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Rev. and Mrs. Phineas B. Kennedy: A Tribute

Used by the kind permission of Dr. Edwin E. Jacques with whom RCM's Rev. Donnan was in frequent phone contact during 1993.  He provided the following material.

Rev, and Mrs. Phineas Kennedy, the first American protestants to serve in Albania, arrived at the precise moment to involve themselves in her struggle for independence. A seemingly endless succession of armed uprisings against Ottoman oppression had culminated late in the 19th century in Albania's yet more dramatic cultural revolution. For centuries the victorious Ottoman Turks had deliberately split the Albanian population into rival groups with their feudal government, their religious antipathies and their substitution of other languages for the national idiom. Although a rich legacy of heroic ballads, poems, tales and proverbs had passed orally from generation to generation, the Turkish government had strictly prohibited publications in the Albanian language. Thus they hoped to denationalize the Albanian people, and to effect a greater homogeneity in the diverse populations composing their empire.

Actually the percentage of literacy in Albania was very low. Traditionally Albanians did not consider schooling a high priority for their children. Why should a young lad go to school and learn to use a pen when he did not yet know how to use a gun? Furthermore, even the few literate Albanians hardly knew their own language. For virtually all schools in the country were maintained by priests of the various religious communities. If Muslim children went to school anywhere, it was to a mosque school where instructors, often semi-literate themselves, taught in the Turkish language. Orthodox children who got any education at all got it in schools maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church, where textbooks and instruction were in the Creek language. Roman Catholic children in northern towns had Austrian or Italian schools if any, and were taught in either the German or Italian language. Other minority communities as the Bulgarians, Serbians and Romanians enjoyed the protection of their motherlands, so could establish churches and schools using their own languages. But among the relatively few elementary schools in Albania, not one of them used the Albanian language. That was used only for conversation. Only bare fragments of the earliest Albanian literary works have survived, and these were produced exclusively by patriotic clergymen using their Latin, Greek or Turkish characters.

The first Albanian-language school for boys opened in Korcha in 1887, sponsored by the patriotic society Bashkimi of Constantinople. A succession of legendary directors included patriots and educational pioneers like Pandeli Sotir, Thanas Sina, Petro Nini Luarasi, Nuçi Naçi and other equally courageous associates. In 1891 the Qirias family of Monastir opened a counterpart Albanian school for girls, also in Korcha. The consequent awakening sense of Albanian identity was bitterly resisted by both the Ottoman government and by the Greek Orthodox Church leadership. Upon the premature death of Gerasim Qirias in 1894, the full burden of the embattled school fell upon the shoulders of his 23-year old sister Sevasti, and later another sister Parashqevi. When the Korcha school for boys was suppressed in 1902, the Qirias school survived precariously as the only Albanian-language school in the country, itself bitterly condemned by both Turkish and Greek Orthodox authorities as a "nest of Albanianism." Having family roots in the schools of the American Congregational Mission, the Qirias sisters appealed to that Boston-based mission society for sponsorship and protection.

The happy solution was Violet Bond Kennedy, daughter of Congregational missionaries in Monastir, and schoolmate of the Qirias sisters in the mission schools at Monastir and the American College for Women at Constantinople. She, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, and her husband Rev. Phineas B. Kennedy, a graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Seminary and a mature Presbyterian minister, were appointed to this most sensitive post. Joining the Korcha school staff in March, 1908, they embodied the old adage, "Life begins at forty." He began at once studying the Albanian language, preaching the gospel through interpretation, circulating the Scriptures in the new but condemned Latin characters just adopted at Monastir's "Alphabet Congress," and intervening in behalf of imprisoned colleagues. Just four months after the Kennedy arrival the Young Turks proclaimed their new constitution. On that July 23rd, called the "Great Day," patriots appealed to the Kennedys to print up posters on the school mimeograph so as to carry the first public proclamation to the people in the four languages of the city: Albanian, Turkish, Greek and Romanian. He wrote soon afterwards, "Our Albanian school became a public center, the printing office, the information center; literally hundreds of people crowded in and out all day." Mrs. Kennedy described the jubilation of those days. "Wednesday night the city celebrated with parades and fireworks. A large parade including former brigands started from our school yard. These brigands were men who had taken a bold stand for the privilege of using their written language. They wore their mountain garb and danced in true Albanian fashion around a fire, while they sang their bold songs of freedom. Such fine strong faces some of these men have: One Moslem brigand, a captain of a band who called the other day, said that what they needed now was for America to send a missionary to every large city of Albania. We have held a prayer meeting each evening of this week, and last evening this same brigand was present. How earnestly he listened as Mr. Tsilka preached Christ." That liberal constitution, however, would soon be repealed.

Anecdotes abound about the determined efforts to close the school. Teachers and pupils were insulted and threatened, publicly excommunicated, even pelted with rotten fruit and stones. Summoned to court, they suffered the confiscation of Albanian-language books, documents and correspondence, and were constantly subjected to political and religious harassment. All efforts to close down the school, however, were thwarted when the untouchable American missionary became its director, Sevasti Qirias remaining as its principal. Although harassment continued through the years, the "American School" as it was later called enjoyed the intervention of the American Embassy at Constantinople. Equally decisive was the staunch determination of the Kennedys. He wrote to friends, "They may threaten parents and children, but we will continue to hold school inside for boarders, and the only thing they can do is to take me out of the house by force - for I will never close this school::" In his own handwriting he underlined those last words twice, vigorously. One week later, upon Embassy intervention at Constantinople, the Turkish Ministry of Public Instruction sent orders to Korcha that the school should not be closed, and that there was no objection to the Kennedys teaching there. Undoubtedly it was this combination of Calvinistic determination and consular intervention which enabled the school to survive for several years as the only Albanian-language school functioning in the whole country. It was unique furthermore in that while Turkish schools openly Ottomanized their students, and Greek schools Hellenized theirs, and Bulgarian schools Slavicized theirs, and Roman Catholic schools conducted Italian propaganda in theirs, this "American School" was condemned only for promoting Albanianism.

The Balkan War and World War I brought interruptions. Several courageous associates of the Qirias School came and went: the Grigor Tsilkas (1900-14), the C. Telford Ericksons (1908-19), Kristo Dako (1909-15). The indomitable Kennedys undertook emergency relief work among refugees. He wrote that "with teaching, preaching and relief work I am kept hopping. The Greeks now hold the city.... Everything Albanian is under persecution. However they will not touch our Girls School;" They got scholarships for promising students at schools in Greece, Turkey, Italy and many American colleges. To a friend at the American College for Women at Constantinople he wrote, "We have one girl who is a wonder; I would almost give my life to get that child properly educated. ... Would you receive a dear unusually bright child like this?" Later when they accepted two other girls he wrote apologetically, "We know they are not prepared as they should be. It is the fault of the war. We have studied with bombs dropping around the town. Please be merciful and let them fit in. Shega has been living with us for a year. She is fine material, but without funds. You must go the limit in helping her. We love them both, Please make them your girls, Miss Prince, for my sake, and Mrs. Kennedy's sake, and for Christ's sake." Few could resist an appeal like that. Shega, daughter of the patriot Petro Nini Luarasi, graduated and became a valued teacher in the American School of Korcha.

For two war years their home became an open house for British and American Rec Cross corpsmen. In the absence of any consular offices the Kennedys helped thousands throughout the region with English-language correspondence and documents for immigration, travel, property, wills, birth certificates, transmittal of funds, citizenship papers, lost documents, insurances, military service pensions, death benefits and tracing lost relatives in the United States. They experienced wartime food shortages. He wrote to a missionary friend in Greece, "Don't think of sending any of your scarce provisions up here. We eat oatmeal without sugar and almost like it. We have much to be thankful for, and we are having practical ways of helping instances of extreme need." Their mail and funds were interrupted for six months at a time. In 1918 he wrote ruefully, "We are without funds. So one minute I am cleaning out ashes with black soot on my nose and ears, and then I hastily wash in cold water, put on a clerical coat and appear in the school room as a professor; But to make these sudden changes is telling on my nerves." Again in 1919 he wrote, "No funds received; we are penniless." The responsibility for British and Foreign Bible Society publications and colporters fell upon him, also several sicknesses and surgeries, regular preaching services, Sunday School and prayer meeting, evangelistic outreaches and the tutoring of boys and girls with no educational alternative. Both the Kennedys became bone-weary. He wrote to his brother Henry, "People are here from morning to night. I think I will sleep a half a year when I get back. Dear Violet is doing the work of a dozen women and she will sleep a whole year when she gets back." But when his brother urged him to return and share his real estate business, he wrote, "You seem to be planning what I am to do when I get back. I beg you not to waste your time doing this, It is quite possible that the Lord may return before this world conflict is over. Just lift up a prayer from time to time that both our lives may fulfill the mission on which He has sent us."

Somehow they found time also to champion Albania's freedom by letters, articles and telegrams. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 the American president Woodrow Wilson categorically refused to sign the Peace Treaty until it was rewritten to guarantee the right of self-government to Albanians and other endangered ethnic minorities, It must be admitted that Kennedy did exercise a bit of leverage here, for during the Kennedy years at Princeton, Wilson had served as a professor there, then becoming its president, and later president of the United States, The claims and counterclaims of Albanian patriots on the one hand and greedy neighbor nations on the other hand "came in like hailstones," Mihal Grameno noted. Both of the Kennedys made their contribution. Weighing the evidence, Wilson would surely have valued the opinion of a knowledgeable Princeton alumnus. One quarter century later a Pan-Epirotic League publication resentfully characterized the veteran missionary as "one of the most ardent Albanian propagandists," a "philoAlbanian" who had "exercised an unfortunate influence upon the American State Department."

Even when their Congregational Mission had to withdraw support in 1922, the Kennedys would not quit. They constituted the Albanian Evangelical Mission and reopened the American School and their gospel ministries by faith in God and the support of their Princeton and Mount Holyoke friends. They were assisted by the Kelly G. Tuckers (1928,29), then the Edwin E. Jacqueses (1932-40). Following
the nationalization of all schools in Albania and the closing of the American School in 1933, these with the Arthur W. Konrads (1936-39) and a Hungarian colleague Lajos Parragh (1938,39) continued mission activities until the outbreak of World War II. From their retirement base in Brooklyn, New York, the Kennedys continued their Albanian contacts and concerns. She passed on to her well-deserved rest in the Father's House in 1952, he in 1963 at 96 years of age. Surely they had faithfully fulfilled their mission. Literally thousands of Albanians touched by the Kennedys have good reason to remember them with gratitude and affection.

by Dr. Edwin E. Jacques

 
 
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