Theophan (Noli) of Durres
Metropolitan Theophan (Fan) S. Noli is a unique Orthodox hierarch of the twentieth century. He established an Albanian-speaking church in the United States of America, then in 1923 founded the Orthodox Church of Albania after Albania gained its independence following the end of World War I. His life was multi-faceted: not only noted as a church man, he was a leader in the world of Albanian politics and nationalism as well in its literary world.
Theophan (Fan) Stylian Noli was born on January 6, 1882, in the village of Ibrik Tepe (in Albanian, Qyteza) which is south of Edirne (Adrianopole) in European Turkey. He was known usually by the shortened name Fan. His father, Stylian Noli, was a cantor in the Orthodox Church, and through him Fan learned of Orthodox church music and its Byzantine tradition. He received his early education in the Greek secondary school in Edirne. In 1900, he moved to Athens and worked in various low-paying jobs, including as a copyist, and in itinerant theater groups as a prompter and actor. When one such group visited Alexandria, Egypt, in March 1903 he left the company and found work as a teacher of Greek and as a church cantor in the small Albanian colony in Shibin el Khom. Here he began writing in Greek and translating Albanian literature into Greek. Through his teacher, the monk Nilos, Fan learned more about the traditions of Byzantine music and his fascination grew such that he resolved to become an Orthodox priest. It was here in Egypt that he was introduced to the Albanian political world through the nationalist leaders of the Albanian community. They encouraged Fan to immigrate to the United States where he could make better use of his talents. And so he did in April 1906.
Fan arrived in New York on May 10, 1906, after a steamer trip through Naples, Italy. After working in a Buffalo, New York, lumber mill for three months, Fan moved to Boston, Massachusetts. The following months were difficult for him, both because of low-paying jobs and joining the community. He worked as a deputy editor for the publisher Sotir Peci on the newspaper Kombi (The Nation), writing and publishing articles and editorials under the pseudonym Ali Baba Qyteza. Eventually he found roots in the Albanian community in Boston and co-founded the Besa-Besen (The Pledge) society on January 6, 1907.
At that time the Greek community controlled the church that the Albanians attended, and as time passed tensions grew. Then, in 1907 these tensions came to a head when the Greek Orthodox priest refused to officiate at the burial of an Albanian nationalist. The priest did so with the position that as a nationalist the deceased had excommunicated himself. At this time, Fan recognized his calling and convoked meeting of Albanian Orthodox throughout New England. At the meeting the delegates resolved to establish a separate, autonomous, Albanian Orthodox Church. Fan Noli was selected to be its first clergyman.
In New York, Fan Noli met with Abp. Platon of New York and Fr. Alexander Hotovitzky who conducted an investigation of the Albanian community. After being satisfied, Abp. Platon agreed to ordain Fan Noli. Thus, on February 9, 1908, Abp. Platon ordained Fan as deacon, and followed this with his ordination as an Orthodox priest on March 18, 1908, at St. Nicholas Cathedral in New York. He was twenty-six years old. Then, on March 22, 1908, the young Fr. Noli celebrated the first liturgy in Albanian in the Knights of Honor Hall in Boston, using translations he had prepared. For the next several years he built his community. Then, for four months beginning in August 1911, Fr. Fan toured the Albanian communities throughout Europe, holding church services in Albanian in Kishinev, Odessa, Bucharest, and Sofia.
Paralleling his career in the Orthodox Church, Fr. Fan was active in Albanian politics. From February 1909 until July 1911 he edited the newspaper Dielli (The Sun) in the Boston Albanian community. On April 28, 1912, he founded the Pan-Albanian Vatra (The Hearth) Federation of America with Faik bey Konitza. He had become the recognized leader of the Albanian Orthodox community, as well as having established himself as the writer and journalist of the nationalist movement. Graduating from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Fr. Noli hurried to Europe to attend the Albanian Congress of Trieste in March 1913, as Albania had been declared independent by Ismail Qemal bey Vlora in November 1912. Then, in July 1913 he visited Albania for the first time.
While in Albania, Fr. Noli served the first Orthodox church service in the Albanian language. For a time in August 1914 he was in Vienna, but as World War I opened and intensified he returned to the United States in May 1915. He again assumed the editorship of the Boston Dielli, now a daily paper. Then, as the war generated conditions in Albania became more chaotic with an attendant political vacuum, the Vatra Federation in the United States began considering itself as a quasi-Albanian government in exile. Fr. Noli upon his return became its president.
During the war Fr. Noli continued organizing the Albanian Orthodox community. On March 24, 1918, he was appointed administrator of the Albanian Orthodox community in the United States by Bp. Alexander (Nemolovsky). On November 17, 1918, he took monastic vows and was raised to the rank of archimandrite. During the year 1919, he was elected bishop of the Albanian Orthodox Church in America by the General Council of the Albanian Church. But due to the unsettled conditions in the Orthodox church at the time, he was not consecrated before he returned to Europe as the head of the Albanian delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva, seeking admission for Albania.
With the end of World War I, Fr. Noli continued deep involvement in fund-raising and campaigning for recognition of an independent Albania during the post-war conferences. On December 17, 1920, the League admitted Albania to membership, thus establishing worldwide recognition of Albania's independence. This admission to League membership, Archimandrite Noli considered his greatest accomplishment. Returning to Albania from Geneva in 1921, he represented the Vatra Federation in the Albanian parliament, and in 1922 he was appointed foreign minister in Xhafer bey Ypi's government, but resigned several months later.
On November 21, 1923, Archimandrite Noli was consecrated Bishop of Korca and Metropolitan of Durres. He was now the head of the Orthodox Church of Albania.
Now, the events of 1924 would bring Metr. Noli to his political summit. While the leader of the Orthodox Church in Albania, Metr. Noli was also the leader of a liberal political party opposing the conservative party of Ahmet Zogu who was supported by the feudal landlords and middle class. After an attempted assassination on Ahmet Zogu, the nationalist deputy Avni Rustemi was assassinated on April 22, 1924, allegedly by a group of Zogists. Metr. Noli gave a fiery oration at Rustemi's funeral that provoked such a reaction by the liberal opposition that Zugo was forced to flee to Yugoslavia.
Then, on July 17, 1924, Metr. Noli was proclaimed prime minister, followed shortly by being designated Regent of Albania. He presented a twenty-point program for modernization and democratization of Albania, but the country was unready for such brash and idealistic ideas. On December 24, 1924, Zogist forces overthrew Noli's government, and he left Albania for the last time. After drifting through Europe for the rest of the decade, Metr. Noli returned to the United States in 1930 on a six-month visa. With the expiration of his visa he was forced to return to Europe, but in 1932 he was granted permanent resident status and returned to the United States permanently. Upon arriving in the United States he withdrew from political life and returned to his duties as head of the Albanian Autocephalic Orthodox Church.
Ironically, in late 1933, his archenemy Ahmet Zogu gave Metr. Noli 3,000 gold francs to pay for treatment of a serious illness that Metr. Noli couldn't afford. Through this gift much of the animosity between Noli and Zogu was reconciled, as well as with his old compatriot, Faik bey Konitza.
Metr. Noli's dream of an Albanian national church was fulfilled on April 12, 1937, when the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the autocephaly of the Church of Albania. In the early years after World War II Metr. Noli maintained reasonable relations with the new communist regime in Albania and tried to persuade the United States to recognize the new state. Unfortunately, his attempts only generated enmity and polarized relations among the émigré circles in America, as the communist government began destroying religions in the country. In 1953, he moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he bought a house using part of a $20,000 grant from the Vatra Federation. Here, he died at the age of 83 on March 13, 1965.
While Metr. Fan Noli is remembered mostly for his efforts toward founding the Albanian nation and for bring Orthodox Christianity to the Albanian nation in their own language, he also was a leader in establishing a literary Albanian language. He was a poet, dramatist, historian, musicologist, and a translator of note. For the Orthodox Christians it is his translations of the Orthodox rituals and liturgies into Albanian that will be long remembered. His early works were collected into two volumes, the Book of Holy Services of the Orthodox Church in 1909 and the Book of Great Ceremonies of the Orthodox Church in 1911. More church translations followed in later years, all in an elegant and solemn language that honored the Byzantine traditions that he so loved. He continued translating throughout his life, including translations into English after English began to enter his American parishes.
In the non-religious fields he is remembered for his works on Albanian history as well as of great figures from the past, both political and musical. He wrote both in Albanian and in English. His works in the Albanian language, both in prose and in verse, contributed greatly in establishing an elegant style to the language that is refined and flows with elegance.
Constance J. Tarasar, ‘‘Orthodox America 1794-1976 Development of the Orthodox Church in America’’Syosett, New York, The Orthodox Church in America, 1975