Originally created 02/03/01

In good faith

Dec. 3, 1995, is a day Ted Hochstatter will always remember.

Kneeling before Mother Teresa, with his hands in hers, he pledged the vow she asked of members of her order.

He promised "whole-hearted, free service to the poorest of the poor," to take no salary, keep no savings, have nothing of his own.

The Rev. Hochstatter, 51, is a missionary priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., and affiliated with the Missionaries of Charity, the order Mother Teresa started.

He visits Augusta and the Alleluia Community between assignments. A priest friend introduced him to the community, a multidenominational Christian fellowship, after a mission tour to Albania in the 1990s.

He found he enjoyed "the family life and the spirit" in Alleluia, he said. "This was a wonderful place for me to rejuvenate and recuperate."

He has returned several times, and while visiting he helps out at Augusta-area parishes.

He is typically all in black except for his Roman collar and the light-colored socks visible through his brown sandals, which he wears even in winter. His faded fleece jacket seems a tad lightweight for the weather. "People in Augusta don't know what cold is," said the Rev. Hochstatter.

He knows all about cold from growing up in north-central Illinois, on a farm outside of Mendota, population 7,000.

His brother now farms the same 240 acres his father and grandfather did. They never owned the land but were renters, raising corn, beans, oats, cows, pigs and chickens. "My father called it the all-American farm," he said.

He also experienced the cold during his ministry in the Albanian Alps, where he served a parish of 10,000 people scattered over remote mountains from 1993 to 1995. It was an assignment Mother Teresa gave him.

It was hard for her to get priests to go there. The language is very difficult and the life very rough, but Albania was her home country. She was anxious to set up religious houses there after communism fell, he said. "The whole country was in bad shape. I worked in the poorest part."

He made his headquarters in the village of Breglumi. "It means `by the river,"' he said. It was a place without stores, doctors or clinics.

His living space, a converted storage area, was the size of a large closet, located upstairs in a former police station. When he moved in, he brought a cot, blanket, broom and dustpan with him. "When they saw I had a dustpan, they used the word in Albanian `modern, oh, modern.' A dustpan was considered modern," he said.

If he needed water for drinking, bathing or cleaning, he had to carry it up. Houses had no running water, bathrooms or telephones.

His quarters also served as an office. Though the roof regularly leaked, he managed to keep a few books with him and all the things he needed to say Mass.

Electricity was off more than it was on, so the room was also unheated. On winter nights, he would lie in his clothes and coat and pull a blanket over him. He froze. "I had to go to somebody else's house to get warm," he said.

When he was in the room, he lived out of a suitcase. When he visited parishioners, he carried whatever he needed for Mass in a backpack, from the communion wafers to his vestments. His hands had to be free to climb.

The mountains were snow-capped almost year-round, but the altitude never bothered him, said the Rev. Hochstatter, who was 44 when he started his Albanian mission. "The air was so clean and beautiful I got adjusted to it."

Villages could be several hours apart along unmarked mountain trails. So the Rev. Hochstatter got children to lead him until he memorized the way.

When there wasn't time to make the trip back to Breglumi, the Rev. Hochstatter would stay overnight with a family.

His parishioners were descendants of Catholics who fled into the mountains in the 1400s rather than convert to Islam at the hands of the Turks. The country was part of the Ottoman Empire for more than 400 years. It achieved independence for short periods during this century, finally outlasting communist rule.

"Their families learned to adapt and survive in that harsh climate, in those harsh conditions," he said.

Child mortality is high in Albania, but so is longevity. "If you survived your childhood, you were strong and lived a long life. Look at Mother Teresa - look how strong she was," he said. Mother Teresa died in 1997, just after her 87th birthday.

Called the saint of the gutters, she left a comfortable life to enter the convent and become a teacher. The last 50 years of her life she spent selflessly caring for outcasts, children, the ill and dying.

Albanians live simply and very frugally. Homes are built with two rooms. One room isfor sheep, goats and other animals, and he second is arranged with a hearth, little cots along the walls and maybe a small table.

One family he visited kept pigs. "The pigs came through the same door I did. They turned to the right, and I turned to the left," the Rev. Hochstatter said.

Everyone ate out of one pot. "There wasn't a spoon for each person. They all drank out of the same jug. I had to surrender my patterns of sanitation because this was the best they had. If I would not have shared it, I would have offended them," he said.

There was much work for him to do.

He was one of only two priests covering the Diocese of Dukagjin - and he had 10,000 parishioners. Every day he felt overwhelmed, he said.

During the communist reign, there was no priest to bless marriages or baptize. "When I got there, there were 40 years of marriages that hadn't been blessed ... I baptized hundreds of people," he said.

To gather the people for Mass, he would post notices or ask someone to pass the word. Young and middle-age people could read and write, but elderly people could not.

In 1995, the political situation became unstable and the bishop of Peoria asked him to leave the country.

From there, he went to Rome and met with Mother Teresa again. It was then he made his vow.

He had first read about Mother Teresa when he was working in a children's home outside Cleveland in the 1970s. "I was so taken with her I would have left everything to follow her then and there, but there was no place for men in her work at the time. It was just the sisters."

He was ordained after finishing theological training at St. Meinrad School of Theology in Indiana, where John Lyons, currently pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church, also was a student. The Rev. Hochstatter served as a parish priest in the Peoria diocese and helped the Missionaries of Charity in Chicago.

Eventually, Mother Teresa's order made a place for men and he felt encouraged to pursue it. He visited Rome and met with Mother Teresa, who asked him to go to Albania.

With the permission of the bishops of Peoria and Dukagjin, he spent 2´ years in Albania before the mission was cut short.

After returning to Illinois, he learned about Alleluia and asked to visit, which he did twice before going on to his next assignment in the West Indies from 1998 to 2000.

The Rev. Hochstatter is considering a request to teach in a seminary in Kampala, Uganda, where the Missionaries of Charity have two houses.

"I am so grateful for the gift of being with the Alleluia Community between my missionary journeys. These families help me so much to do what God wants me to do," he said.

For more information about Albania, visit the Web site www.albaniaonline.net. For more information about Mother Teresa, visit the Web site http://catholic.net/RCC/People/MotherTeresa. For more information about Alleluia, call (800) 937-5673 or visit the Web site www.yeslord.com.

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.


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