By Rafaela Prifti/
Following the retirement of Very Reverend Arthur Liolin at Saint George Cathedral in Boston, Father Nikodhim has accepted the appointment of the Interim Chancellor of the Albanian Archdiocese. Before the start of the interview, he makes an important point of clarification on this topic. We continue the interview with questions regarding the significance of this moment including constraints on the church’s practices in the course of the pandemic. We talk about the historical connection between the Albanian national movement in America and the Albanian Orthodox Church. On that point, I emphasize that key activists and protagonists of the movement and Church, who were patriots of all faiths, went on to establish Vatra as the Pan-Albanian Federation of America. On the theme of religious unity among Albanians, Father Nikodhim wonders in admiration: “Where else will we see pastor and hoxha, priest and imam, seated together as brothers.” His own story is a testament of Father Nikodhim’s appreciation of inclusiveness in faith, culture, nationality. Born Nathan Preston in the northern sliver of Idaho, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, he was ordained to the priesthood at St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church by the late Archbishop Nikon (Liolin) in 2010. In 2017, His Eminence, the Archbishop, called Father Nathan to embrace the monastic life, tonsuring him with the new name Nikodhim in honor of the Holy Martyr Nikodhim of Vithkuq and Berat. I am thankful to him for the interview, which provides insights into the endeavors that have been undertaken as well as presents a view into what’s to come.
Fr. Nikodhim – The appointment of the diocesan chancellor is the prerogative always of the archdiocesan bishop. Indeed, as I was asked to step into this role, I found that even those tasks and responsibilities of the chancellor are defined in our constitution and bylaws as being identified explicitly and exclusively by the hierarch. I raise this now as a point of clarification but also to acknowledge that I am in no way an apt successor to the long decades of leadership, wisdom, and profound knowledge of my predecessor, Fr. Arthur Liolin. I do not pretend otherwise—I don’t know that I could sleep well at night under such heavy responsibility and expectation. Rather, I am a stopgap; I am, I pray, a man for this moment as we look as an archdiocese into the future and try to meet the needs of the present. And, at the appointment of our next hierarch and archpastor, I hope that he will feel free to select his own chancellor who will best work with him to guide our archdiocese into many more years of faith, growth, and care for those who call it home. Among those priests I am proud to call my brothers, there are certainly many more qualified than I.
- Thank you for making time for our interview!
Let’s start with the Pashka. The Albanian Orthodox community joined the Orthodox Christianity around the globe to observe the Holy Week of Pashka on May 2. I couldn’t help going back to read the church’s message last year during the Pashka in April of 2020. It was the start of the pandemic. The message from church invited parishioners to attend Pascha Services from home and to follow the curfew hours and other guidelines put in place since the parishes would close on April 1. What followed were lockdowns and more restrictions. And to facilitate attendance from afar, live services were made available to allow participation by phone, computer, or tablet. What was Pashka like a year ago? Can you draw some comparisons from last year to now?
Fr. Nikodhim – I struggle to answer this question with any semblance of justice because, for those of us in this country, last year was without any precedent. Even in the memories of my oldest parishioners, the Church was never closed like this here. What we were called to do, particularly in areas so hard hit at that time as all of New York was but Queens most especially, was simply to stop. The lights went out; the doors were bolted shut. I say that this was without any precedent in our memory as Americans. Certainly for the faithful of St. Nicholas who remember the privations and outright prohibitions of religious practice in Albania during the Communist regime, the terrors of absence were somehow familiar. While I could never equate the necessities of public health and safety in the face of a virus with the atrocities of a totalitarian regime, we drew strength from the witness of our brothers and sisters who lasted, faithfully and prayerfully, to see the end of Hoxha’s twisted vision of progress. Hearkening our people back to those stories of clandestine red eggs and radios tuned low to Easter broadcasts, the stories I have personally been told from the lips of our own folks, we remembered that they had outlasted and we, too, could outlast. This year is pure joy in comparison, and we experience each service with gratitude as something returned to us again. And it is this joy that we have tried to communicate with our now necessary online presence. Whether they are ready to be back in Church in person, we want—we need—to make sure everyone knows that they are welcome and remembered wherever they are. Numerically, we were at about half our accustomed crowd for most services of Holy Week and Pascha. Half our normal body of people. I don’t know, frankly, how many were watching online or the breakdown between those who “tuned in” live and those who viewed and view the archived material. During the services, we plug in the camera and keep it running. Most everyone here consistently has a job these days, and monitoring our numbers online has yet to be prioritized.
- Let’s stay back in time for a bit longer, as it were. I recall the Newsletter message issued on March 18, 2020, asking to protect the most vulnerable and taking steps to be good neighbors and citizens in all our communities. It said that turning “our attention to those whose needs may be different than our own is also part of our Christian life.” On a personal level, I am part of a generation of Albanians who grew up as non-religious in communist Albania, yet the message of encouraging good citizenry in the face of unprecedented pandemic touched me. Every week of the pandemic year, your message of hope came in the mailbox with an image attached to it symbolizing the idea of resilience and strength. I note that for parishioners, the full service schedule and Pascha letter in both English and Albanian are available on the website as are streaming of the prayers. What has stood out most for you during this year?
Fr. Nikodhim – Two things come to mind when you ask about this last year and what has stood out. First, it is truly remarkable how creative we have been able to become. While we have all suffered through technological hiccoughs and a steep learning curve and we all can certainly embark on long litanies of complaints about the many media we now use almost daily, we have been able to be remarkably present for each other. There is a fundament of kindness and care for strangers and friends alike that has been revealed and been recognized as good. So we have witnessed a strange dawn in our culture as care for others has been given pride of place anew, the virtue of compassion lionized in these months of need. Second, as you know, I am a monastic priest. While most of my peers and clergy brothers are married and with families, I am not. I observe my siblings and my friends in the pride they so rightly take in the growth of their children at those milestone moments, at graduations and inductions and rites of passage. There is a sense of movement and consistency and the passing of generational honor in these things. I have sensed something similar to this as we progress forward more and more into the reopening of our society. Thanks be to God and thanks be to the scientists and brave doctors and nurses and wise civil leaders, we have tasted victory, and we must always pause to celebrate this with thanksgiving. I do not know if it will be possible to continue to be grateful in the same way as the novelty of victory recedes, but I hope we will remember proudly the small things that we were able to take back piece by piece. These graduations deserve our memory and esteem.
3 – The newsletters recognized that “we are all now being challenged to find new ways to reach out and be present for each other…” How do you do that? Especially when everything moved online?
Fr. Nikodhim – For the time being and until we can safely be back in each other’s presence, yes, most of our groups have shifted to online. Our Church School has been remarkably successful in this period thanks to the hard work of our Sunday School administrator and parent volunteers. While our kids meet online and are glad to see friends and cousins there, they are wearying of online education as it has become ubiquitous in some form or another for nearly all. To remedy this, we send monthly materials to each enrolled household so that something tactile and accessible is there at home. Personally, I can’t wait to hear the hubbub of children’s voices crying and yelling and embarrassing their parents at Church again.
4 – This is a two part question: Saint George Cathedral is integral to the Albanian-American community and the history of modern Albania. Furthermore, it represents the birthplace of Vatra and Dielli for many generations of Vatrans. Father Liolin has described it as “a spiritual hill on a peninsula, most notably known for its independent spirit, freedom of thought and veneration,” that, he says, has welcomed many in the past and by the grace of God, is going to welcome even more in the future. How do you see the role and place of St. George’s? Last February, Saint George’s Cathedral in Boston issued a special announcement regarding Very Reverend Arthur Liolin. It read, in part, that “Father Arthur who has served with excellence for more than fifty years, now assumes the position of Chancellor Emeritus and Senior Pastor of Saint George Albanian Orthodox Cathedral.” Further, it said that that in the coming months, you, would be serving as Interim Chancellor of the Albanian Archdiocese. Can you describe what that has meant for you?
Fr. Nikodhim – St. George Cathedral is, as you quote Fr. Arthur in saying, a “spiritual hill”. It has long been a beacon whose light shines far beyond Boston or even America. And following upon a legacy of service more than five decades deep cannot help but be a challenge for its next pastor. In what is undeniably an uncomfortable moment of need and transition, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, the locum tenens (interim hierarch) of this diocese is exercising a great deal of care. Certainly it is tempting to try to find someone with bright charisma and the dynamism for which Fr. Arthur is not just remembered but beloved. Certainly there are needs for this next incumbent to know and esteem the history of Boston’s place in Boston and Albania. Certainly fluencies of language and culture and memory are also needed. Yet exceeding all these things and binding them into purpose is love for the people who call the Cathedral home. For his skill, for his memory, for his manifold accomplishments on behalf of Albanians both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Fr. Arthur is well known, but it is because of his unreserved love for us that we have followed him. Only by this same virtue will a true successor be known. And we are praying that a true successor will be known soon. As you state, now is a moment of transition, yet not for our clergy alone, but for us all. In this time, it is my conviction that we will be best served not by fleeing from a pain that is real, this pain of change and loss, but by choosing not to be mastered by this. Birthed amid chaos and oppression, this diocese has yet offered its clarion voice generation by generation, unyielding to convenience, unmuted in its call to all for justice, peace, and love.
5 – In November of 1969, Vatra’s commemoration of Dielli’s 60th anniversary saw thousands of Albanians and clergy representatives of three main religions gather at Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York city, with his Eminence Terence Cardinal Cooke as the guest of honor joined by the church leaders, ministers, parishioners and Arberesh faithfuls of the Byzantine ritual who had traveled from Italy. It is well documented as a moment of pride and gratification for Vatra and the community. To this day, the rotation of presiding over prayers and invocations by Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim or Bektashi clergy at various functions and festivities might be a reminiscent of that time. What are your thoughts on religious unity?
Fr. Nikodhim – Citing the tremendous witness of our religious unity and diversity in years past, you have asked about invocations at meetings these days. I am proud—very proud—to be but one of those more recent voices offering prayers, and I am humbled each time I come forward to do this both by those great figures of faith who have informed and inspired our people in times past and by those others who do so now and with an eloquence I can but aspire to. To be honest, I do not know whether these invocations should rightly continue or what events or convocations are appropriate for their inclusion. This is something better left to the discretion of the leaders of Vatra and to those who have entrusted this leadership to them. For myself, I hope it will continue, and I hope it will continue to call forward all the richness we possess, faith by faith yet one in life. In truth, where else will we see pastor and hoxha, priest and imam, seated together as brothers? Conflict is too often the driving force soliciting solidarity. We are blessed to be united in advance, warmed and sustained by the knowledge that, if and when conflict does come, we will weather it together. So in short, yes, it is my hope that Vatra will continue to bring us all together, and by this continue to bear that great witness to our world of faiths and people at peace.
- In the span of the last two years, we have paid tribute to a number of prominent and valuable members of the community. Last April, I paid condolences to the Foundos family for the passing of Albert, a greatly respected figure at the parish and in the community. You wrote “Throughout his life, Al devoted himself to the Orthodox faith and to forging opportunities for this to grow both in himself and in the lives of others, consistently committed to religious education and to ensuring that the Church live up to Christ’s high mandate to care for those in need.” Are we at a point of transition regarding Albanian church and its pastors here? Can you share your thoughts on this point?
Fr. Nikodhim – Thank you for your condolences. Albert’s falling asleep in the Lord was and is a very real loss. His repose just prior to Holy Week, at that time we each year remember Christ’s calling His friend Lazarus forth from the tomb, was particularly poignant as those themes of friendship and loss and hope were so present in Al’s life also. It would be a mistake as well as a gross impossibility to speak of replacing members of our community. We are all terribly irreplaceable, and I suspect Al would not hesitate to correct us should we be tempted to think him otherwise. What we can do is to pick up where others have left off. In different ways and with different talents, we can make common cause with those who have gone before us into the mystery of death. We can share something even now with them. At St. Nicholas, it has been so gratifying to me and to others whose service here is much longer than my own to see the average age of our parish council members begin to fall. New voices and new faces have arisen, arriving as they so often do providentially and outside the parameters of our insistent plans. To us belongs only the means to make ready, to prepare an invitation, and to choose to welcome. These are the tools with which we ensure the success of our successors.
- The Albanian national movement in America was founded and sprang to a great degree from the Albanian Orthodox Church. Indeed, its key activists and protagonists as well as patriots of all faiths, three years later, went on to establish Vatra as the Pan-Albanian Federation of America. At the head of these two important institutions, Orthodox Church and Vatra were the same leaders who steered the efforts and movement of members of all faiths to protect Albanian national interests. According to some accounts by most senior members who are New York residents, some fifty years ago Vatra’s meetings were held at the cultural hall of the Orthodox Church located on 48th street in the city. How do you view the connection, the past and now?
Fr. Nikodhim – It has long been my privilege to be in attendance regularly at the events of Vatra, and I have been honored to be included in so many of their meetings. Though my involvement at St. Nicholas precedes my appointment as the pastor here by some several years, it is no secret that I am not Albanian by ethnicity, history, or mother tongue. To be invited and—more than this—to be accepted nonetheless into the heart (and hearth) of the Albanian community is to me a great offering of trust and friendship, both personally as an individual and corporately as I stand in for my people. I hope that the Albanian community and Vatra in particular know how beautiful and even rare this can be: how they have a tremendous and even, I would say, divine gift of grace in offering hospitality that transcends mere formality. It is one thing to be an attendee or an interloper and quite something else to be a member of a family. I believe and it has been my experience that the latter, the invitation into family, is a point of fierce and worthy pride for Vatra, for our Albanian people, and between the leaders of our faith communities.
Regarding the specific interactions of Vatra and the Albanian Orthodox community here in New York, your knowledge of the history is far greater than my own. Within our archdiocese, we are one of the youngest parishes, and we were, for many years, on the smaller side of the middle range of our communities. Certainly, the involvement of the Archdiocese was curtailed at Vatra’s relocation to New York but this out of geographical distance rather than any disinterest or separation. We at St. Nicholas know also that, while we are now the oldest of the Albanian religious bodies in New York City, we are also the smallest, simply given the demographic and immigration patterns from Albania and neighboring countries into different regions of the United States. As a further note, let me also include that I have heard repeatedly in the years of my pastorate that St. Nicholas was founded not only through the generosity of people of diverse faiths but also that funds from an Albanian xhami, which had had to close, were offered to help us at the time of that first establishment. I have not been able to locate documents attesting to this, so much seems either not to have been recorded or preserved, but I do have faith in the memories of those older folks who have shared the same story again and again.
Over the years, I have been proud to share meals with other members of the clergy, and Vatra has ensured that this happens routinely. From those first meetings at festivities for Ditën e Flamurit and anniversaries and celebrations, relationships have blossomed. I know I am not alone in wishing for more hours in each day, more days in each week, but as our often too busy schedules do permit, it has been a joy and a privilege to get to spend time with the other spiritual fathers who serve our people. I feel at home in the embrace of their welcome and their peoples’ welcome on each visit, and I trust and pray that they, too, feel that they have come home each time they enter the doors of St. Nicholas Church. In these days and months that we have all been weathering this terrible affliction of sickness and separation, I believe we are holding fast as we can to all the small grains of hope we have. For me, the joy of return and the embrace of our community after this year of fracture is one of these seeds. I count on it.
- I recall that three years ago, in May 2018, a delegation of senior Vatra representatives composed of then-Chairman and several Board Members joined you to celebrate three quarters of a century of prayer at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church led by his late Eminence Archbishop Nikon. At his passing in 2019, a Vatra delegation did attend services and Dielli has covered events in a sign of appreciation for the Church’s lasting legacy. Can you share some thoughts? Also is there an update on the renewal project of the church?
Fr. Nikodhim – In May of 2018, three years ago exactly, my home of St. Nicholas inaugurated a year of rejoicing, feting our 75th anniversary of prayer and presence. We were honored and gratified and continue to be grateful to all who helped us celebrate. For those from St. Nicholas, the presence of guests from outside our regular ranks helped to note the day and to remind us of our place inside a broader community. Running and sustaining any corporate body can be difficult. For houses of worship and non-profits alike, it can sometimes seem a thankless and exhausting task simply to continue to exist, and it can be easy therefore to get lost in all those mundane though necessary responsibilities existence demands. For those who work at St. Nicholas and by this I don’t mean just the priest but all those who give their time, their talents, their support to this Church, having guests blessed us with a reminder of how much others love what we love and struggle for. Having guests located us again inside that broader community. It recalled us back into a shared rather than parochial life. We are grateful to the esteemed representatives of Vatra and to everyone else who showed up for us on that day and throughout that year for this reminder, for helping to keep us catholic. And in these intervening years, which have been at times very hard, I and the people of St. Nicholas have held as precious those memories of joy and celebration. At the loss of our archbishop in 2019, again a delegation from Vatra showed up for us, to grieve, to pray, to stand beside this archdiocese and its people as family while we mourned His Eminence Nikon, a native son of both New York and St. Nicholas Church.
You have asked quite rightly about the progress of our renewal and the life of our community since those days of joy in 2018. This is a process that needs to be renamed, remade, and celebrated periodically; we are strengthened by these reminders. But the process itself must continue always apace and unabating at each new day, for life without growth or change is but bare survival. This last year has been a formidable reminder of this as our world, country, state, and city closed down and our religious bodies within them fought to find new ways to bring hope and restore faith to those who could often be seen only amid a swirl of pixels. Whatever change or growth we envisioned entering our fourth quarter century at St. Nicholas those three short years ago, it did not include any conception of greater online outreach, live-streaming, caches of prayer housed on social media, or the now ubiquitous Zoom links that have all become so familiar. But here we are, and when I look to my right and look to my left I may have to tilt the camera to see what I know is there—my brothers and sisters stalwart at my side—but there they remain.
What the future holds for us now is not return but resurrection, daily growing more grateful as what we once assumed would always be there slowly and cautiously sometimes come back. What returns will surprise us with difference, and what the future holds for St. Nicholas Church or the Albanian Archdiocese promises no less. In our prayers at each divine service as the priest turns from the altar to offer the holy gifts to the people present in worship, he sings: Me frikë Perëndie, besim dhe dashuri, afrohuni! In the awe of God, with faith and love, we draw near!
- Lastly, how did Nathan Preston, later Father Nathan, become Father Nikodhim of the Saint Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church?
Born Nathan Preston in the northern sliver of Idaho between Washington State and Montana, and raised there, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I completed my elementary and secondary education within the warm embrace of a large family. After graduation, I attended university nearby, majoring in Music and Classical Languages. Thereafter, I moved east to Chicago, attending the University of Chicago and graduating with a Master’s degree in comparative religion. I then moved east again to begin priestly studies and formation at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Westchester County, concluding these in 2007. For two years I served as pastoral assistant and cantor at St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church while working in direct care as a social worker in Newark, New Jersey. Ordained to the diaconate in 2009, I continued for one more year to commute between St. Nicholas in Queens and the homeless shelter of my employ in Newark. Ordained to the priesthood at St. Nicholas by Archbishop Nikon (Liolin) of blessed memory in 2010, I have been the rector there since and remain its sole cleric. In 2017, His Eminence, the Archbishop, called Father Nathan to embrace the monastic life, tonsuring me with the new name Nikodhim in honor of the Holy Martyr Nikodhim of Vithkuq and Berat. In 2020, I was elevated to the honorary rank of Igumen (Abbot) by Metropolitan Tikhon, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America and locum tenens of the Albanian Archdiocese.
I thank you! Look forward to future talks!