The Monastery of Shen Vlash, or St Blaise, is located in the Shijak District of Durres. It comprises a number of white buildings with terracotta roofs, sprawled across one of the highest hills for miles around.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit, thanks to the hospitality of Fr. Emanuel Lapanxa, his wife Nestilda, daughter Kasiani, and my friend Alexandria who is herself married to Fr. Stephanos Ritsi a priest in Tirana. It was a beautiful, warm, summer day and we were able to explore the grounds, enjoy a hearty meal in the canteen, and let the children play in the grass and amongst the water sprinklers. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about the Monastery, its history and the work they have done to assist Albanians over the years.
Destruction of the original buildings
Remnants of the original church date back to the 16th Century, or potentially even earlier. Today, little remains of the structures that once stood there as on 4 April 1967, it became one of the first religious structures in Albania to fall to the brutality of the communist regime.
By resolution of the Central Committee of the Labour Party, on 22 November 1976 religion became illegal. It was decided that the monastery would be demolished and locals were ordered to destroy it. Many refused but others from nearby localities came to the site and raised it to the ground. As well as destroying the buildings, numerous religious objects were destroyed. There were around 87 monks and priests in Albania before its destruction, but after the fall of communism, only 8 remained. The rest had been killed, imprisoned, or fled.
One of the religious items that disappeared during the purge was the Rock of Martyrdom which is reportedly where St Blaise was martyred. It was said that the rock emitted oils and myrrh. No one knows what happened to it but some think it was tossed into the Adriatic Sea meaning there is no hope of ever retrieving it.
Despite the destruction of the site, it was rumoured that brave believers would climb the hill to pray in the dead of night, placing candles around the perimeter of the destroyed buildings.
The process of rebuilding
After the communist regime came to an end, the monastery began the process of being rebuilt. In 1991, the Resurrection of Christ theological school was opened along with a small library. Sadly, all of the books that had once been on site, were burned and destroyed. Today, the new library has been created through donations and houses around 20,000 books in Albanian, English and Greek. Reconstruction of the monastery and theological school as it is today took place between 1996 and 2003.
The school has finally been accredited after some 30 years of trying. They work in conjunction with Logos University and currently have 24 students from 18 years old upwards.
The Home of Hope
The monastery is also home to the Home of Hope under the foundation of the Church Spirit of Love orphanage. The building houses 17 children between the ages of 5 and 20 years old. They are not all orphans- some have come temporarily or have been removed from families affected by drugs, alcohol, abuse, or other serious issues.
The children resident at Shen Vlash are of mixed religious backgrounds. Once graduating here, they are able to attend a boarding school in Gjirokaster and Bullarat to continue their education. They enjoy summer camps, activities, music, and receive an education. They are also provided with support, healthcare and sociological and psychological assistance to help deal with any traumas.
Upon arriving at the Home of Hope, we were treated to introductions, sweets, and drinks by the children there. They then sang us a medley of songs, including the popular nursery rhyme ‘Qingji Vogel’. The building was decorated with paintings, nice furnishings, and the children’s artwork and they are supported by friendly, smiling staff members.
Having heard horror stories of orphanages in Albania, I was happy to see such a pleasant environment with children who were happy and smiling, despite the odds life has given them.
But the Monastery is much more than a religious building. During the immediate aftermath of the November 26 earthquake, the church opened its doors to displaced families and people from the local area. Situated in one of the hardest-hit areas, they homed around 200 people until the end of February. Members of the church quickly mobilised to provide beds, healthcare, psychological care, childcare, activities, and meals for those unable to return home. Now the majority of people are in rented accommodation, and as you drive through the area, you can see tens of condemned buildings each with a red ‘X’ on the exterior.
Even the monastery was not left unscathed by the quake. One of the large buildings was severely damaged with large cracks clearly visible in the exterior walls. It is cordoned off for now but will have to be either demolished or extensively remodelled.
This was not the first time they had opened their doors to those in need. During the Kosovo war, the Monastery took in refugees fleeing violence in their home country.
A place of miracles
The Monastery and its grounds make for a peaceful visit. There are large trees adorned with pungently scented flowers, a number of cats prowling the walkways, and large open spaces where children are playing. It is calm and quiet here and offers beautiful views over the surrounding countryside, due to its elevated position.
The Priest, Fr. Emanuel Lapanxa shows me to the main church. All of the woodwork in the churches here and the iconography artwork is made by local people. The church trains them in the techniques used to create the intricate panels, keeping the work in the community
He tells me that a number of miracles have happened here, particularly instances of healed children and infertile couples being able to conceive.
Around the Church are a number of cypress trees. In Europe, these trees are typically placed around the church due to their height. This makes it easy to locate the church in any town or village.
Also on the grounds of the Monastery are a number of multi-purpose buildings that house conference centres, a small stadium, a canteen, accommodation, and spaces for children and meetings. Many notable events have taken place here over the years, including the 17th Anniversary of the General Assembly of the World Orthodox Brotherhood of Youth, and the Joint Commission on the Anglo-Orthodox Theological Dialogue.
Today, no monks are living in the monastery at the moment although it does house visiting, clergy members. In the adjacent convent, we are greeted by a nun, one of a few that live there. At its heart, the convent has a beautifully manicured garden flanked by rows of strongly scented and brightly coloured roses.
For those in the area, a trip to observe this peaceful place is well worth it. The work they have done and continue to do within the local community is to be commended and I was touched to see the work they were doing with the children on site.