Today in history: the first Albanian liturgy

Fr. Theophan Noli, March 1908

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.

3 Replies to “Today in history: the first Albanian liturgy”

  1. An interesting contemporary view: the ordiniation of Fan Noli and the issuance of the Tomos of 1908 happened within days of each other. The official organ of the Alexandrian Patriarchate, in its Greek Press section has this in 1908:

    “The “Pan-Hellenic Power/State” nonetheless [the quotation comes after the discussion by the professor of International Law at the National University of Greece on the then recent 1908 Tomos] taking as a starting point from the retention of the Russian bishop in Alaska, expresses the opinion “that Ecumenical Patriarchate did wrong, both to the canons of the Church and according to [the fact] that it had no right to transfer to the Church of Greece the privilege furnished it by the Ecumenical Councils.” But it asks “for what justification does the Russian Church retain its jurisdiction over the Church of Alaska and after the Cession of it to the United States, if the Tomos of the Great Church requires among the Greek Churches in the diaspora, in order that the jurisdiction of the Sacred Synod of Greece be extended over them? And this certainly—adding further—if uncanonical, would be the lesser evil. Scandalousness yet results from the establishment of this Russia bishop of Alaska in the United States and the extension of his spiritual authority automatically and besides the justification of no one over the whole of America. And most rightly whenever the bishop thus shall make an ordination of priests and ‘ founding churches independently as it committed some time before through the ordination of the Albanian Noli a priest of the “independent Orthodox Albanian Church in the United States and Canada” creating the employment of the Albanian language in its rites and this be regarded scandal amid other Orthodox Churches of the New World, which according as Greeks, and further by the new Tomos were already brought under under the spiritual rule of the Church of Greece, required to commemorate the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch; to receive from him the holy chrism, to receive his blessings and to offer some quantiy for the fund of the Patriarchate. We believe that “this issue will be regarded the earnest position of the discussion in the Sacred Synod of the Great Church, and so quite rightly so, as much as besides the Russian bishop of Alaska having ordained Mr. Noli entitled as priest of the Orthodox Albanian episcopacy of the United States and Canada and in the choice, this wrought in Boston in Albanian, dealing irreverently towards the Patriarch and promised that independent Albanian and Orthodox Church will be founded everywhere gearing up to ordain a bishop also.”,+%CE%AC%CF%86%CE%BF%CF%81%CE%BC%CE%AE%CE%BD+%CE%BB%CE%B1%CE%BC%CE%B2%CE%AC%CE%BD%CE%BF%CE%BD+%CE%B5%CE%BA+%CF%84%CE%B7%CF%82+%CE%B4%CE%B9%CE%B1%CF%84%CE%B7%CF%81%CE%AE%CF%83%CE%B5%CF%89%CF%82+%CF%81%CF%8E%CF%83%CE%BF%CF%85+%CE%B5%CF%80%CE%B9%CF%83%CE%BA%CF%8C%CF%80%CE%BF%CF%85+%CE%B5%CE%BD&source=bl&ots=-iYjmxjyNB&sig=VwutxmJV9_yobHSALxZHRJt01nQ&hl=en&ei=MM00TJ_oMZKUnQfcrPXWAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Of course, the fears were well founded: Fan Noli was ordained a bishop and had a large role to found the autocephalous Church of Albania, such that the Mother Church is in Boston, the Albanian Archdiocese of the OCA. It is also interesting that it insists on calling St. Tikhon as “Russian Bishop of America,” when he had already been given the title “Archbishop of North America and the Aleutians” and had his see formally set up in NYC, which Archbishoprick and see Archb. Platon had succeeded to the prior year. Alaska already had a suffragan to the primate of North America, who had nothing to do with what was going on in Boston.

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