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Orthodox Connections of the House of Savoy

Coat of arms of the House of Savoy.Historically, the Protectors of Orthodoxy have been the sovereigns of the countries where national Orthodox jurisdictions exist. In turn, kings themselves ruled by "the grace of God" embodied in the Church and its bishops; many European coronations are still religious ceremonies, whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant. Italy's last "native" Orthodox communities in Venetia, Apulia, Calabria and Sicily had gradually become Latinized (Roman Catholic) by the fourteenth century, and by the seventeenth century even most southern Italian parishes founded by Albanian refugees fleeing the Turkish conquest of the Balkans had become "uniate" --Roman Catholic congregations with a Byzantine liturgical rite.

In the twentieth century, some interesting Orthodox connections would be established dynastically by the royal family of Italy, with a focus on the minor Orthodox churches of the Balkans. The House of Savoy had ruled in northern Italy (Piedmont) for centuries. By the 1800s, the dynasty could claim remarkable religious tolerance of Protestants (Waldensians) and Jews, some of whom were ennobled as barons. In this way the Savoys, though Roman Catholic, differed from their southern Italian counterparts, the Bourbons of Naples, who, by contrast, permitted only Catholic churches in Sicily. By 1870, the Savoys had united Italy, bringing to Italians the first sense of religious freedom to exist since the early Middle Ages.

In 1896, Prince Vittorio Emanuele, the future King of Italy (he ruled for 45 years), wed the statuesque Elena Petrovich, daughter of Nicholas I of Montenegro. She was the first Italian queen in centuries to take an active interest in works of charity affecting the lives of common people. A devout Orthodox, Queen Elena (who died in 1952), converted to Catholicism for dynastic purposes to marry the heir of the Italian throne but established an Orthodox chapel in the Quirinal Palace.

In 1930 her daughter, Giovanna, wed Boris III, King of Bulgaria. (Their son, King Simeon, is Prime Minister of Bulgaria.) A convert to Orthodoxy, she died in 2000, having won great popularity among the Bulgarian people.

Several other members of the House of Savoy married into Orthodox dynasties, becoming Orthodox themselves. In 1939 Aimone, Duke of Aosta, wed Irena, daughter of King Constantine I of Greece. In 1955, Maria Pia, daughter of King Umberto II of Italy (who reigned briefly in 1946), married Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia.

The Savoys' links to Orthodoxy, and particularly to the smaller churches of the Balkans, may have become better known in Italy had the country remained a monarchy after 1946. Times change, but the Orthodox Church remains.

For more information visit Savoy History.

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