Albania’s history with religion is complex, rendering the country a haven of religious tolerance as much as a place of general religious confusion and instability. Many religions co-exist in the country, something that is especially noticeable after the fall of communism. Religion was banned during the latter and many holy places either became nonfunctional or were destroyed. While many of these places were restored, along with the general faith of the Albanian people, their road to reinstitution has been challenging. The Church of Saint Anthony is one of those rarities, however, that never lost its believers and maintained a significant influence on the Albanian people.
Each week before the 13th of June, on the hilly heights around the town of Laç, thousands of believers gather at the Church of Saint Anthony. The church is named after the Franciscan priest, born in Lisbon in 1195, who dedicated his life on earth to his faith and spreading hope to the people. The holy teacher Saint Anthony of Padua (as he is known in ecclesiastical literature) was so renowned for his profound knowledge that Pope Gregory IX named him the “Living Ark of the Bible.” What makes him an especially well-respected figure is the fact that he served under the Franciscan Order despite being born into a royal family in Portugal. He refused life as a descendant of nobles and, instead, spent it spreading the word of the Gospel. His devotion to the Catholic Church and unending support for the needy brought him to Albania, where this famous church honors his name.
The Church of Laç was built by the Franciscans as early as the 1300s and several decades after the Portuguese saint’s ascent to the heavens. Throughout the following centuries, only the communists proceeded to cause some damage to it in 1971 but failed in their overall objective to destroy it. Despite the communist regime’s strict ban on any religious activity, Albanians believed in this saint of miracles so ardently that they secretly climbed the hill to faithfully seek his help. To this day, the people’s march toward the Church of Laç is such an impressive sight that it has attracted the attention of international media. After visiting the Church, many people descend to the Cave of Saint Vlash Martyr, and many other pilgrims stop by the corner of candles to pray to the Saint. If you ask Albanian believers and nonbelievers where they turn to in times of trouble, many will mention this church! Easily accessible from all national roads and cities in Albania, this holy place is most definitely worth experiencing.