The first Roman Catholic church in America to serve the Albanian community is imbued with the rich history of the people who have come to call New York home. It is named for a miracle that is an inspiration to a people who have survived a history of hardship. Zoja e Shkodres (Lady of Shkodra) is a 5th century painting that long resided in the North Albanian city for which it is named.
In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire invaded the Albanian homelands. Resistance was fierce. The legendary general Skanderbeg successfully repelled every Ottoman incursion for twenty five years. The latter years of the century were hard times for Albanians. After decades of successful resistance, the great hero Skanderbeg died and the Ottomans slowly took control over the country. With their armies, they brought their religion. Over two thirds of all Albanians were forcibly converted to Islam. Churches were burned.
The early years of the 20th century were hard times for Albanians. After five centuries of occupation by the Ottomans, the Albanian people then had to suffer the Great Powers of Europe bent on war and conquest. The Balkan Wars and the World Wars were fought across Albanian homeland. The rich Balkan lands would have been completely divided as spoils had not the American President Woodrow Wilson intervened in 1920 at the behest of Albanian American Fan Noli. After fourteen different failed attempts at government, including the reign of King Zog and a democratic government led by Noli, and Hitler’s retreat in 1944, Albania came under the control of Enver Hoxha who condemned Albania to Communism.
Ottoman rule was severe. Children were forcibly conscripted into Ottoman service where they were raised into military and bureaucratic servitude. Clan rivalries were exploited to keep the people divided. The lands were separated into feudal districts establishing a land owning system that would haunt Albania, along with theological and economic differences, for long after the Ottoman Empire had gone away.
After World War II, Albania was afflicted with Communism on a scale far worse than many other countries. Hoxha idolized Stalin’s most dictatorial practices. Repressions of individual freedoms were devastating all aspects of life. Paranoia secluded Albania from even other Communist countries. Clergy were jailed and the entire country was proclaimed officially atheist. Men were sentenced to execution for no more a crime than having an education and refusing to join the Communist Party. Anthony Kapaj was one such man.
Shortly after the death of Skanderbeg, Albanian resistance fell apart and the Ottomans swept across the Balkan peninsula. Before the Ottomans could have an opportunity to lay siege to the city of Shkodra, a cloud descended upon the church housing the millennium old picture of the Mother of Jesus. Witnessing a miracle, two priests of the church observed the painting float into the cloud and drift away westward. They followed the painting. It floated across the Adriatic Sea, and they found themselves walking upon the water in following the picture adrift in this cloud. After days of tireless journey, the painting led them to the shores of Italy and on to a humble church in the town of Genazzano. The inhabitants of this town were quite amazed to see this cloud descend upon the ancient church and leave behind such a painting.
Anthony Kapaj is a man of education. He is also my grandfather. He was born and raised in the mountains of northern Albania. Living under Communist rule in Albania proved to be a very hard life. He was jailed as a political dissident and faced execution. Fortune smiled upon him and he was freed from his imprisonment in a rare abatement of political oppression. He did not hesitate. Upon leaving prison, he collected his family and, along the families of his brother in law and best friend, escaped from the isolationist society.
The church in Genazzano, as old as the church in Shkodra, was rebuilt to house the painting where it has been kept safe ever since. The painting of the Lady of Shkodra, also known as Mother of Good Counsel, surely would have been destroyed upon the Ottoman conquest of the city. It was so placed that it survived even when the church, its new home, was badly damaged in World War II.
Yugoslavia was Albania’s immediate neighbor to the north which, though a Communist nation itself, made it a favorable destination for Albanians living in the north and fleeing Albania’s rather extreme practice of Communism. In 1948, Yugoslavia severed ties with its neighboring Communist nations and the Soviet Union. One byproduct of this breakdown in diplomatic relations among Communist states in the Balkans is that refugees were no longer deported. Albanians that managed to cross the border into Yugoslavia were now allowed to stay in Yugoslavia where they were previously sent immediately back to Albania when found.
In 1958, my grandfather did just that. The three families together managed to cross the border in a rowboat in July of that year. Yugoslavia may have seemed better than staying in Albania, but it was still a Communist country that came with all the trimmings of Communist oppression. They were still prisoners in an intolerant system. Eighteen months later, my grandfather became the first Albanian to escape from Yugoslavia into Austria. In December of 1960, he made his way to fly to America.
There were Albanians in America with established communities and religious institutions before my family came here. There has been an Albanian Orthodox church in the United States since 1908. An Albanian Muslim community has set up a mosque as early as 1915. But there was no Catholic church when my family arrived.
In 1962, Father Zef Oroishi came from Italy to the Bronx to serve the Albanian American Catholic community there. He was sent by the Vatican to be an official pastor for this community. Most Catholic Albanians that escaped from the north had made their way into Italy. At first they were welcomed into the country and helped to settle into different communities but as more waves of refugees came into the country, the Italians quickly changed from offering a warm welcome, to putting them in refugee camps. Father Oroishi worked to help these people immigrate into the United States. At the same time, my grandfather had been working to help his friends and relatives, who had escaped to Yugoslavia, make their way to New York as well.
The Albanian community in New York, centered mainly in the Bronx, quickly grew. In 1970, Father Oroishi received permission from Cardinal Cooke and founded the Mother of Jesus of Shkodra church at 4221 Park Avenue in the Bronx. It was the first Catholic church for Albanians in all the Americas. Father Peter Popaj was ordained in 1985 by Cardinal O’Connor in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He was the first Albanian Catholic priest to be ordained in America. In 1990, a new and larger church was built in Hartsdale, Yonkers where Father Popaj now presides as pastor.
In 1988, one hundred and ten Albanian Americans, including my grandparents, went on a pilgrimage to Italy. They took a boat trip in the Adriatic Sea to view Albania safely from international waters, before the fall of Communism there. They met the Pope in the Vatican. They also traveled to the church in Genazzano to see, in a little alcove just deep enough to prevent people from reaching in and touching it, a fifteen hundred year old painting named Zoja e Shkodres.
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Coutsoukis, Photius. Albania History. 2001.
Elsie, Robert. Fan NOLI. 2002.
Kapaj, Anthony. Personal Interview. 2 November 2002.
Numan, Fareed H. American Muslim History - A Chronological Observation. 2002.
Smajlaj, Martin. Our Lady of Shkodra. 2002.
20th Century Day by Day. 2002.
Our Good Lady's Legend. 2002.
Our Lady of Good Counsel. 2016.
© 2002, by Luigi Kapaj
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last updated on October 5, 2016