The Albanian Orthodox Autocephalous Church

Author: Raymond Hutchins

The establishment of an Albanian Orthodox autocephalous church had been one of the principal objectives of (Albanian) patriots since 1880. Sami Frashëri rated it next to the Albanian language in importance. He urged the Albanians to rid themselves of their dependence on the Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbian churches – especially the Greek church – and create their own church with Albanian priests and a liturgy in Albanian. As it was impossible to reach this goal in Albania, on account of the opposition of the Patriarchate and the Turkish government, an attempt was also made to introduce only the Albanian language in the church services. When this effort failed, the patriots turned their thoughts to the constitution of an Albanian church outside Albania and Turkey. Bucharest seemed at the moment best suited for the purpose.

The church movement in Bucharest appears to have started at the outset ot the century. On May 27, 1900 Drita (Albanian newspaper in Romania) had as the first point in its program the separation of the Albanian church from the Greek Patriarchate and the introduction of the Albanian language in its liturgy. A decision was made to build an Albanian church in Bucharest. Obviously the decision was not carried out for two years later another fruitless attempt was made.

It was in the United States of America that the first Albanian Orthodox Church was founded. On March 22, 1908 in the Knights of Honor Hall in Boston, the first liturgy in Albanian was celebrated. An incident expedited it. In 1907 a young Albanian died in Hudson, Mass., and the local Greek priest refused to officiate for the funeral services, on the ground that the young man was an Albanian nationalist and as such “automatically excommunicated.” The incident provoked indignation among the Albanians of Massachusetts, who called a meeting and decided to have an Albanian priest ordained. They invited Fan S. Noli to undertake the mission, and he hastened to accept it. Platon, the Russian archbishop of New York, ordained him priest on March 8, 1908 at the age of twenty-six. The Albanian Orthodox Church of America, which was established with the ordination of Fan S. Noli as priest was authorized to conduct services in Albanian, was a missionary church under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was organized as an independent diocese in 1919.*

The creation of the Albanian Orthodox Church in America was a powerful incentive to the growth of Albanian national feeling. With the introduction of Albanian in the liturgy, the church assumed a national character. Fan S. Noli translated the service from Greek and used it immediately after his ordination. He later translated many liturgical books in a clear and beautiful language. Fan S. Noli turned the pulpit into a tribune for nationalist preaching. The other priests serving Albanian congregations followed his example, for they were not at the service of the Greek church, but nationalistic-minded Albanians. The function of the Albanian Orthodox Church did not remain religious; it also became patriotic. As a religious institution, the Church interested only the Orthodox Albanians.

As an institution established in order to detach them from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, whose policy was to hellenize them and unite them with Greece, it acquired a broader and national significance. This second aspect of the Albanian Orthodox Church of America concerned not only Orthodox Albanians but also their Moslem and Catholic compatriots. The activity of the Albanian colonies in the United States was intensified in the period following the creation of the Church – after 1908. PP 161-163, The Albanian National Awakening, 1878-1912, Stavro Skendi, Princeton University Press, 1967 (In Albania) in September 1922 the Congress of Berat was called to deal with the question of religious independence.

The congress, while irregular in composition, declared the Albanian Orthodox church to be autocephalous and ruled that Albanian instead of Greek should be used in the liturgy. The lack of hierarchy (no bishops existed) made these decisions largely inoperative; but by 1926, the then president and later king, Zog, had become interested in the matter and he henceforth worked to establish a valid autocephalous church. This was done with some semblance of legality following the convening in Fenbruary 1929 of a synod in King Zog’s villa and finally achieved when on 13 April 1937 the patriarch of Constantinople accepted the Albanian Orthodox Church as autocephalous.

PP 170-171, Historical Dictionary of Albania, Raymond Hutchins, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD and London, 1996

Leave a Reply