By Anthony Athanas/
In celebrating the centenary of Fan Noli’s birth we honor a man whom many Albanians regard and revere as their greatest national hero since the legendary Scanderbeg. For those of us fortunate enough to have known him personally it is a time for reflection and remembrance of his historic achievements and contributions he made to my generation as our mentor.
But Noli was more than a great man. He was a warm, vibrant personality who moved in the company of the great world figures yet never lost the common touch. He was truly a man of all seasons – churchman, statesman, politician, author, poet, musician, scholar, orator and father figure to generations who share our heritage.
History, of course, will record his great services in the founding of an independent Albanian Church in America, his efforts to achieve an independent state of Albania, his eloquent performance at the League of Nations Conference and as Prime Minister of homeland. These achievements, however, are but part of the history of the extraordinary man. Noli’s eloquence in pleading Albania’s cause won him many enthusiastic supporters among the great statesmen of the postwar era, notably President Woodrow Wilson. Largely due to Noli’s impassioned pleas, Wilson fought vigorously for the right of Albania and other small nations to determine their own futures. The London Daily Mail, noting Noli’s great skills in diplomacy, hailed as the ablest of Balkan statesmen and suggested that his colleagues in neighboring countries could learn much from him.
By a striking coincidence, Fan Noli was born in the same month as another figure of destiny whose centenary is also being currently observed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were born under vastly different circumstances, one in a modest home in European Turkey, the other in wealth and patrician surroundings of Hyde Park, New York country estate. Yet from these disparate backgrounds each became a champion of freedom.
My first knowledge of Noli came through the pages of Dielli, the Albanian language newspaper, which he had founded in Boston with his fellow patriots. I learned the Albanian language from the pages of Dielli was a small boy at my father’s knee. Father who had left our native village of Trebicka to live in Sofia, Bulgaria, had been caught up quickly in the growing movement for Albanian independence.
A few years later, in this country, he and his four brothers came under Noli’s sway. Each issue of Dielli was an eagerly awaited event in our home as the brothers avidly read the Albanian language articles, a cherished link with the motherland.
Apart from his patriotic writings, Noli was an inspiring figure in the growing Albanian community as founder of the Albanian Orthodox Church of America. From the day he celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the Albanian language at a humble Boston hall in 1908 until the end of his long life, Fan Noli remained the beloved shepherd of his flock.
Noli had two long periods of residence in Boston – from 1906 to 1920 and finally from 1932 to his death in 1965. He loved Boston for many things: the great universities, the museums, the orchestras and theatres, the libraries and the personality of the city and his people. Widely recognized as one of the foremost scholars of his day, his friendships in literary, musical, political and religious spheres encompassed the world.
My personal association with Bishop Noli flowered during the late 1930’s in affairs of our church and the Albanian community at large, especially Vatra, the organization he had founded with others. It was a friendship has left a rich legacy of memories dating from the time I first met him as a shy boy of eight at a service in his humble church located in a third floor loft on Tremont Street, Boston.
I was fascinated by the charisma of this man of immense personal charm, eloquent, persuasive, satirical at times and very witty. His rich oratorical skills thrilled congregation and countless public functions of his times. His presence as a speaker at a banquet, for instance, was certain to increase attendance dramatically. If Churchill ranks as the greatest orator of our times in English then surely Noli was his equal in the Albanian language.
Noli’s life at his austere apartment at 26 Blagden Street was Spartan. The floors were bare of rugs and the furnishing meager. A desk in his living room was his “office” and here he received a constant stream of visitors. He generally padded about in open-toed sandals as he carried on his heavy work, load of religious and scholastic endeavors.
His home was adjacent to Boston’s great Public Library at Copley Square and he shuttled happily across the street days to spend fruitless hours researching material for his voluminous literary output. I recall him telling me once that living in Boston with its rich resources for scholarship was like living in a gold mime. “You don’t take nuggests out every time but there is gold dust everywhere for the taking,” he explained.
His writings brought him praise from the literary greats of the world including novelist Thomas Mann, Sibelius the composer and George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and critic. He sent Shaw a copy of his book Beethoven and French Revolution and took great pleasure in showing me Shaw’s reply. The letter hailed the superb literary quality of Noli’s but noted agnostic went on to lament that the Bishop has devoted his life to religion rather than literature!
As a religious leader he enjoyed the respect of leaders of all the great religions of the world. Long before ecumenism enjoyed its current status, Fan Noli practiced it zealously. Our Orthodox Church was the first national church for Albanians in America but this fact did not deter him from welcoming and aiding Albanians of the Moslem and Roman Catholic faiths when they were setting up their own religious bodies in the country.
He gave warm fraternal greetings and assistance to the Moslem leader, Imam Vehbi, when he came here and similar support to the Albanians prelates of the Catholic Church. Noli was enthusiastic about their efforts and I recall him urging us to aid both groups with material aid and friendship. Noli undertook these interfaith actions because he knew the religious bodies offered a great opportunity to perpetuate the traditions of the Albanian heritage among all segments of our people. It was but one of many such farsighted steps in Noli’s career that set him apart as a man far in advance of his times.
In music, his skills in composing and the range of his knowledge were masterful. He was awarded a degree in music by the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and was a regular patron of the Symphony and Fiedler concerts in season. On one of the Bishop’s last visits to Pier 4 it was my pleasure to introduce him to my friend Arthur Fiedler, who was at a nearby table. They immediately launched into an animated and lengthy conservation about music. Later, Fiedler confided to me that he had been amazed at the extent of Noli’s musical knowledge.
He took e deep personal interest in the lives of his people. In my case it was often marked by a sincere concern for my business success. At times, when I was planning new projects, he would voice his fears that I might be attempting too ambitious an effort. When I first showed him the site I had acquired for Pier 4 he was worried that the rather dilapidated area of that day could not be transformed successfully. In the following years when it had blossomed into a thriving center of Boston life, he was joyous that my faith in Pier 4 had been justified.
Another memory I cherish is that of his first visit to my present home in Swampscott some 25 years ago. He was struck by its spaciousness and what he termed the elegance of its furnishings. Then, with a smile, he remarked that in the Albanian homeland the churches were most beautiful buildings and the homes were often hovels. Here, he added mischeviously, the homes look like cathedrals and the churches like hovels. I decided then and there that I had better increase my financial support for the Cathedral!
In his later years, Noli retreated from his love of fine food and became a strict vegetarian, a diet he would relax for lobster and other fish if he were dinning in my restaurant in Lynn or Pier 4. At the dinner table, he was a fabulous conversationist, full of delightful anecdotes and reminiscences.
Was he a happy man? I think he found happiness in the ongoing growth of his church and the increasing prosperity of the Albanians who came to the new world. Most of all, his happiness probably came from the filial respect which his people showed him. Of course there were unhappy periods when there was controversy in church or community affairs or reverse in the long struggle for Albanian independence. Yet he held firm to his ideals and principles in good times and bad. One could not ask more.
At times a controversial figure, he sometimes created his own difficulties. Often, however, those who disagreed with him found later that history had vindicated his earlier judgements. His contributions to our people were enormous. They remain forever a proud memorial to Fan Noli.
This man, short in physical stature, was a giant in intellect and integrity. One hundred years after his birth, Noli’s brilliant flame burns brightly. For those of Albanian heritage who believe in the sacred cause of freedom to which he devoted his life, it will never flicker or die.(Dielli arciv and “Flamurtari i Kombit – 1882 – 1982”, f. 126-129)
Captions: From leftto right:ThanasChristo, Vehbi IsmailiImam, Fan Noli, Baba Rajab, Anthony Athanas, Boston 1959