Out of the Darkness

The voice of Marika Cico

Despite the extreme religious repression that reigned in Albania for so many years, thousands of people lived a carefully-hidden religious life. A few even dared to organize hidden churches, among them two sisters living in Korça, the principal city in the southeast of Albania. One of the sisters is still alive — Marika Cico (pronounced Tsitso), 95 years old when I met her. The Cico home — an old house behind a small courtyard in the center of Korça — was the location of many secret liturgies, baptisms, chrismations, confessions and marriages. These events normally happened late at night in a back room in which religious activity would least likely be noticed.

The trip from Tirana to Korça (19 km from the Greek border) was an unforgettable, at times nerve-wracking, experience, providing my first substantial encounter both with Albania’s mountains and the devastated condition of Albania’s roads. Though occasionally we encountered European-financed road improvement projects that provide a glimpse of a future day when travel will not be such a trial, for drivers at present travel in Albania is an endless search for that elusive part of the road that is least pitted.

But we had our rewards. There were amazing — also terrifying — vistas from narrow mountain ridges of unfolding valleys and other, still more dramatic peaks in the distance. Occasionally we looked down abrupt drops not just on one side of the road but both. It was along the narrow, winding route between Tirana and Elbasan that a young priest, Father Sotiri, his wife Marianna and one of their two sons was killed when their car plunged over the unguarded ledge of a cliff. (Remarkably, their other son survived the accident and is now living at the seminary near Durres.)

Later, driving along the edge of Lake Ochrid toward Pogradec, we stopped at a small restaurant, Shen Naumi, and ate freshly grilled koran, a fish for which Lake Ochrid has been famous since ancient times. A local fisherman had caught only three koran that morning.

It was in the late afternoon, after a first short visit with Metropolitan John, that my translator, John Lena, and I rang the bell of the Cico house.

Opening the door, Marika Cico crossed herself before leading us inside, bringing us into the kitchen. She was wearing a back dress and cap, in mourning not for a deceased husband — she never married — but for her dear sister Demetra who died in 1996. Yet there was no trace of sorrow or mourning in her face. Nearly blind, her wide eyes were made all the wider by the thickness of her glasses. She knew John already, clearly regarded him as a near relative, and assumed the very best of me as well. As it happened, there were two other visitors in the house, Frangji Kosti, a sister-in-law, and her niece, Anne Fiku.

“It is a blessing you came!” she said as we sat down at the kitchen table. She made her sign of the cross once again, then rested her hand on mine.

“First I wanted to thank God for two people, my parents. I thank God who made my mother and father faithful and who gave us a religious education. Our mother was very religious and gave all of us this joy. Mother always wanted a church here dedicated to Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin, and now it is being built in the center of the city! It is a miracle. We suffered but God held us up high.

“Whatever we suffered we always remained happy because we had God. When we were little girls, my mother often read to us — she read the Gospels, not the newspapers. The important things in our lives were parents, Gospel, Church. We all suffered — Turks, King Zog, wars, many trials, Communists, property taken away — but God was always with us in our suffering.”

She sent Franji to bring a photo of her mother so we could see her face. As it happened, she and her sister Demetra were on either side of their mother in the photo.

“Also I thank God for my sister.” Again she crosses herself. “Until she died, she had the Gospel in her hand day and night. She was a woman of great wisdom and strength. She was able to strengthen me and many others.”

I mentioned to her the admiration Archbishop Anastasios has for her and her late sister.

“There is no bishop like this anywhere. He is a new saint God has sent to Albania. When he arrived, we were so happy we flew! He saved Orthodoxy in Albania. He brought us out of darkness. He has done so much for us — built churches, given us priests, helped people who were suffering. When refugees came from Kosovo, he helped them. The government wanted to kick him out but he is still with us! We could hardly believe it when we heard a bishop was coming here. My nephew said, ‘Make yourself ready. The bishop is coming.’ We three sisters — myself, Demetra and Berta, our sister in Christ — went to meet him. Then we were introduced to him! He embraced us with tears.” Again she crossed herself. “And when he saw we had health problems — eyes, heart, throat — he sent us to Athens for healing.”

Her niece Anne interrupted to pour tea, but Marika hardly paused.

“I must tell you more about my mother. When I was little, I had a very poor memory. I couldn’t remember any of the things I was supposed to learn in school though I tried and tried. I started crying. My mother heard me, came and gave me a blessing. ‘Why are you crying?’ she asked. When I told her, she said to go to the church and ask the Virgin Mary to help me remember things. I did as she said. I went to the church, prayed before the icon of the Mother of God, took courage — and my memory became better! After that I stopped in the church every morning. Of course in those days the church still existed and the doors were always open. You could pray day and night.

“But in 1967 they came and told us that the church would be closed. My sister heard it first — she was a chanter in the church. Now there would be no churches to sing in! They told us to get rid of the icons, so we hid them all right here — behind curtains, in drawers. Later they searched, but God made them blind and they didn’t find them! Then a theologian we knew brought us a statue of Jesus the Italians that left in Korça. We hid this also, right in the closet behind some clothing. Again they searched and even then they didn’t find it! God closed their eyes. God did not allow them to see what was under their noses. Because they were frightened, other people brought icons to us and we hid these as well.”

I asked how it was possible that liturgies were celebrated in their house.

“It happened that a friend from Vlora came and told us about a faithful priest, Father Kosmas [Qirjo], and asked if we would like to meet him. We learned it was his custom once a week to wake at midnight, walk to another house, sometimes as much as 10 km away, to read from the Bible with others and to celebrate a secret liturgy. The windows were covered with blankets and the candle put under rather than on the table.

“In 1967 he watched as his church was burned down — the Church of the Five Martyrs in the village of Bestrova, near Vlora. Afterwards, with his wife and two sons, he was sent to do forced labor on a cooperative farm. Finally they were allowed to return to their village but he had to do manual labor 14 hours a day beginning at 6 AM, often working in bare feet.

“He was very poor. His black raisa [priest's robe] was so faded, it was almost white. He had seven children and lived in a muddy hut with only one window. It was a very poor family, but when we talked with him we realized he was an apostle. He talked with us all night long — night was the only time one could have such a conversation. We asked him what he needed and helped him and his family in every way we could. He had not been well-educated but he read the Bible by the light of the moon and God enlightened him. Like other priests in those years, he became a laborer, but he never gave up being a priest. ‘I am a priest,’ he said, ‘and I will remain in the church even if the church has no building. In my house I will dress as a priest, outside I will wear pants’.”

A cookie tin was opened and more tea poured.

“People wanted to be baptized, people wanted to be crowned [married], people wanted to confess — they would go to him in the middle of the night. He was far from here, on the other side of Albania near the Adriatic Sea. We could not easily communicate. We would send him a message — ‘Please find wool from the sheep so Frangji can make clothing for the children.’ This meant we are fasting — can you bring us Holy Communion? In the beginning there were about ten women in our group, all fasting through the week. On Thursday we would make candles and prosphora [bread for the Eucharist]. This was the day when Father Kosmas would arrive. Then on Friday night we could receive Communion!

“Five or six times a year, especially in the summer, he was able to come to Korça — to celebrate the Liturgy, baptize, bless marriages, hear confessions, and teach. One time he was stopped by the police and taken to the police station but they never looked in his bag — if they had, they would have found his vestments. God closed their eyes.”

Marika held her hand over her glasses so that I might see what God had done.

I asked how often Father Kosmas managed to come to Korça.

“When he came, the children would come very close to him. ‘Talk to us! Talk to us!’ they said. They didn’t want to leave him. They went to sleep. Our friends would arrive, coming one by one so as not to be noticed. The door was locked and the windows were closed with blankets. We slept a short time, then my sister made a table into an altar. She had everything that was needed. Father Kosmas would bring the wine. Then we did the Liturgy, celebrating until three in the morning. It was so beautiful. We were in heaven!”

Marika crossed herself three times.

“When we finished, we ate a little bread. Then one at a time, so that no one would notice, those who had come would go home. Sometimes there were baptisms, sometimes crownings. We did this regularly, contacting Father Kosmas whenever he was needed, though it was not easy to come — travel was difficult and there were always dangers.”

She told me that Father Kosmas had become the second Albanian-born bishop after the Communist time (the first was Metropolitan John of Korça, a spiritual child of Father Kosmas).

“Archbishop Anastasios wanted very much to have bishops who were born here, but when he arrived there were not even twenty priests still alive, many of them very weak, some close to death. It is the Orthodox rule that a bishop should be living a monastic rather than a married life. But in 1998 Father Kosmas and his wife embraced a celibate life, living apart so that he could serve as a bishop. Our dear Father Kosmas died on August 11, 2000, and we miss him. He lived the Liturgy every day. We were one body, this life we were living. I believe he was a saint.”

Marika paused. Tears were glistening in her eyes.

“For 23 years, from 1967 to 1990, this is how we lived. There was not one church open in all of Albania. Of course for many years before 1967 it was difficult — arrests, people exiled, even people shot — but still many churches were open.”

One of the people whom she had met before 1967 was Bishop Irineos, who was then living in exile.

“He was an educated man. He had studied in Belgrade. The Communists had taken everything from him. My sister sent me to him with olives and cheese. He was so happy when he saw me! So we sat at the table and talked and talked. I said, ‘With your blessing, please teach me something. Tell me what we should do, how we should act.’ It was because of this question that Bishop Irineos suggested to me what he called unsleeping prayer. He said there was a monastery in Yugoslavia that was in danger of being destroyed by a forest fire and that we should do unsleeping prayer to save it. I asked him, ‘What is unsleeping prayer? How can we do this? How is it possible with Communists all around?’ He said it was something we could do in turns. If you have 24 people, each person has one hour in the day — it could be 12 to 1 at night, for example. One hour, one person. When there are 12, each takes two hours. I returned to Korça and we agreed to do what he said. We did unsleeping prayer and on the sixth day the fire changed direction and the monastery was not destroyed. Even after the fire changed direction, we continued our prayer day and night for 40 days.”

She paused to sip her tea and catch her breath.

“That was the beginning — that was when churches were still open in Albania. When they were closed, many times afterward we did unsleeping prayer that the churches would reopen — and now they have! But we had to wait many years.”

I asked what actions they had undertaken in 1967.

“When the evil time came, I said, ‘Let us do unsleeping prayer again.’ We did it with twelve people and experienced a joy we had never felt before! We suffered many things, but still we were saved! One of my two brothers was sent into exile for five years in the worst village in Albania, but he survived. We also fasted. God took fear away from us! My brother said we must be careful, and we were, but we never stopped. This is how we were saved. And now, thank God, Communism has died and we are alive! And God gave us a big gift, these two bishops [Archbishop Anastasios and Metropolitan John of Korça]!”

Was their activity only in Korça, I asked.

“Sometimes we would go looking for mountain churches. There was an old villager who showed the way to one but he warned us to be careful — ‘They are listening!’ he said. We found the rocks where the church had been and we saw a woman kneeling there, praying in tears. She was frightened when she saw us but we told her not to be scared, we were also believers and we too had come to pray. In the night the old man who showed us the way let us stay in his own simple shed, an earth floor covered with hay. He said, ‘You sleep here.’ He shared his bread with us. In the morning we woke up early and said our prayers.”

A major event in the life of Korça’s hidden church was the arrival of Theofan Popa.

“Theofan Popa was a strong Christian well educated in theology and art history and employed with the Ministry of Monuments. He was able to save many churches by having them classified as monuments of culture. It was too obvious to his superiors that he was a Christian. As punishment, he was sent from Tirana to exile in Korça — but for us his arrival was a gift from God. At first he stayed in a hotel and there he asked someone he met in the hotel restaurant if there was anyone religious in the town and in this way he heard about my sister and me. We two were a choir, he was told. We came to our house and we talked for three hours. After that, we told him, ‘This is your house. Come whenever you wish. Don’t even ask.’ He was an angel to us. He was able to save many churches by having them recognized as monuments — also many icons were saved as ‘works of cultural importance’ because of him. They are still in the museum here in Korça. Had it not been for him, they would have been destroyed.”

The future bishop of Korça also found his way to the choir-of-two, the Cico sisters, and the hidden church that had formed around them.

“His name was Fatimir when we first met him — John after his baptism. He worked in a mental hospital because this was a place where he could do some good. When Father Kosmas baptized him, he said, ‘You will be like Saint John the Theologian.’ This is why he gave him the name John, and this is what happened — he became a theologian. I love him like a son.

“I remember there was an old woman in the hospital where he worked who wanted her legs washed — otherwise she would go crazy, she said. So he stayed at the end of each day to care for her. When a doctor found him staying late, he was surprised but respected the motives and gave him support afterward when support was needed. He even was ready to help him go to another country to study medicine at a time when travel abroad was almost impossible but he didn’t want to leave. He said, ‘But who will care for them? It is better to stay here. I can do more.’ And today he is Metropolitan John!”

She paused, crossed herself, and then remembered another important member of their community.

“I must not leave out our dear Papa Jani. We pray for him every day. Now he is a priest, one of the very first ordained after the time of no churches. In the hard years, he worked in a metal factory where he was able secretly to make crosses which he left in churches for visitors to find and take away.”

I asked when she could first sense the prohibition against religious life would finally end.

“Sometimes we would go in secret to roofless churches with no icons, only ruins, and pray in them. Once we did this when we had a sick nephew — we prayed and slept in a ruined church and he got better. That night there were two other people who came secretly with a candle to pray there and so discovered us. They were so frightened. The man was someone high in the government. We reassured them, ‘We are here for the same reason. You have nothing to fear.’ So we prayed together in that mountain church. The man told us that in one year the government would allow churches to be open again — we were so happy to know this! We started kissing his hand. But he said we must not tell anyone. It was a secret. I only told Father Kosmas.

“Finally [in 1990] the Communist time began to end. We were so happy, but all the churches were closed. In response to our request, the government in Korça decided we could have one church back and that we would be permitted to have the Liturgy there. The first service we prepared was for Theophany on the 6th of January in 1991. We had been preparing everything but we needed a bell! Then we found the solution, a large brass mortar used for grinding garlic! It rang perfectly.”

Franji got the mortar and together they demonstrated what a fine bell it could be in place of a real bell. Marika was beaming.

“You see how God helps us! But it was not possible for Father Kosmas to come to Korça for this event. We turned to another priest who lived near us in Korça, Father Kosta Kotnani. He had been afraid to act as a priest in the Communist time. He wanted to say yes to us but his sons were too frightened what might happen to their father if he served in public as a priest. They were not sure the danger was past. We had to pull Father Kosta out of the house. You could say we kidnapped him! Then in Korça everyone came out to take part. They heard the bell. The roads were filled. Everyone was trying to touch Father Kosta. Everyone was blessed with water, the whole city.”

“I am 95 years old and I no longer have any strength. I have little education but I have faith and love. Who knows why God has allowed me to live so long. It is a miracle. I would like to die in a monastery. I always wanted to live a monastic life but it was not possible. I can die tonight, I can die tomorrow. Blessed be God! I love you very much. God kept me alive so that I could talk to you, and I have never talked so much! God does wonders!”

Once again Marika crossed herself three times, tears spilling down her face. Then she led me by the hand into the book-lined room which had been used for liturgies so often from 1967 until 1990. We prayed silently in front of the icon corner before I took a photo of Marika, Franji and Anne.

“Now you are a person always welcome in our house,” she said as I left. “You are part of our family. God makes miracles!”

Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches; do not reprint without the author’s permission.