100 years ago, the founding father of the Albanian Autocephalous Orthodox Church held the country’s first official mass in the Albanian language in Durrës. Honoring this centennial though by installing a bust of the Fan Noli proved to be a controversial effort. The local church officials feared a symbolic spite to the current non-Albanian Archbishop in Tirana, but leaders of a new patriotic organization, Foleja, were determined to pay respect to their timeless spiritual leader. Anjeza Bojku, an Albanian-American journalist, took active part in the process and described in this feature, everything that she saw and lived through.
By Anjeza Bojku
“Se c’e shempnë derbederët,
Mercenarët dhe bejlerët,
Se c’e shtypnë jabanxhinjtë,
Se c’e shtrythnë fajdexhinjtë,
Se c’e pren’ e se c’e vranë,
C’e shkretuan anembanë,
Nëne thundrën e përdhunës,
Anës Vjoses, anës Bunës.”
– Fan Noli-
One hundred (100) years after Archbishop Fan Noli’s first Albanian-language Orthodox mass in Durrës, this revolutionary poem rings truer than ever. Some of the new post-Communist era “bejlerë” ruling elite have committed environmental destruction and sold off either entire or parts of the country’s resources. Only yesterday, Greece made more demands about the buffer international Ionian body of water between Albania and Greece, requesting more of it for oil exploration, and in exchange offering its cooperation and vote for Albania’s eventual EU membership. None of it was said in these blatant terms, but these are the implications of Greece’s persistent demands. And the “Jabanxjinjtë” (foreigners/strangers) are our ever territorially hungry and greedy neighbors, such as Greece and Serbia, still pulling the strings of many (not all) of our sold-out politicians.
It’s within this chaotic and – some would say – unquestionably unpatriotic environment that Shoqata Foleja Kombëtare Shqiptare was established, in hopes of restoring Albania’s history, historical figures, collective memory and national honor and pride.
On June 29th, Foleja made its mark as they set out to permanently install the great Fan Noli’s bust, made by the well-known Durrës sculptor Idriz Balani, in Elbasan’s Saint Mary’s Church, after the clerics of Durrës’ Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius had on various occasions and ways refused to have Noli anywhere on their territory. Following the event, which received much public attention, the Durrës clerics released a statement saying they wanted Noli “somewhere in Durrës,” but not once did they state they wanted him in Durrës’ church. A statement which was immediately rebutted by Foleja, with the necessary documents proving that the Church had indeed ignored Foleja’s many requests (verbal and written) of having Noli installed in Durrës’ Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius.
Foleja’s president, Elida Jorgoni, had requested the Durrës clerics about installing a bust of Noli in the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius on many occasions and especially for the upcoming anniversary of his first mass. Initially, they invited her to discuss the matter in an official capacity and she showed up with Foleja’s vice-president Mete Gjergji and journalist Marin Mema, acting as an intermediary. A meeting which left them with no answers other than “we know of Noli, we have his works and recognise him as a great translator.” After much back-and-forth between both parties, Jorgoni was finally told to write and submitt an official request to have Noli installed in the Church, and send it to the clerics within two days, as procedure required it. Jorgoni handed them an official request on June 18th to which the clerics were given a deadline of eleven (11) days to respond (just in time for Noli’s 100th mass anniversary.) They did not respond. Instead they called her and asked her to go to the church. She went. She wasn’t told “No” but she was told “do not intrude upon us and we wont intrude upon you.”
Therefore, despite their claims, the clerics of the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius of Durrës never did reply in written form (a clever way to avoid possible future social and legal backlash), and coupled with their thinly-veiled threats, left it open to interpretion that they did not want Noli anywhere near the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius of Durrës.
Within this conflictual atmosphere, I decided to join Foleja on June 29th in its celebration and commemoration of Fan Noli. I headed out at 7:30 am, stopping at the sculptor’s home where members were gathered to pick up Noli’s bust. We were determined to honor the 100th anniversary of Noli’s first Albanian-language Orthodox mass in Albanian territory, and Noli the scholar, poet, writer and statesman. Teaming with members were a handful of young volunteers and some veteran intellectuals from the three thousand year old city. A sixty-person capacity bus was at our disposal, donated by Shoqata Cameria, which was headed to Qafë Bote that very same day, commemorating the genocide of the Chams by Greek paramilitaries in 1944-45.
A dark gray Toyota pick-up truck was also made available by a Durrës resident in which Noli’s bust was placed, with the backdrop of the Albanian flag, and other smaller flags placed all around the vehicle.
As we headed out from the sculptor’s home, a young man sat in the back, ensuring the bust’s safety, while the president of Foleja, Elida Jorgoni, sat inside. The rest of the guests hopped on the bus. I sat in the front, documenting this historical day as best I could, trying to quell my overwhelming emotions as I watched the truck ahead of me with Noli, and flags waving in that sweet Durrës morning breeze.
We drove through the main boulevard and entrance, and by way of Aleksander Goga Street reached City Hall, at which point the truck stopped a few minutes. After picking up other invitees waiting at City Hall, we then drove a short distance down to Durrës’ Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius, and parked the truck there while a mass was in procession. As the truck stood there, people alternately expressed their awe and would bend and cross themselves in front of the bust, while others expressed disbelief and discontent.
We then headed up a few steps right across the street, to the ruins of Saint Spiridon Church, where Noli, in 1914, held his first Albanian-language Orthodox mass, three days after the arrival of Prince Wied in Albania. Foleja’s president, Elida Jorgoni, and vice-president Mete Gjergji, with other members, held up a commemorative granite plaque documenting that historical day while being interviewed by an assembly of television news networks. Present at Saint Spiridon Church and showing his support was also Durrës’ prefect, Roland Xhelili.
In hopes of reaching Elbasan in time, we then headed back to the bus, while the others to the truck, still parked in front of Durrës’ Cathedral. The truck would drive to Tirana and we would head straight to Elbasan as we were informed that the tunnels for buses were closed. The idea was to stop in front of the newly inaugurated (June 1st) The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana. The inauguration had featured among others, the Patriarch of Serbia, Irinej, (who has yet to acknowledge, let alone apologize for Serbia’s brutal mass-cleansing of Kosovar-Albanians in the late 1990’s), Archbishop of Albania (of Greek origin) Anastasios Yannoulatos, and anti-Albanian activist (who’d entered Albania with falsified documents and name) Nicholas Gage. An event that sparked a lot of controversy, and consequently public and media discussion and scrutiny.
In Tirana, two cars full of young men awaiting our arrival at Asllan Rusi sports center joined the truck down to the The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral. Another vehicle had already been following us since Durrës.
While making our way to Elbasan, I was told the city, specifically its Castle Neighborhood (Lagja Kala), was home to the only church resistant to the spiritually-colonizing effects of Greek-born Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos’ anti-Albanian and pro-Greek religious policies. I was also told that Saint Mary’s of Elbasan, enclosed inside the walls of the castle ruins, is spearheaded by Albanian-born and bred father Nikoll Marku, and under surveillance of seven USA Embassy cameras, ensuring Foleja of Noli’s bust safety.
As we walked through the meandering cobble-stoned streets of Kalaja, holding up our red and black flags, and carrying Noli to his final resting place, we were received with great applause by a group of youngsters from Elbasan, seemingly breathlessly awaiting our arrival, and this day. Joining forces, we then all entered Saint Mary’s to the sound of even greater applause, a moment of silence as Father Nikoll Marku came to honor and bless Noli’s effigy and then to a sudden burst of well-known patriotic songs by both young and old, encircling Noli’s bust in the Church’s entrance grounds.
And so we continued, with songs and applause, our walk down the entrance to the church. As we filed through one by one and filled up the room, Noli was placed at the center of the Altar which faces West of the country, towards the Adriatic sea, while outside lies the grave and bust of patriot and scholar Konstandin Kristoforidhi, facing East towards the great mountains of Albania. Two heads of one eagle.
Once inside, we were officially welcomed by Father Marku who stated in his speech that “it is a great honor for Saint Mary to have the great Noli,” and thanked Foleja for realizing his bust, organizing the anniversary and bringing him to Elbasan.
One by one, members, patriots, fellow travelers and pilgrims to Elbasan made their personal heartfelt speeches about Noli the religious symbol, and Noli the national symbol of Albanian greatness. Some of the speeches were laced with much anger and disappointment toward the greater church spearheaded by the Greek-born Yannoulatos, and The Greek Orthodox Church for hindering the de facto establishment of an Autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church (although the current title of the Albanian Church suggests that it is technically de jure Autocephalous and independent of the Greek Church’s influence, in actuality, and de facto, it is not.)
Thus the common and logical question arises: why doesn’t Albania, just like Russia, Serbia, Greece etc…have its own Autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church spearheaded by an Albanian-born and bred Archbishop? Just as Noli would have wanted it, and as it was declared in The Congress of Berat in 1922? Are there no qualified Albanian bishops? Certainly there are. But the Archbishop’s nationality is not the main concern of the Albanian Orthodox Community; It is the Greek Church’s shady and oftentimes anti-Albanian policies.
Before ending our honors and festivities at Saint Mary’s, a mass was held by Father Marku, after which we each signed our names on a small notebook as a symbolic gesture of having been part of such a momentous event. This document is now the property of Saint Mary and in the hands of Father Marku. Meanwhile, television cameras were throughout and all around us from all four corners of the room and outside. For days to follow, this event was the main topic of the press.
VIDEO – In Elbasan and at Saint Mary’s church for Noli’s 100th Anniversary Albanian-language Orthodox mass”
Unfortunately, following this commemorative day, a lot of untruths were immediately released by the Durrës clerics in a last-ditch attempt to repair their damaged reputations, to which Foleja immediately responded with facts of their consistent refusal to have Noli in the church’s territory. Father Spiro Kostoli of Durrës declared for the media that “we wanted Noli somewhere in Durrës .” “Somewhere” being the keyword. Foleja had specifically asked the Durrës clerics to place Noli within the territory of the church and under the church’s supervision and jurisdiction.
“Foleja Kombëtare” denoncon hipokrizinë e reagimit të sotshëm të Kishës Ortodokse në Durrës, e cila thotë se është “dakort që busti i Imzot Theofan Nolit të vendoset në Durrës.”
Nëse priftërinjtë e KOASH mendojnë se janë kryebashkiakë ky është problemi i tyre. Kërkesa e dorëzuar që më datë 18 qershor kërkon që busti të vendoset në Kishën Ortodokse të Durrësit, ku Hirësi Theofan Noli ishte mitropolit dhe jo “diku në Durrës”.
“Foleja Kombëtare” nuk ka bërë as pamflete e as ultimatume. Kërkesa është dorëzuar që më datë 18 qershor. Nëse ata duan të japin përgjigje pozitive që busti të vendoset në oborr të Kishës, ne marrim përsipër që të financojmë dhe ndërtojmë një bust edhe më të madh për Mitropolit Theofanin. Kisha Ortodokse në Durrës me hipokrizi nuk mund të manipulojë opinionin publik. Le të na thotë që e pranon bustin e Mitropolitit dhe ne do ta financojmë, do ta ndërtojmë dhe do ta çojmë sa më shpejtë në Kishën e Durrësit!
Në këto kushte, Foleja Kombëtare, pas kërkesës zyrtare që i ka dërguar edhe pse e ka refuzuar njëherë, pyet zyrtarisht Kishën Ortodokse në Durrës, nëse do ta pranojë dhuratën tonë, vendosjen e një busti të Mitropolit Theofan Nolit në oborrin e Kishës Ortodokse në Durrës, apo e refuzon sërish kërkesën që ne i kemi dërguar zyrtarisht?
Në pritje të përgjigjes, “Foleja Kombëtare”
It is imperative to mention an incident that occurred the evening before we headed to Elbasan, that is, the evening of June 28th: while president Jorgoni and vice-president Mete Gjergji were returning from Saint Spiridon Church after having attempted to hang the commemorative plaque, around 9PM, they were approached by two of Durrës’ Cathedral priests who asked them “how much are the Americans paying you for this?”
The following is an interview of Foleja’s president and vice-president that we hope will shed some light into the organization’s goals and their long-standing conflict with the Durrës Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius clerics, which resulted in Fan Nol Durrësaku – as he referred to himself- being installed in Elbasan and not in Durrës.
Interviews of Foleja president Elida Jorgoni and vice-president Mete Gjergji
As I sat there listening to the interview of Mete Gjergji (author, activist, intellectual and member of Foleja) about Fan Noli, I was taken aback by Gjergji’s emotional responses in which he was visibly upset by the general disregard for Albanian’s first Archbishop, the great scholar, statesman and luminary, Fan Noli. He did his best to hold back tears as his emotionally-laden voice quivered whenever Noli’s name was mentioned.
I approached Gjergji afterwards and we had a brief discussion on the topic of the Autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church, especially on the unabashed and – according to him – willful disregard of Noli’s figure by the Church and political class. We talked about June 1st: the day when the Archbishop of Serbia, together with the presence of the notorious anti-Albanian activist Nicholas Gage (who’d entered Albania Illegally under an assumed name), was in attendance of the inauguration of the The Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana. We were baffled by the events of that day, which included part of the mass recited in Greek, the unraveling of the Serbian flag on the church’s steps by a handful of either Serbs or Serb-sympathizers, the violence of the police towards an Albanian patriotic organization protesting the presence of the Serb Archbishop, Irinej (Serbia has yet to apologize for its genocide of Kosovar-Albanians in the late 1990s), and the arrest of a woman who held up a poster of Fan Noli saying to the reporter, “I do not recognize him [Anastasios Yannoulatos] as my Archbishop; THIS is my Archbishop,” pointing to the poster of Noli.
I soon discovered the woman arrested was Elida Jorgoni, the president of Shoqata Foleja Kombëtare Shqiptare, and widow of the late activist, patriot and intellectual, Perikli Jorgoni, who passed away on December 12, 2012, also the day of Saint Spiridon, in a car accident.
Elida Jorgoni was consequently held for questioning for four hours in one of Tirana’s police precincts.
I asked Gjergji to arrange a meeting between Jorgoni and me. A couple of days later, we met in a restaurant in Durrës. Prior to the meeting, I had gathered various documents pertaining to the organization and its goals, Jorgoni and her late husband Perikli Jorgoni, and their many patriotic-related activities together. Jorgoni showed up straight after work, from which she’d been fired a total of three times in only 2014, for unspecified reasons, but believed to be tied directly to her activities for Foleja.
She’s a humble woman in bearing and manner yet proud and steadfast in her purpose. She tells me of her trials and tribulations and also of her triumphs, now and while married to Perikli Jorgoni, whose grandfather who bore the same name, Perikli Jorgoni, was a Fanolist and was poisoned at the time of the first Albanian-language mass in 1914. His other grandfather was Hilë Mosi, another well-known Albanian poet and politician.
Elida Jorgoni also tells me about her arrest and the surprisingly encouraging words of a police officer who had remarked that “If Albania had three to four more women like you, things wouldn’t be the way they are.” Prior to that comment they had asked her “who hides behind you?” To which she had replied, “The blood of our forefathers.” She makes sure that I note that they treated her fairly and were very nice, and were just following procedure and doing their job.
There was also the time when she entered the village of Negovani in 2011 with the camera crew of Top Channel and journalist Marin Mema, in search of Papa Kristo Negovani’s gravesite. They found the grave and on their way out of Greece were declared personae non gratae by Greek authorities.
Before getting into specific questions, I ask her about Perikli Jorgoni and his patriotic contributions. She’s quick to bring out a folder of documents and an album of all of their activities throughout the years they were together. Here is a quote by Petro Luarasi, (who was present on June 29th in Elbasan,) grandson of the great Rilindas Petro Nini Luarasi, on the occasion of Jorgoni’s passing:
“We will remember Perikli Jorgoni with great honor and as a devoted patriot, nephew of the devoted Hilë Mosi. Even though with a modest pension and of an advanced age, with an unemployed wife, he with his own funds would organize groups who would be active in going wherever there were important pan-national activities and anniversaries happening, such as The Congress of Manastir, the raising of the flag in Deҫiҫ by Ded Gjo Luli, The Congress of Elbasan and in the famous filming of the documentary on Papa Kristo Negovani by Top Channel, etc..”
I then get into more specific questions:
Have you asked the mayor about installing Noli’s bust in Durrës?
– Yes, a year ago, verbally through a former parliament member.
What was the answer to your request?
– They were verbally told to drop this issue for now as they were occupied with the EU candidate status. But they did help us in procuring the original gate of Saint Spiridon’s Church of Durrës, which was displaced to a High School in a village of Durrës.
What does the Durrës Association think about Noli’s bust?
– That they agree to have his effigy as a statesman and thinker but not as a religious leader. And I’d like to add that the Fan Noli Association tried to appropriate the making of the bust, even going so far as to publish an article declaring their plans for the 100th anniversary of Noli’s first Albanian-language mass in Albanian territory.
Why must Noli’s bust be specifically in Durrës?
– Because he held the first ever Orthodox mass in the Albanian-language in Durrës in 1914 in front of Saint Spiridon Church, and in letters always referred to himself as “Theofan Durrësaku.”
Have you notified any television networks and other press for the June 29th 100th anniversary commemorative event?
– We have mailed out over four hundred (400) invitations to many public figures of Albanian political, social and cultural life, including television channels (over 15-20 of them), in Albania, Kosova, Macedonnia and Montenegro. We have also invited the Bishop of the Albanian Orthodox Diocese of America, located in Boston, who is at the moment in Romania.
Where have you found the funds to transport the bust from Durrës, to Tirana and then Elbasan?
– As far as funds for this day go, Shoqata Cameria has immensely helped by donating a sixty-person capacity bus. And a Durrës resident has donated a Toyota pick-up truck for the transportation of Noli’s bust.
How much did the bust cost?
– $5,000, by Durrës sculptor Idriz Balani
How did you pay for the bust?
– I paid with my own funds…whatever Perikli has left me.
According to you, do you think there is another bust of Noli in all of Albania’s territory?
– As far as I am concerned, a public bust of Noli as religious leader, no, perhaps personal private ones in people’s homes, but I’m not a hundred percent sure.
Does Shoqata Foleja Kombëtare Shqiptare posses any funds donated by either the government or private philanthropists?
– No. All of our funds are my personal funds left behind by my late husband, Perikli Jorgoni, whose passion for public and patriotic works I will persevere in continuing.
Do you have an office?
– Not yet. We do not yet posses the necessary funds for an office.
Has Durrës’ City Hall helped you in any capacity?
– They helped us restore the original gate of the Church of Saint Spiridon which was being used by a High School in a village of Durrës.
Why else is the making of Noli’s bust so important?
– Well, other than Noli being a great national figure that must be honored, and one of our mission statements as a non-profit organization is to restore national and historical figures, we feel it is of great historical, national, and religious importance to complete the triumvirate of the three spiritual leaders of Durrës: Dom Nikoll Kacorri of the Catholics and Ali Hafiz Podgorica of the Muslims, (both of whom have commemorative busts in Durrës) with the addition of Fan Stilian Noli of the Orthodox Albanians, thus representing the interfaith harmony and tolerance which characterizes Durrës and Albania in general.
At this juncture in our interview, Jorgoni wants to add that in addition to having commissioned a bust of Noli, Foleja also wants the authorities to declare him as Durrës’ Pride and Honor, to have a street named after him, preferably one adjacent to the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius of Durrës and to declare him a National Treasure.
Note: As of writing this, plans have been made by Durrës City Hall to change the street name adjacent to the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul and Saint Astius of Durrës to “Fan Noli.”
Foleja is now – after the successful completion of the 100th anniversary commemoration of Fan Noli’s first Albanian-language Orthodox mass in Durrës and Albania in 1914 – moving onto their next projects and objectives, some of which are listed above and below.
Also, it is noteworthy to mention that the 100 lek that had Noli’s image stamped on it no longer exists, having been replaced by a metal coin, thus completely eradicating him from the collective memory. So feels Foleja.
I ask Jorgoni to hand me the document that declares Shoqata Foleja Kombëtare Shqiptare a non-profit organization. All looks fine. Listed are the organization’s goals and objectives in Albanian, for it suits it best:
1. Të nderojmë figurat tona kombëtare që luftuan me pushkë dhe penë për mëmëdhenë, për të mos i lënë në pluhurin e harresës, si dhe individët dashamirës e popujt miq, që na përkrahën shpirtërisht, materialisht, madje dhanë edhe jetën për kauzën tonë.
2. Të kujdesemi t’i ruajmë, mirëmbajmë monumentet, bustet, lapidarët, pllakat përkujtimore, t’i bëjmë, ribëjmë dhe t’i vendosim ato në vendet e në datat e shënuara. Motoja është: Duaje atdhenë si shqiponja folenë.
3. Të organizojmë veprimtari në vende historike brenda dhe jashtë kufijve të shtetit shqiptar, në trevat tona të lëna padrejtësisht jashtë trungut arbëror.
4. Të organizojmë takime brezash, veprimtari të përbashkëta me veteranët e brezin e ri, duke i inkurajuar.
5. Të mbledhim në arkivin e shoqatës, dokumente, shkrime, fotografi, kënge, etj.., të ҫdo periudhe. T’i botojmë, t’i përhapim e pasqyrojmë në median e shkruar dhe atë vizive, për të promovuar vlerat tona.
6. Të reagojmë, kur merren vendime në dëm të interesave kombëtare.
7. Të vendosim lidhje me shoqatat, fondacionet, grupimet e ngjashme me tonën, brenda dhe jashtë vendit.
If you are interested in donating and/or helping Shoqata Foleja Kombëtare Shqiptare with their many patriotic activities, please do not hesitate to contact the author via Illyria Newspaper.