Sister Marjana Lleshi became the face of Italy’s earthquake, with blood staining her veil as she texted family and friends in her native Albania that she was alive.
The 35-year-old nun recounted how she thought she would die when her convent walls collapsed. She texted her friends asking that they pray for her soul, only to be rescued by a man she has called her “angel”.
Now safe, Lleshi says she is unsure of her plans to go to Rome next week, where Mother Teresa – the ethnic Albanian nun “who gave hope to those who didn’t have any” – will be officially made a saint.
“For me she’s the symbol of Albania, of a strong woman,” she said of Teresa. “I would have liked to go, but after this I don’t think I can.”
Lleshi was sleeping in the Don Minozzi convent beside the Church of the Most Holy Crucifix in Amatrice when the quake struck. She had been there, with six other sisters, caring for five elderly women. Her order, the Sisters of the Handmaidens of the Lord, runs nurseries and homes for the aged.
She woke up covered in dust and bleeding. Realising what had happened, she immediately tried to summon help outside her room. No one responded. And she couldn’t get out. She said she was eventually rescued by a young man who cared for one of the elderly women at the home. “In that moment, I heard a voice who called me: ‘Sister Marjana, Sister Marjana’.” He pulled her out. With the ground still shaking, she sat on the side of the road and began texting her friends and sisters that she had survived.
“When I started losing all hope of being saved, I resigned myself to it and started sending messages to friends saying to pray for me and to pray for my soul and I said goodbye to them forever,” she said outside the order’s headquarters in Ascoli Piceno.
“I couldn’t send a message like this to my family because I was afraid that my father would have an emotional collapse and die hearing something like that.”
That moment was immortalised in an image taken by a photographer for the ANSA news agency reprinted worldwide.
Lleshi spent much of Thursday getting medical checks for dust inhalation and her head wound, which required stitches. Once back home, she wept as she thought of her religious family. Her order lost three sisters and four of the elderly women they cared for, alongside incalculable losses in the wider community.
She can relish the simple fact of still being alive.
“I had said ‘adieu’,” she said, “and in the end it wasn’t an adieu.”