As far as Albanian Orthodox history in America goes, there’s no bigger figure than Metropolitan Theophan — or “Fan” — Noli. He’s best known for his three-plus decades as bishop of the Albanian jurisdiction which ultimately joined the Russian Metropolia (and which is now the Albanian Archdiocese of the OCA). Before that, he was the head of the Orthodox Church in Albania. And for five months in 1924, Metropolitan Theophan served as the Prime Minister of Albania. While he was the primate of an Orthodox Church. It was a crazy time.
Anyway, before all of that, Noli was in the United States. He arrived in 1906, when he was 24 years old. He made his way to Boston, where he enrolled at Harvard University. At the time, the Albanians in Boston attended the city’s Greek parish. According to the 1975 OCA book Orthodox America: 1794-1976, “After a series of problems with the local Greek priest, these Albanian immigrants wanted to have their own Albanian priest and for this task selected Fan Noli.”
In March of 1908, the Russian Archbishop Platon ordained Noli to the priesthood. Just days later, Noli used his own translation of the Divine Liturgy to serve the first-ever Orthodox Liturgy in the Albanian language. Not just the first in America — the first ever, period. In fact, it was Noli who later brought the Albanian-language Divine Liturgy to Albania itself; before that, all the services were in Greek. This landmark Liturgy took place on March 22, 1908 — so, 102 years ago today. Here is the report that appeared in the Boston Globe two days later:
Rev Fan S. Noli, pastor of the Albanian Orthodox diocese of the United States and Canada, conducted the first service ever held in the Albanian tongue in Boston at Knights of Honor hall, 730 Washington st, Sunday evening. More than 500 Albanians were present, and Rev Mr Noli delivered an interesting address in which he explained the aims and progress of the movement in this country.
Rev Mr Noli was born in Adrianople, Turkey, and educated in the Greek high school and the French college in that city. In the two years following his graduation, he was in business in Asia Minor, and this was followed by five years’ newspaper work in Greece and Egypt. He then put in two years as a professor of French and Greek in a school in Egypt. His school work palled on him and he determined to sail for this country.
Shortly after his arrival in Boston, which was his objective point, he became assistant editor of the Albanian weekly newspaper, the Kombi. He found time to study for the priesthood and was ordained March 8, in the Russian cathedral, East 97th st, New York. He is the master of a number of languages, among which are Greek, French, English, Italian, Arabic, Turkish and some German, in addition to his native speech.
Rev Mr Noli said that there are about 30,000 of his countrymen in the United States, and that most of them are communicants of the Greek Orthodox church. Speaking of Albania, a province in Macedonia, he said that its 3,000,000 inhabitants are divided among three religious faiths, Roman Catholicism, the Greek church and Mahometanism. The country has been under Turkish domination since the death of its last king, George Castriot, in 1463. There has never been any religious strife in Albania, but the Turkish government forbids the use of the Albanian language in the schools, and every book and pamphet [sic] written in that tongue is confiscated.
The Greek patriarch anathematized the Albanian translations of the Bible, which were purchased from the Bible society of London, and all these copies were confiscated. In the face of such difficulties it was impossible for national unity, as the leaders were persecuted and condemned to exile or death.
Fr Noli intends to establish churches wherever he finds his countrymen, in this country, Roumania, Russia and Egypt. He has translated the service book into his native tongue, and he intends to render other religious works into Albanian for his people.
I’m a tad skeptical of Noli’s claim that there were 30,000 Albanians in America in 1908. The 1916 Census of Religious Bodies reports 410 Albanian Orthodox in two churches. By 1926, there were 1,993 parishioners in nine parishes, and in 1936, those numbers had grown to 3,137 people in 13 congregations.
Noli traveled to Albania in 1913, where he served the first Albanian-language church service in Albania itself. With the onset of World War I, he returned to the US, eventually becoming the official administrator of the Albanian parishes under the Russian Archdiocese. When the war ended, Noli again went to Albania, where he became deeply involved in politics. In 1923, he was consecrated a bishop, the new head of the Albanian Orthodox Church. He became Prime Minister of Albania the next year, but was soon expelled from the country. In 1932, he returned to the US and headed the Albanian Archdiocese until his death on March 13, 1965.