Apostles to a Martyred Land

By Janice McLaughlin, MM

Three Maryknoll Sisters arrived in Albania to begin the congregation’s first mission outreach to Eastern Europe. Sisters Winifred O’Donnell, Vivian Vortuba and Lourdes Fernandez are following the footsteps of St. Paul, the first apostle to Illyricum, as Albania was known in early days of the Church.
(Romans 15:19).

The poorest country in Europe, Albania, suffered immense deprivation under one of the world’s harshest communist regimes. All religions were banned under President Enver Hoxha, who declared Albania the world’s first officially atheist state. All but 29 of the country’s 195 Catholics priests were executed or died in prison; church buildings were turned into theaters and sports places; clergy and religious could not be trained or function in any public way.

Turks and Italians

Ruled by the Turks since the 15th century, Albania did not gain its independence until 1912. But its liberty was short lived, it became an Italian protectorate in 1927 and was annexed by Mussolini’s forces in 1939. After World War II, Hoxha seized power and ruled the country with an iron fist until his death in 1985. Since then, Albania has switched from communism to democracy, opening the doors to religious freedom in 1990.

50 Years Experience

The three Maryknoll Pioneers are well equipped for the challenges that lie ahead. O’Donnell, from Sedalia, Mo., brings with her nearly 50 years of experience in teaching and school administration in Hawaii, Japan and most recently in mainland China.

Comparing china and Albania, she says, “Both peoples have endured 40 or more years under communism where ‘the Party’ is all important but the individual is nothing.” She hopes to heal the scars left by Albania’s system.

Vortuba, a native of Duluth, Minn., views her new assignment as a return to her roots since one of her grandfathers came from Central Europe’s Czech Republic. “He brought the faith to us,” she said. “Let me go back and share it.”

First Maryknoll Doctor

Vortuba was the first Maryknoll Sister to be trained as a doctor. She used her healing skills for almost 40 years among both urban and rural poor Bolivia, Peru and Nigeria. Later she worked in a hospital on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico and in a pastoral program for poor sharecroppers in Rosedale, Missippi.

Age No Problem

Both O’Donnell and Vortuba are in their 70’s but see age as no deterrent in their ministry. “As long as you can keep learning you’re OK,” says Vortuba, Maybe I’ll celebrate my 80th birthday in Albania,” she announces with a twinkle in her eye.

The Filipina

The third and youngest member of the team, Sister Lourdes Fernandez, 52 from Ramon Isabela in the Philippines, also radiates energy and enthusiasm for this new venture. “The more I learn about Albania – its history and its people – the more do I relish serving there,” she says.

The oldest of the seven children, Fernandez was educated in the Philippines and taught elementary school her before joining Maryknoll in 1967. She served first in Hawaii and then in Hong Kong, where she co-founded the International Worker’s Formation Program at Kwun Tong Pastoral Center. For the past three years, Fernandez served in the Maryknoll Sisters Communications Office in Ossining. “The Good News within me moves me to nourish Albania’s newly found freedom,” the Maryknoll missioner says.