LETNICA/LETNICE, Kosovo -- Thousands of Serbian, Albanian, and Croatian pilgrims venture to this village in eastern Kosovo every August to mark a Catholic holy day. The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the day on which many believe that Mary's body and soul were brought into heaven.

The celebration at the Church of the Black Madonna here has special significance as the place where Agnesa Bojaxhiu received her calling to devote her life to doing the Lord's work. Better known as Mother Teresa, Bojawhiu made her first trip to the church when she was 7 years old, when she and her family visited from nearby Skopje. She is said to have received her calling while later praying inside the church, at the age of 18.

Approximately 300 people reside in Letnica/Letnice, but they're joined by thousands of people from the Balkans and other parts of Europe for a Mass that, in order to accommodate the crowds, must be held in the grassy, sprawling property adjacent to the three-century old church.

Hundreds of Kosovo Forces soldiers, including several dozen Americans, joined this year's pilgrimage on Aug. 15. Most of these U.S. Soldiers are from Multinational National Battle Group East, based at nearby Camp Bondsteel. After arriving on the outskirts of Letnica/Letnice they joined their KFOR counterparts from Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal for a brief religious service. This was followed by a two-mile hike through the wooded Karadak hills to the white church with twin black spires. U.S. Soldiers were among those who waited in long lines to get inside and pray in the same pews where Mother Teresa once prayed.

"Sitting in the bench where she sat means a lot. Not many people have that chance," said Col. Francisco J. Neuman, Ponce, Puerto Rico, commander of MNBG E and a member of the Puerto Rico National Guard. "This church is one of the most wonderful things that Kosovo has."

Col. Neuman and several other U.S. Soldiers said they would have celebrated the Feast of the Assumption if they were back home, but with the KFOR deployment they felt they had a rare opportunity to experience this pilgrimage to the beatified Mother Teresa's former church.

Approximately 85 percent of Puerto Rico's 4 million residents are Catholic. The 78 municipalities there have 10-day festivals in honor of Mary or their respective patron saints, said Sgt. 1st Class Ramon Green, assistant inspector general, noncommissioned officer in charge for MNBG E, and a member of the Puerto Rico National Guard. Green's hometown of Cayey, like Letnica/Letnice, honors the Assumption.

"We celebrate the same day in Puerto Rico. We have a big service with a Mass. A statue of Mary is carried in a procession, and we pray the rosary," Green said.

Pfc. Chris Poirrier, Monticello, Ark., a medic with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-114th Aviation, is a Catholic, but was not as familiar with this holy day. He went on the pilgrimage mainly because of the church's most famous former congregant.

"I came to see where (Mother Teresa) got her calling and at the same time participate in the Feast of the Assumption. I thought it was really humbling. It was definitely a reaffirmation for me. It's hard to not feel the spirit in a place like that," said Poirrier, a member of the Arkansas National Guard.

Sgt. Gina Middlebrooks, Athens, Ga., a radiographer with Task Force Medical, said she experienced a similar feeling while visiting the historical church.

"It was a once in a lifetime experience for me, especially to go at the same time as the other pilgrims," said Middlebrooks, adding that the connection to Mother Teresa made this visit extra appealing. "I was just in awe standing there and thinking that she used to stand there, too."

The Mass was led by the local bishop, who was joined by priests from throughout the region, and military chaplains from KFOR. (Maj. Angel Sanchez, MNBG E, read the Gospel.

Col. Neuman experienced this event on a previous deployment to Kosovo, but at that time he was involved with providing security. This year he led the U.S. delegation, along with Brig. Gen. Wilton S. Gorske, the KFOR chief of staff, and a member of the Georgia National Guard. The entire KFOR contingent was led by Lt. Gen. Markus Bentler, KFOR commander. Col. Neuman said that hiking through the woods offered the pilgrims an opportunity to clear their minds and get ready for the special Mass.

Toward the end of the Catholic Mass, KFOR Commander Lt. Gen. Bentler spoke to the assembly in English and German. His remarks were also translated into Albanian.

"We've come to bring peace to Kosovo and we are very happy to see what we see here today," Lt. Gen. Bentler said. "It is so important to pray for peace today. We also know that peace can only grow from the hearts of the people. From the bottom of my heart I wish peace to all the people in Kosovo."
Col. Neuman, who is on his third deployment to Kosovo, said he agrees that peace in the region depends upon peace within the people.

"That's the only thing we can do to avoid any conflict - to be peaceful. We need to have that in mind at all times," he said.