The Albanian Cultural Garden at the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in Rockefeller Park is the first garden to be located on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard’s east side. Previously, all gardens to the east of the boulevard faced East Boulevard. The Albanian Cultural Garden was planted to celebrate the Albanian community that has been flourishing in Cleveland since the 1890s.
Many early Albanian immigrants who left for the United States in the 1890s first left Italy along with Italian immigrants. Many Albanians had previously fled the Ottoman invasion of their homeland in the Middle Ages, settling in southern Italy. Their descendants were called Arbëreshë, meaning Albanians of Italy. In addition to the Arbëreshë immigrants, other Albanians came from southern Albania’s Korçë to Cleveland seeking job opportunities. Many immigrants from the late 1800s to early 1900s lacked formal education and were predominantly men who hoped to make some money and then return home. However, many decided to stay and bring their families to the United States. By 1914, a little under 2,000 Albanian immigrants resided in Ohio. Early Albanian immigrants usually settled on the Near West Side of Cleveland especially on Detroit Avenue from West 54th to West 58th Streets, as well as in Linndale.
The population of Albanians rose before World War II and by 1940, there were about 1,000 Albanian immigrants in Cleveland. After the war, Cleveland received many more Albanians who had been displaced to refugee camps in Austria, Italy, and Germany, as well as those from Kosovo, Yugoslavia. Early Albanian immigrants who arrived before the end of World War II helped those who were able to make their way to Cleveland before immigration stopped. In 1946, Enver Hoxha came to power and no Albanians could leave.
Immigration resumed after the fall of communism in their homeland in 1992. Many left the city of Fier in Albania and other parts of southeastern Europe for the U.S. In addition, foreign exchange programs from Kosovo to the United States increased immigration. In 1999, President Bill Clinton decided to select Cleveland as one of five cities that would house resettled refugees from the war in Kosovo. Albanian immigrants have been coming to Cleveland for more than a century, and Albanians are one of Cleveland’s most prominent immigrant groups. There are about 20,000 Albanians in Greater Cleveland, many of whom live in western suburbs such as Lakewood, Fairview Park, and Rocky River.
The Albanian Cultural Garden was created with Albanian history and traditions in mind. The Albanian American Association of Cleveland was founded in 1998 and one of its cofounders was Cleveland city councilwoman Dona Brady. This association helped raise funds for a future Albanian cultural garden. In 2007, the opportunity for an Albanian cultural garden presented itself when the city of Cleveland set aside ten additional garden spaces within the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Brady was instrumental to the creation of the Albanian cultural gardens because she sponsored legislation that would ensure that one of the ten spaces was for an Albanian cultural garden. In addition, Brady also worked side by side with Albanians in Cleveland, as well as with Cleveland’s sister city of Fier in Albania. Once the garden was officially approved, the landscape architect for the garden was chosen and James McKnight and Associates got to work on the garden.
During the first stage of the garden’s development, a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Mother Teresa was installed in the Albanian Cultural Garden. Mother Teresa is important to many Albanians because she was a famous Catholic nun of Albanian decent who helped countless people in her life. The Asian-Indian community decided to help raise money for the Albanian Cultural Garden’s Mother Teresa statue because of her well-known work in Calcutta. With funding from the Sisters of Charity Health System, Albanian sculptor Kreshnik Xhiku created the bronze Mother Teresa statue, the centerpiece of the first phase of the garden. The statue sits atop a six-foot-tall pedestal bearing the inscription “Mother Teresa Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu 1910-1997.” Next to the statue are benches for prayer and reflection.
With the completion of its first phase, the Albanian Cultural Garden officially became the twenty-ninth garden to be added to the Cleveland Cultural Gardens since 1918. On September 22, 2012, the dedication ceremony for phase one commemorated the 100th anniversary of Albanian independence. News of the garden made its way to Albania, and the Albanian President Bujar Nishani, as well as the Albanian Ambassador to the U.S., Gilbert Galanxhi, attended the dedication ceremony. Also in attendance were three musicians who were adopted from orphanages run by Mother Teresa.
The Mother Teresa statue continues to draw people to the Albanian Cultural Garden. Due to Mother Teresa’s work with the poor and the miracles she performed that healed two individuals of tumors on two separate occasions, Pope Francis believed she was worthy to be canonized and become a saint. The Albanian Cultural Garden held a canonization ceremony on September 4, 2016, the day that she was recognized as a saint. People who attended were asked to bring flowers to lay at the feet of the statue and to stay and learn about the process to become a saint. She was canonized the day before the 19th anniversary of her death.
During phase two of the garden project, an upper level with a fountain was added. This particular fountain, originally built in the 1920s was in Willard Park until it was removed to make way for the installation of the Free Stamp in 1991. The location of the fountain remained a mystery for some years until Councilwoman Brady discovered the fountain dismantled in Harvard Yard’s parking lot. The City of Cleveland originally planned to discard the fountain, but Brady saved it and donated it to the Albanian Cultural Garden. A lighted walkway to the fountain was also added to the garden. Many hope the beautiful fountain will entice more people to visit the garden for weddings, parties, and picnics. On November 24, 2013, the fountain was dedicated. This ceremony also captured the attention of Albanian officials just as the first dedication had. The mayor of Fier, Baftjar Zeqaj, and an Albanian Prime Minister representative attended the second dedication ceremony. Each completed phase of the garden gave Albanians the opportunity to come together.
The Albanian Cultural Garden celebrates Albanian culture and connects Albanian immigrants and their descendants with a piece of their homeland. Through the garden’s design, the events held at the garden, and the people who visit the garden, a piece of Albania has truly been added to the Cleveland Cultural Gardens.