Brief History of St. John Chrysostom Albanian Orthodox Church
In the early 1900’s, thousands of Albanians emigrated from their homeland to the United States. Most of them brought with them little more than a deep belief in Orthodoxy. In 1915, the first Albanian Orthodox Church was established in the Philadelphia area, St. Peter and St. Paul. As the immigrant community grew, a group of parishioners, along with Rev. Mark Kondili began to look for a Church to bear the name of St. John Chrysostom. Some of the early parishioners were: Mitte Zalli, Socrate Pappas, James Hassis, Sr., Pando Pashko, Louis Dimitri, Michael Couris, Elias Steffa, and Odesif Notskas, In the meantime, Liturgy was held at the Serbian Orthodox Church near Girard Avenue.
The new location was the former Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, designed by noted architect, Napolean LeBrun and built in 1848. Mr. LeBrun had designed the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, our neighbor, and was involved in the design of the world famous Academy of Music at Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia, PA.
At the beginning the building was provided rent free from the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia who also provided a stipend for the parish priest. This combination of events allowed the new Albanian Orthodox community to officially open the Church of St. John Chrysostom in 1931.
The years up to and including World War II were difficult for these new Americans. Just beginning to establish themselves and their businesses, they still found time to worship, build a Church family, do repairs, provide funds and assume all the responsibilities that starting a new Church required. Under the leadership of Rev. Mark Kondili, the new Church was on its way to a successful future, and in 1946 the people of St. John’s voted to be under the spiritual guidance of His Grace Bishop Theophan S. Noli. In the years ahead, Bishop Noli would prove to be the driving force for the Albanian people to actively contribute to the growth of America.
In the spring of 1947, St. John’s was incorporated as a non-profit organization, and purchased the current building from the Episcopal Diocese for $25,000, a princely sum in those days. The names that appear on the deed are Anesti Zoto, Theodore Douris, and James Parcellas. Also, started in 1947 were the first Church choir and the Ladies Club. Both organizations continue to work hard for St. John’s.
1950 brought radical changes for the times. The Gospel was read in English as well as Albanian, as was the sermon. It was during this time that men and women began to sit together, not on opposite sides of the Church, as had been the custom.
The Church continued to grow, even on a budget of $2,000 for the year. In the early fifties, it was decided to purchase 100 cemetery lots in conjunction with St. Peter and St. Paul, our sister Church. The section is called Valley View in Fernwood Cemetery in Yeadon, PA. The purpose was, and is still, to make those lots available to the parishioners for purchase when needed. Even now, every Memorial Day finds many parishioners at Fernwood for the Memorial Service.
After serving at St. John’s for seven years, Father Nickolous fell asleep in the lord suddenly in 1953. After some searching and help from Bishop Noli, a replacement was found that September, the Rev. Haralambi Dode of Chicago.
During the fifties, sixties, and seventies, annual Church picnics were combined with St. Peter and St. Paul. These picnics attracted Albanians from all over the region. As many as 400-600 people would attend.
In October of 1957, English became the language of the Liturgy once a month. The Albanian immigrants of our early Church were starting to be Americanized while still appreciating their heritage. Father Dode guided St. John’s through these years and decided to retire in 1959. However, it took two years to find a replacement. It was not until June of 1961 that Bishop Noli brought Rev. Leon Costa to St. John’s as a the new parish priest.
In March of 1962 the founder and first editor, Kevo Papinghi, published the first issue of the monthly Bulletin. The Bulletin has been published almost every month for 52 years with only short interruptions.
The early sixties was also a time of high activity in sports for the Albanian youth of the Philadelphia area. William Stavrou led the young Albanian American boys to the championship of the Main Line Church Basketball League in May of 1962. Many of these same young men also played in numerous AANO teams against the other Albanian American teams from up and down the East Coast as their annual tournaments AANO also had a “Queen” competition. Several young ladies from St. John’s were either Queen or in her court.
By this time, the Sunday school was growing in leaps and bounds, topping out at about 103 students. A full and active program was available and space was limited, but room was made for all. The parish was anxious to have Father Reynolds assigned as the permanent priest, but Bishop Noli in his wisdom asked us to be patient for little longer, He had just the right person in mind.
In September 1963, Father Spero Page arrived at St. John’s with Prifteresha Mary and their three boys. Father was newly ordained and full of ideas that would greatly aid the progress of St. John’s and energize the youth of the Church. He brought with him a deep spirituality and a sense of fun, which was appreciated by young and old alike. In 1964, Father and his family moved into the first parish house St. John’s ever purchased, 5118 N. Marvine Street in North Philadelphia, PA, near LaSalle University.
March of 1965 was the beginning of three to four years of turmoil for the Albanian Archdiocese as the beloved founder and educator of the Albanian in America, Bishop Theophan S. Noli, fell asleep in the Lord. In October 1971, the people voted to accept Bishop Stephen Lasko as head of the Albanian Archdiocese and in conjunction unify with the Orthodox Church in America. St. John’s parish, blessed by the leadership of Father Page through Bishop Noli’s grace, was able to progress.
1971 brought the 40th Anniversary and the Franklintown discussions. It was touch and go for quite a while. Eventually with help from the Philadelphia Mayor (Frank Rizzo was Albanian on his father’s side) and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, St. John’s was able to stay in its original location. Our neighborhood had changed. No longer on a street with private homes, our little church was to be surrounded by a towering hotel and office buildings. The stone community hall attached to our building was torn down. By 1974, Summer Street no longer existed.
It is said that change is the one constant in life and St. John’s was no stranger to change. Bishop Stephen fell asleep in the Lord in 1975. Because St. John’s was now under the Orthodox Church in America, Bishop Dimitri was appointed immediately as interim Bishop. At this time, Father Authur Liolin, from the Cathedral of St. George became Chancellor of the Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese. He serves to this day in that position, some 39 years later. The third big change came in July. Father Page requested a transfer to take place within a year. It was sad for the parishioners, but they did what they had always done; continued worshipping, supporting, and working to keep St. John’s alive and well.
In autumn 1976, Rev. Eugene Vansuch, Prifteresha Fran and another set of three boys, which included a brand new baby, came to St. John’s. During his time of spiritual guidance, we experienced the inconvenience of construction all around us, two changes in Bishops, a very large OCA convention hosted by St. John’s, and Archdiocesan Convention, and many other challenges In 1978, the newly elected Metropolitan Theodosius of the Orthodox Archdiocese in America assumed leadership of the Albanian Church in America. In late 1979, Bishop Mark Forsberg became Bishop of Boston and the Albanian Archdiocese.
One of the highlights of St. John’s around this time was the 50th Anniversary. It was a year filled with activity lead by Father Eugene and his many committees. The kick off to the celebration was in November 1979 when the altar was consecrated. The final weekend included vespers, a dinner dance attended by over 400 people at our then new neighbor, The Franklin Plaza Hotel, (now the Sheraton Hotel) and finally a Church filled with parishioners on Sunday morning, November 15, 1981.
St. John’s was blessed to receive Father Dennis Rhodes, Prifteresha Tina, and their son and daughter as a permanent priest and family in 1986. Father Dennis stayed for thirteen years, during which time an unexpected and amazing thing happened. In 1990 after years of Communism, war, economic problems, no Churches or religion, Albania opened its borders and allowed emigration to the United States. Seemingly overnight, our aging congregation doubled, sometimes tripled, with young families who mostly could not speak English and had little knowledge of Orthodoxy. Many adjustments needed to be made including using more Albanian in the Liturgy, finding Sunday school teachers who had some knowledge of the Albanian language, and helping to make the new Americans feel at home. In the meantime, the parishioners concerned about the unrest in the parent’s homeland sent boxed and boxes of food, clothing, Christmas gifts, and medical supplies to relatives still in Albania.
Father Dennis was transferred in December 1999. At that time, it was decided to sell the parish house which was now located in Northeast Philadelphia on Stanwood Street. St. John’s once again needed the services of substitute priests. At last, in December of 2000, Father Brooks Ledford came to Philadelphia along with Prifteresha Jaime, and their children. Father jumped in with both feet to revitalize our Church, starting several new ministries and giving memorable sermons. Father Brooks left unexpectedly, in July 2002, to work with the homeless in Texas. In August 2002, Fr. Gregory O’Leary and Prifteresha Jane came to guide our little parish. They immersed themselves into all aspects of our Church life. Father gave meticulously researched sermons to inspire us and helped get our neglected records back in shape.
In May of 2002, Very Rev. Nicholas Liolin was consecrated to the office of Bishop and took the monastic name of NIKON. Bishop NIKON was assigned as the Bishop of Boston for the Albanian Archdiocese in October 2003, filling a long vacant Episcopal See. Bishop NIKON’s election to be our spiritual guide was very special to the people of St. John’s. Many of us had known him for years as Father Nick from Detroit. In November 2005, Bishop NIKON was also assigned as Bishop of New England with the title of Bishop of Boston, New England, and the Albanian Archdiocese. His Grace has been a tireless worker in the Lord’s Vineyard and has done much good in strengthening both Diocese’.
In August 2005 His Grace assigned the Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Searfoorce to be the Rector of St. John’s. Father’s love of Orthodoxy has been an inspiration to us all. His Wife, Prifteresha Barbara’s calm presence and caring ways endeared her to the parishioners.
In June of 2006 His Grace Bishop NIKON ordained Rev. Jason Vansuch a priest. This son of our parish is following his father’s footsteps – our very own Very Reverend Father Eugene.
The occasion of the 75th Anniversary finds the pews of St. John Chrysostom filled to overflowing with a mix of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations of the original founders, many non-Albanian converts, and Albanians newly immigrated to the United States. This eclectic group of parishioners has one main goal in common: to glorify and worship God in the Orthodox Church, as did the very first parishioners.
The first fifty years of St. John’s history was compiled from the 50th Anniversary “Pictorial and Written Highlights.”