parents.
That did not stop her from living out her life of evangelism. Sister Marije ended up secretly baptizing children and providing Communion to Catholics in hiding, especially the sick and dying.
Sister Marije Kaleta died January 2 in her convent in Shkodër, in northern Albania, Catholic News Agency reported. She was 92.
Her secret life had come to light in 2014, when Pope Francis made a one-day trip to Albania. As the Pope met with priests, religious, seminarians and members of ecclesial lay movements at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Tirana, Albania’s capital, Sister Marije recounted how, during the persecution, she learned “to keep the faith alive in the hearts of the faithful, although secretly.”
Secret Christians within the Communist party
Apparently, her secret got out, because one day she was approached by a woman she knew to be a communist. The woman had a baby girl in her arms and “came running towards me and asked me to baptize her,” the nun recounted. Cautious that it could be a trap, she told the woman she “didn’t have anything to baptize her with because we were on the road, but she expressed so much desire that she told me there was a canal with water nearby.”
“I told her I didn’t have anything to collect the water with, but she insisted that I baptize that child, and seeing her faith, I took off my shoe, which was made of plastic, and I filled it with water from the canal and baptized her,” Sister Marije said during the meeting with Pope Francis.
As was often the case in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, even members of the Communist Party could be secret Christians who wanted the sacraments for their children.
Sister Marije also related how, thanks to the consent of underground priests, she kept the Blessed Sacrament in a cabinet at home and brought it to the sick and dying.
“When I think of it, I wonder how we were able to endure such terrible sufferings, but I know the Lord gave us strength, patience and hope,” she told the Pope (at about the 1 hour 14 minute mark in the video below). “The Lord gave strength to those He called, in fact he has repaid me from all my sufferings here on earth.”
She added that after the Communist regime fell in the early 1990s and the churches were reopened, she was able to return to religious life, fulfilling a desire “shared by so many other priests and sisters.”