Articles & stories
Sons of Contessa Entellina
THEY WERE IMMIGRANTS WITH NAMES LIKE CIACCIO, SCHIRO, MONTELEONE AND VACCARO. THEY CAME TO NEW ORLEANS FROM AN ALBANIAN TOWN IN SICILY, ADDING EXOTIC SPICE TO THE MELTING POT.
At a little before 11 o’clock in the morning, on the second Sunday in September, nearly 100 men in business suits lined up on the flagstone walk beside Saint Louis Cathedral.
At the head of the procession waved an orange banner richly ornamented with a portrait of the Blessed Virgin and embroidered in gold with the words Contessa Entellina.
The men belong to a society that counts among its members representatives of many well-known New Orleans’ families: Monteleone, Schiro, Ciaccio, Mule, Scramuzza, Tortorich, Sciambra, Cuccia, Chetta and Clesi.
“Mir Menat,” some of the older members called out, wishing good day to one another in their ancient Albanian dialect.
At last it was time to begin. Following their president, Joseph Schiro, the grandson of a priest, the men filed into the cathedral to hear Mass.
Every September for the past 97 years, one of the city’s most accomplished but least-known ethnic groups – the Arbreshe of Contessa Entellina – have gathered to celebrate their unique heritage.
Among the more prominent members have been Luigi Tortorich and Frank Manale, the restaurateurs; the Vaccaro brothers, creators of the vast Standard Fruit empire; Charles Lamana, the funeral home owner; Antonio Monteleone, a cobbler who founded the Monteleone Hotel; and Nick Castrogiovanni, who raised mixology to a fine art at his Tulane Avenue bar.
Present members include Judges Philip Ciaccio and Salvator Mule, state representative Charles Cusimano Jr., seafood store owner Al Scramuzza, Orleans Parish Register of Conveyances Gaspar Schiro, and John Jay Grisaffi, the founder of John Jay beauty salons.
Contessa Entellina is a small mountain village in Sicily, about an hour’s drive from Palermo. It is a typical village in all aspects, except that it contains few true Sicilians. It was founded more than 400 years ago by a group of Albanian refugees who were fleeing from the Ottoman Turks.
The group called themselves the Arbreshe. They were fair-skinned, with light eyes and light hair. They spoke an ancient language that had no relation to Italian. They followed their own religion – a form of Byzantine Catholicism in which priests could marry. And they showed a fierce pride in maintaining their cultural identity through centuries of exile and wandering.
New Orleans, like many American port cities, experienced a large Italian immigration around the turn of the century. The vast majority of the Italians who came to New Orleans were from the island of Sicily. Few outside the Sicilian community are aware that a sizable and influential part of this group did not consider itself Italian.
“There were two very different cultures,” explains Marti Shambra, owner of Marti’s Restaurant on North Rampart Street. “I was in a good position to judge, because one side of my family – my father’s – was Arbreshe and the other side – my mother’s – was Sicilian. My father’s parents spoke the Albanian language. Tabresh they called it. They followed the Greek rite, a kind of Catholicism. But with many differences.”
“Here in New Orleans, the Arbreshe didn’t have any of their priests – ‘papas’ they called them. They had long beards and they said the Mass in Greek instead of Latin. Every once in a while, a papas would come over from the old country to visit. My grandfather would take me to hear the Mass. I remember it was considered a very special thing. You see, he wanted me to know who I was.”
“With the Arbreshe, everything went by the male. With the Sicilians, it was a matriarchy. The Arbreshe men really were the boss.”
“Take the Contessa Entellina Society. Only the men can join. There’s no women’s auxiliary or anything. And membership goes through male lineage. A daughter’s male offspring can’t belong.”
“Oh, they’re strict,” agrees Gaspar Schiro, who also grew up in a household where Arbreshe was the preferred language. “Even Ben Bagert couldn’t get into the society. He has uncles in the society. His grandfather was a past president. But he is only Arbreshe on his mother’s side.”
“Vic Schiro, the former mayor, couldn’t get in. He’s Arbreshe, but he came from a town called Piana degli Albanesi or ‘Plain of the Albanians.’ It’s only a short distance from Contessa Entellina. But it’s not Contessa.”
Membership in the Contessa Entellina Society is not restricted out of snobbishness or elitism. The exclusivity is an attempt to protect a tradition that is over four centuries old.
Paradoxically, no one can get into New Orleans’ oldest Italian social club unless they can show that they are the linear descendants on the male side from the mostly Albanian families that settled Contessa Entellina.
Except for cars and TV antennas, Contessa has changed little over the centuries. Gaspar Schiro, son of Contessa Entellina Society President Joseph Schiro, took his wife, Nell to Contessa on their honeymoon in 1969. She remembers the town this way:
“It’s a small village. I don’t think there were more than 3,000 inhabitants. There is one small hotel and hardly any shops. The residential section is on a hill overlooking the piazza. A lot of the houses are old, from the time when the original Albanian families came there. We stayed in my husband’s ancestral home. Two-story with tile floors.”
“Everyone still speaks Arbreshe. And they all have relatives in New Orleans. In the evening the menfolk come out – never the women – and sit around the piazza, playing dominos, talking politics and drinking wine. There is a small stucco Byzantine church, like in a Greek village, called Schiro church because the Schiros have given so much to it. Every year, my father-in-law takes up a collection and sends money over for the feast day of the Virgin of Favars.”
“Contessa is still so rural and quiet. At 5 o’clock in the morning, the only sound is clickety-clack, all the cows with bells on coming through the piazza.”
The Arbreshe differ racially from the Sicilians. They spoke a foreign language. And perhaps most importantly they followed a different religious rite.
The Arbreshe were Byzantine Catholics. Their bearded “papas” resembled the priests of the Greek Orthodox Church. They wore tall mitre-like headdresses and were permitted to marry.
All this appeared exotic, if not openly heretical, to the native Sicilians. But the Arbreshe were heroes of the faith who had stood as bulwarks against the armies of Islam. Their rite was protected by the pope to whom they declared themselves obedient, though autonomous.
The Arbreshe were never assimilated. There was some mixing with the native population, but the taboo against intermarriage was strict.
One older woman of Arbreshe descent remembers an aunt who married a Sicilian and was so ostracized she was forced to leave Contessa.
Asked to describe themselves, the Arbreshe in Contessa Entellina would not respond “Io Sono Italiano” – I am Italian – “U nam Geg” – I am a Geg, in reference to the Gegaria region Albania.
This gave rise to that inevitable badge of the minority – the racial slur. “Geg-geg” (pronounced gay-gay), the Sicilians called them. And the Arbreshe responded by calling the Sicilians “Leti,” or Latins.
For over 400 years, the Arbreshe remained in Sicily. And then in the middle of the century, they began a second great migration. The Arbreshe started to come to New Orleans.
It was not an organized exodus like the flight from Albania. It began with a few adventurous individuals and grew as their numerous relatives followed until finally there was more of Contessa Entellina on the banks of the Mississippi than on the shores of the Mediterranean. New Orleans remains the home of the greatest concentration of Arbreshe Americans.
Many who came were not in the dire straits of some of the other immigrant groups. By no means wealthy people, the Arbreshe immigrants were often comfortable by Sicilian standards. They did not so much flee hard conditions as seek the fabled opportunities of the New World.
Judge Ciacco’s grandfather was a successful miller, for instance. And Gaspar Schiro’s grandfather was the secretary to the Contessa town council.
Although the story of the Arbreshe immigrant is the familiar chronicle of hard work and perseverance, it is likely to begin in the shared cabin of a steamer, rather than steerage.
The Arbreshe typically went into business for themselves as soon as they were able. Many worked at the French Market, dealing in wholesale produce – a trade they knew from the old country. Everyone, it seems, at one time or another either ran a grocery or worked for an uncle who did.
In 1886, a group of Arbreshe men founded the “Societa Italiana de Beneficenza Contessa Entellina” – a mutual aid and fraternal organization. It was the first Italian society formed in the city. It became the largest and wealthiest.
To the new immigrant, the society was a great deal more than a mere social club. Arriving in a strange country with little money, a sketchy education and unable to speak English, the immigrant needed a place to turn. He needed protection from exploitation. He needed help finding work and lodgings. He needed a sense of belonging.
The society also provided a doctor, a pharmacist and a burial crypt.
The Arbreshe had another advantage. Several of the early arrivals had outstanding success and were in a position to be of substantial help to those who followed. Among the founding members of the society were Guiseppe and Felix Vaccaro, who organized the Standard Fruit Company, and restaurateur Liugi Tortorich.
By the 1920’s there were an estimated 20,000 Arbreshe in New Orleans – more than remained in the Arbreshe towns in Sicily. The membership in the Contessa Entellina Society numbered more than 600. The society’s annual parade on the feast day of “Shen Meria e Favars” had grown to flamboyant proportions.
“First came the banner with the saint’s picture, then the Italian and American flags,” remembers Ted Liuzza, the public relations director at the International Hotel on Canal Street.
“Then came the grand marshal in a white cutaway. Then some members riding horses with gilded hooves. They would have bouquets of roses, with cigars hidden in them to give away to onlookers.”
“And there was the Contessa Entellina band, maybe 45 men, all in uniform. And maybe another band. And then all the men, in black ties and opera hats. They would start out at the old Italian Union Hall on Esplanade Avenue off Rampart. It’s been sold for condominiums now. That’s where all the Italian societies met. But only members of the Contessa society could march in their parade.
“They would come down Rampart to Orleans and then go to the church for Mass and the blessing of the flags. Afterward, there would be a luncheon, and at night a dance at the Italian Union.”
“The procession is not much to see now,” Liuzza says, “But in those days it was a real event.”
Although all the New Orleans Arbreshe were aware they were not Sicilian, many did not know precisely what they were. Confusion abounded. Even today the name of the culture varies from speaker to speaker; “Arbreshe” to “Tabreshe” to “Tabrish” and even “Gabreesh.”
Typical is one man in his 30’s who was told as a child by his grandfather that he was not Italian but “Geg,” and that his ancestors came from an island near Greece. The man spent years in a futile search for the Island of Geg, finally deciding his paternal forebear had his facts mixed up. It was only a chance encounter with an Arbreshe woman who recognized the Arbreshe origin of the man’s name that solved the mystery.
Actually, the stubborn Arbreshe pride almost met its nemesis in the American melting pot.
“I think there was a lot of pressure not to be different,” says Philip Ciacco, former New Orleans City Council member and now judge of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
“Back in the early days, the society was necessary for survival. But then there was a lot of pressure to conform. Your grandparents would speak only Arbreshe. Your parents would speak it, but just when they didn’t want you to understand. They wanted the children to be American. The old ways fell into disuse. Membership in the society dropped way down, to maybe a hundred.”
“Now there seems to be a resurgence of interest,” Ciacco says. “Not so much as a means of self-help, but to preserve a vanishing heritage. My sons, who are in their 20’s, have recently joined. I’m told the membership is going up again for the first time in years.”
Joseph Schiro, the president of the society and the grandson of a Byzantine priest came to New Orleans from Contessa when he was 16 years old. He speaks Arbreshe fluently, as well as Italian and English. After becoming president several years ago, he increased the society’s dwindling membership from 100 to 175 and started holding monthly meetings at the Vista Shores Club on Bayou St. John.
A vigorous 79-year old, Schiro is fair-skinned, with light eyes and white hair. He lives with his wife in the Lake Vista ranch-style home they built in 1951. They have been married 50 years.
“I arrived here May 21, 1921, on a ship called the Pocahontas. I was 16 years old,” Schiro explains. “I was with a fellow named Martin Sciambra. He was something like 28. We were neighbors over there. My father asked him to take care of me.”
“My father was secretary at City Hall in Contessa. I didn’t have to leave. I was excited to be sent to America. Of course, I didn’t know how hard I was going to have to work.”
“I had an aunt that was over here already. I stayed with her in the French Quarter. Then later with an uncle in Mid-City. In the home, everyone spoke Arbreshe. They had a grocery store. That’s where I learned my English. People here don’t know about our history. One day, a man came into the store and started to speak to me in German – because of the way I look. I had to tell him I was Italian.”
Schiro shrugs apologetically. “We call ourselves Italian over here.”
“When I was 21, I went into business for myself. Schiro’s food store. I bought the place with a few hundred dollars I’d saved. My uncle took me to the Italian Union and introduced me around. I joined the society. For awhile, I played in the band. Clarinet.”
“I met my wife at the Union. She was born here but she speaks Arbreshe. I got married when I was 29. Then I opened a new grocery, at Bruxelles and Broad. Schiro’s … what was it … a modern name… Suprette!” he says.
Schiro disappears through a door in the glass partition and emerged a moment later carrying a small gilt frame. The picture showed a lion attacking a turret.
“Our family coat of arms,” he explains. “Nobili Albanesi dei duche de Piroti – Albanian nobles, dukes of Epirus. We come from a line of dukes. It goes all the way back, you see.”
Over the sofa in the living room hangs a large oil painting; A boldly drawn Turkish soldier brandishing a scimitar sits astride a rearing stallion. “My son Michael painted it,” Schiro says with annoyance. “He copied it from a book. That’s a Turk. You see the turban. We don’t want Turks. They’re enemies.”
“I asked him to put a hat like Skanderberg on him and have it be a Skanderberg picture. The Albanian hero.”
Sicilian Legacy, Tribune 1990
Sicilian Legacy: Immigrants saw hope in Tampa By Paul Wilborn, Tribune Staff Writer – 12/23/1990
SANTO STEFANO, Sicily, — The memory is so wide it stretches across the sea; so deep, it seems etched in the genes.
CARLO MESSINA, a smiling old man in tweed coat and matching cap, stands on the dusty street of a tiny village in the Sicilian hills.
“Tampa? I know Tampa. My brother had the shoe store on Tampa Street, ANDREW MESSINA. You know him? I lived there for five years, but I came back. I was a tailor at Maas Brothers and JACK PENDOLA’s. You remember Jack Pendola’s?”
SAM SPOTO, a retired shoemaker, sits in a Tampa barbershop looking at pictures from his trip to Sicily. “We went back to the village where my parents were born. It was strange. I felt very at home there,” he says.
ANTONINO VALENTI, a Sicilian fruit and vegetable man, stands proudly before his outdoor bins brimming with apples, oranges and fat heads of lettuce. “Look at these beautiful vegetables. The best in town. You know, my family in Tampa is in the business, too.”
DOMENIC GIUNTA pauses in his garden in Ybor City, where he grows herbs and vegetables with a seed lineage that runs back to his father’s fields in Sicily. “My parents came halfway across the world to a new land with nothing in their pocket. That took such courage. I don’t know if I’d have that kind of courage,” he says.
The link between a city on Florida’s West Coast and a handful of tiny mountain villages in the Sicilian heartland is now more than 100 years old. The Sicilians who left their homeland changed the face of their adopted town forever. They became the grocers, the shoemakers, the barbers, the farmers – and later the mayors, judges, state attorneys, business leaders, lawyers and doctors of Tampa. They brought an appreciation for hard work, a fierce sense of justice, and an overwhelming loyalty to family that pushed them toward economic and political triumphs.
But the wave of immigrants also allowed the growth of a powerful secret criminal family known as the Mafia. The late SANTO TRAFFICANTE and his father, who ruled Tampa’s rackets from the turn of the century, traced their roots to a village in Sicily. As generations passed and success changed the Sicilians from immigrants to Americans, the link that had been so very visible blurred and faded. But it is still there. You see it in two matching cemeteries half a world apart – the same sort of markers, mausoleums, and porcelain portraits, the same narrow evergreens pointing the way to heaven.
And etched in marble and stone in Sicily and Tampa are the same names – ALBANO, CASTELLANO, CAPITANO, ZAMBITO, FERLITA, SETTECASI, GUARINO, PENZATO, REINA, NOTO, APRILE, FAVATA, VALENTI, ZITO, MASSARI, PROVENZANO, TRAINA, PARDO, ALFIERI, LETO, PIZZO, SPOTO. They are silent monuments to those who left and those who stayed behind in a handful of MAGAZZOLO RIVER VALLEY Villages in western Sicily – SANTO STEFANO QUISIQUINA, ALESSANDRIA DELLA ROCCA, CIANCIANA, BIVONA and CONTESSA ENTELLINA.
Families were ripped apart by poverty, political oppression and the dream of something better waiting in a distant American City called Tampa. At one time almost everyone in Tampa’s Italian community could trace roots to these villages, a heritage that included a frightening trip across the Atlantic in the hold of a ship. Many of the first immigrants came by way of New Orleans, riding on ships carrying fruit from Sicily – it was called the Lemon Route.
Later waves came through New York’s Ellis Island and came to Tampa from New York by train. FRANK SETTECASI left Alessandria della Rocca on the back of the mail truck in 1919. He rode to New York in a steerage compartment lined with bunks. Storms tossed his ship, turning what should have been a 10-day crossing into a month of torture. “I was sick the whole time; everyone was. We couldn’t go on deck because the waves would carry you off. I can still smell that damn ship.”
THE REBORN LAND
Hardships that drove many to leave Sicily for Tampa are now faded memories
ALLESANDRIA DELLA ROCCA, Sicily – ANTONINO CIARAVELLA remembers the way it was. Hard work. Hunger. Years when folks shortened their jackets and used the material to make shoes. When they watched brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters leave for Milan, Frankfurt, or Tampa looking for a better life. That was the Sicily he grew up in. He hasn’t moved, but he lives in another country now. The reborn land looks much like it did when Tampa’s Sicilian pioneers fled by the thousands starting 100 years ago. The village names are the same – SANTO STEFANO, ALESSANDRIA DELLA ROCCO, BIVONA, CIANCIANA, CONTESSA ENTELLINA. Narrow cobblestone streets still meander through sand-colored row houses. White laced tablecloths, washed after Sunday’s family feast, still hang from balconies on Monday morning. Olives, oranges and grapes still grow on the farms outside of town.
But after hundreds of years of poverty and repression, these villages where almost everyone can trace a relative to Tampa have leapt into the mainstream of Italian life. CIARAVELLA, who has in-laws in Tampa, has a favorite story from the old days. “Back then, the family slept in the same room with the horse and the mule. One night, a farmer dreamed he was kissing his wife. He opened his eyes and he was kissing his mule.” He laughs at his story, his eyes dancing under heavy arched eyebrows.
His son, FILIPO CIARAVELLA, laughs along with him, though he’s heard this story before. It is Sunday and the two men are seated in a wide, sunny room – a combination kitchen, dining room, and sitting room. The floors are marble, the cabinets custom-made, the dishwasher, refrigerator, and stove are the latest Italian designs. These are the trappings of the new Sicily. Look closely at the father and son and you can see the past and the present of this Mediterranean Island.
Antonino was a farmer, sweating a living out of the rocky, terra cotta hillsides. Retired now, he spends most days at his farm, bringing home fresh vegetables, olives, and grapes for his wine. The dry earth gathers in dark flecks under his fingernails. He wears the gray wool suit, the thin olive cardigan, and snap-brim cap of the “pensioneers,” the old men of the village, who draw the Italian form of Social Security after age 60. A black button is pinned to his coat in memory of his brother who died in Palermo a few months before – “15 days before he died, he was sitting here at this table.”
Filippo, the son, has clean hands and no black button. he is a mathematics teacher and a college graduate. He wears casual Italian sportswear – pullover sweaters, pleated slacks. He listens to the Rolling Stones on his car stereo. He and his wife, ENZA, sleep in a king-size bed plated with gold and silver, a gift from his parents on their wedding day The bedroom is so large that, even with the giant bed, there is room for dressers and the Sicilian’s version of the closet – the wall-to-wall wardrobe.
“My father let me choose education instead of the farm,” Filippo says. “He didn’t want his son to come through life as hard as he did.”
The men and women of Antonino’s generation and the generation before understand how it is to come through life the hard way. Gathering on the street corners of their small towns, sitting down over a game of cards in a storefront political club, they talk about those days.
Some of the oldest remember life at the turn of the century when Sicily’s agricultural economy had collapsed. When peasants, trying to break the grip of large landholders who kept them almost as serfs, were shot and arrested. When a whole generation of young men and women fled to a city in America called Tampa.
GUISSEPE SPOTO, 96, remembers. He said good-bye to many relatives who were bound for Tampa. He stayed behind. “It was absolutely unbearable, we had no holidays. We worked every day the same way just to stay alive,” he said.
A NEW PROSPERITY
If they are younger, like GUISSEPPE REINA, 76, they remember the long years of World War II that the Italian, Benito Mussolini, and the German, Adolph Hitler, brought them. They remember advancing armies moving through their houses and fields. They remember proud people reduced to begging for bread from their neighbors. “There was starvation here. People thought of little else except feeding themselves,” Reina said.
Today, Reina is immaculate in an elegantly tailored blazer with a perfectly placed square of silk rising from his coat pocket. He is a local historian who sells expensive art and antiques from a plush storefront just off Santo Stefano’s main street. “I must apologize for my appearance,” he says. “When I was young I had beautiful hair. Now I have no hair and no teeth.”
But he does have young customers who appear to have stepped from Italian fashion magazines and who can afford a gold cross set with an ivory Christ that sells for $6 million lire, almost $6,000. Expensive gift giving – for weddings, births and other special occasions – is now part of the fabric of this new Sicily.
“Before, people couldn’t think to shop for art and antiques, all they thought about was food and clothes. Now, life is better. Just look around you.” Looking around at these small villages, you see the same thing you see when you look at a father and son like Antonino and Filippo Ciaravella – the old and the new living side by side.
There is much that hasn’t changed about this rocky Sicilian landscape. The sun still bakes the cultivated hillsides. Shepherds still lead sheep along the winding farm roads. Some farmers still ride their mules through the towns’ rocky streets before first light. Street peddlers still sell everything from oranges to underwear from their mobile stores.
And in the churches, the tortured faces of Jesus and the saints, staring down from countless statues, still silently remind Sicilians that a life of pain and suffering is a sure path to a heavenly reward.
The Contessa Entellina Society, 75th Anniversary, 1961
GJAKU INE I SHPRISHUR –
Our blood has been scattered! But our faith has bound us here today! In our veins flows the blood of old Illyria (Albania), the blood of Contessa Entellina, and the blood of America! Gjaku Ine I Shprishur! Our ancestors fought on the side of the Cross against the Islamic crescent to maintain freedom of religion and self-determination. In the struggle they tasted blood and mud and many died by the scimitar of the Turks. They lost some battles, and won some battles, but held fast to their faith and passed it on to us!
As has been the custom since its founding in 1886, the Contessa Entellina Society commemorates the 8th of September, its anniversary, by celebrating for the Seventy-fifth time the feast of “Shen-Meria Favara” – Santissima Maria della Favara – Patroness of Contessa Entellina and Protectress of the Society.
For the seventy-fifth time, the Arbreshe of New Orleans publicly pay homage to the Mother of God under the title of “Shen-Meria Favara” because of their devotion to her. That is primarily why we have endured. This celebration represents a tradition and ritual passed down from generation and considered as a rich heritage.
The Arbreshe colony made up of émigrés from Contessa Entellina and their offspring have annually looked forward with keen enthusiasm and impatience to “Festa Shen-Meris.” Today that enthusiasm and impatience has mounted to a joyful culmination. Not only is this the seventy-fifth anniversary, but we Arbreshe are gathered together here in venerable St. Mary’s Italian Church, in the French Quarter of our beloved New Orleans to experience a unique event.
We are especially privileged by participating in Holy Mass celebrated in Arbreshe (Byzantine) by Arbreshe priests who have come from Contessa Entellina primarily for this occasion.
These Arbreshe priests are Papas Sciambra and Papas DiMaggio of the Byzantine, or Eastern Rite branch of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. They are held in fond esteem by the Arbreshe colony, especially because they are related to some members of the Arbreshe colony, and they represent in a special way the link that holds together the scattered blood of the Arbreshe. Gjaku Ine I Shprishur! Albania-Contessa Entellina-New Orleans.
Across the Adriatic Sea, paralleling the Italian eastern shore, lies contemporary Albania with its less than 20,000 square miles of mountains, plains, and rivers. Its citadels, its luxuriant plains, its expansive sea shores, its rugged mountains, its wild forests – all form into a panorama of enchanting beauty.
During the period between the turn of the century and World War II, the population of Albania numbered about 900,000, two-thirds being Mohammedan, the rest of the people being Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.
Albania is about 200 miles long and from 50 to 100 miles wide. But it has not always been so small as the present bounds indicate. In ancient times, say midway between the first Olympiad in 776 before Christ, and the time of His birth, Albania encompassed substantial portions of Illria, Macedonia, and Epirus, and the Arbreshe language was spoken throughout the entire area. While philologists may differ as to its origin, it is very probable that the Albanian language – Arbreshe – is old Illyrian, the origin from which Greek and Latin came. Some Greek words can be traced directly from Albanian. The Shkumbini river practically divides Albania in half.
During the height of Roman supremacy, young Illyrians (Albanians) were thrilled when the legions marched through their land to fight and conquer the barbarians to the east and north. Some of these youngsters later grew up and served in the Praetorian Guard. Diocletion was one of them, and he became Roman Emperor. Old Albania abounds with evidence of ancient civilization, the ruins and remnants of which are of particular interest to the historically inclined who delve into the antiquity of Greece and Rome.
But to get closer to our time:
Ironically, not many decades after the death of the noble Crusader, Louis IX (Saint Louis, King of France), the crusades virtually came to an end, and the Saresenic ascendancy was alarmingly apparent. The Moslems were increasing and strengthening their domination of Southeastern Europe, and for a time it seemed inevitable that the Crescent of Islam would grow to form a pincer around the Christian realm by its fearsome contact and closure with the Moslems in the West.
The Moors in the west and the Turks in the east were a very real and serious threat that horrified Christian Europe. In the west, a brave people, the Spaniards, prevented the pagan encirclement by gradually – almost inch by inch – driving the Moors out of Spain. But the eastern Moslem pincers was at the same time lengthening its deadly claw.
By the middle of the 14th century, the barbarous Turks had already established themselves firmly in the southeast, making Adrianople their capital. Fierce battles between Cross and Crescent were fought for another hundred years, with such men as Wladislaw III, King of Hungary and Poland, and the Holy Cardinal Cesarini, papal legate, dying on the field of battle. Again, and ironically, it was an army of Christians in the Moslem military service that gained successes for the Turks. They were the “Janissaries” made up of strong and exceptional Christian boys who were forcibly taken by the Turks as tribute from the conquered areas, educated in Mohammedanism and trained for war. This was a bitter experience for the Christian defense.
By the middle of the 15th century the Turks occupied the Christian stronghold of the old Byzantine Capital, Constantinople, and Europe trembled. The Popes of Rome, always pressing the attack against the Turks, again took up the challenge. Pope Calixtus III, of noble crusading Spaniards, carefully organized a new crusade.
Janos Hunyadi, Administrator of Hungary, who had fought the Turks for a long time, and Saint John Capistrano, a Franciscan friar, whom the Pope sent out as “preacher” of the new crusade, gathered an army supported by many Frenchmen, Germans and Poles. The Turks, under Mohammed II, continued their bold and savage raids, but the brave Hunyadi, and the stirring preaching of John Capistrano, sustained the courage of the Christians, and after a great battle on August 6, 1416, the Mohammedans fled their camp and left their weapons behind.
THE HERO OF ALBANIA: Simultaneously with the military and spiritual activities of Janos Hunyadi and John Capistrano, there was yet another warrior against whom the Turks had to come to grips. He was their “nemesis” and “thorn in the side,” a fighter whom they feared and yet admired because of his bravery and virtue.
Though he brought them much spilling of blood and death in battle, they nevertheless held him in such esteem as to accord him the name “Skanderberg” (Prince Alexander), in complimentary reference to Alexander the Great, who, incidentally, some historians concede, was also an Illyrian Arbreshe. Skanderberg, the feared enemy of the Turks, was that daring warrior whom history knows as PRINCE DON GIORGIO CASTRIOTA, a true Arbreshe of heroic stature.
About the year 1423, a young boy, Giorgio, and his three brothers, were forcibly taken from his father, the Lord of Kroia and Mirdite, in northern Albania, and sent to the imperial seraglio of Murad II, there to be trained for the Turkish army. The military successes of Murad practically brought the Albanian leader to their knees, and finally forced Lord Don Giovanni Castriota to give up his sons as hostages.
Young “Gjegj Kastriot” grew up in the service of Murad and though unhappy he made the most of his plight, and because he constantly dreamed of his homeland and his people, he worked with zeal. He studied the customs and manners of his captors and gained their confidences. Before long he was allowed certain privileges which placed him in possession of many Turkish intrigues and military knowledge.
The brilliant qualities of the young Christian gained him the favor of the Sultan, and he was promoted to a high military command, though barely nineteen years of age. Solely to gain power and influence for the anticipated release of his people, he became a Mussulman, remained in the Ottoman service, and awaited his opportunity.
After the Turks annexed Kroia, and young Castriota learned of the death of his father and the poisoning of his brothers by the Turks, he resolved to wait no longer. He would henceforth fight his enemies to the death. After secretly contacting some of the old Albanian chieftains, he planned his campaign against the Turks.
There followed bloody days of fierce battles in which he was invariably victorious. His big opportunity came in 1443 with Janos Hunyadi’s victory at Nish. Castriota seized Kroia by strategy and raided the fortress. Proclaiming himself a Christian, he gathered around him the best Albanian warriors and maintained a constant war against the Turks.
In thirteen campaigns, he is credited with having slain 3000 Turks with his own hand. His victories were substantial, and on one occasion with some 20,000 men he defeated a Turkish army of 200,000 men. He was so victorious that the Turks themselves came to admire his military feats, and in 1461, Murad’s successor, Mohammed II, was forced to Acknowledge Skanderbeg as “Lord of Albania and Epirus.” So long as he lived the Turks were repulsed in every attack on Albania.
After his death at Leshi (Alessio) in 1468, his tomb was visited by many, and the Turks sought portions of his bones to use as amulets against fear, thus doing homage to his bravery. Though his son, the young Giovanni Castriota, succeeded him in Kroia, Albania was no longer the safe land it was when under the watchful eye of Prince Don Giorgio Castriota Skanderbeg.
TE HORA (CONTESSA ENTELLINA)
In the last half of the 15th century, some time after the death of Skanderbeg, there began a migration of Albanese from their homeland to the shores of Italy and Sicily. A band of Arbreshe warriors, with their women and children, were trapped in the mountains by a host of Turks.
Their plight was desperate. They deliberated and decided to do or die. Placing the women and children in their center, they moved slowly, bur furiously. They struggled, some dying with sword in hand, but many survived. They fought and cut their way through the Turkish lines to the Adriatic Sea.
They boarded and commandeered a few Turkish vessels and sailed to the Italian mainland and Sicily. They scattered into groups and settled various Italian cities, and the Sicilian countryside. But their nostalgia was intense. This love of their native land is manifested immediately upon their departure from its shores:
“When the boats had put out to sea
And our mountains descended below the horizon,
All the warriors sighed profoundly,
And the women loudly cried out
O Albania! Farewell!
Gjaku Ine I Shprishur!
A substantial number of these brave Arbreshe settled in the vicinity of Palermo, founding several small communities, the most notable of which are Contessa Entellina and Piana de Albanesi, where their descendants live today, maintaining their original language, customs, religion and traditions, and in some instances even their festive dress.
Contessa Entellina is a beautiful community lying in an enchanting valley between three hills called “Brinjat,” and not too many miles to the northwest rises the “Rocca di Entella.” And, because the village lies in the area of what was in ancient times “la citta Entella,” it was given the name of Contessa Entellina. In the shimmering noon-day sun, the many white dwellings with a backdrop of green forest and hills and mountain, give Contessa a gay appearance.
The whole area of Contessa is only a little more than 30,000 acres, but it is resplendent with beauty and interesting sites.
That Contessa is a community of religious people is attested by the ample number of churches, Madre Chiesa di Contessa, Chiesa e Monasteri di Santa Maria del Bosco, Chiesa di Maria SS. delle Grazie (della Favara), and Chiesa del Purgatorio.
In the first half of the 16th century, Contessa consisted of about 70 houses and about 500 inhabitants. In the last half of that century, and the first half of the 17th century, Contessa had about 750 inhabitants. The population of Contessa increased until there were more than 3450 inhabitants in the middle of the 19th century. However, after that time the population began to decrease because of a substantial migration from Contessa Entellina to America.
In addition to the Rocca di Entella looming in the distance, another interesting site is “Castello di Vaccarizzo” and the quaint streets of Contessa resound with the names of illustrious Arbreshe families and places.
One of the very old streets in Contessa was called “rugha e glate” (long street). Some of the streets are: Rugha Albania, named for the original native land; rugha Byron, in honor of the English poet, Lord Byron; rugha Kastriota, for the Albanian here; rugha Catalano, for an old Albanian family; rugha Chisesi, for a family dating back to 1520; rugha Clesi, for an Albanian family called “Krie-si”; rugha Croia, for the old Albanian capital of the Province of Krua, rugha Cuccia, for an old Albanian family originally called Cuki, or Cucci; rugha Epiro, for the old land of Epirus; rugha Foto, for a family from Epirus; rugha Lala, for a family originating in Albania; rugha Schiro, named after the distinguished family of Skiro in old Albania dating back to the 15th century; rugha Zamanda, for an old Albanese family active in public life in 1517.
There is little doubt, if any, that the founders of Contessa Entellina, when laying out the village and designing the streets, were motivated by the fond memories of old Albania and old Albanian families. This apparently was also true of the designers of the Coat of Arms, or Escutcheon, of Contessa Entellina, which is represented by a warrior’s shield superimposed by a crown atop a column behind which appear in bold relief the heads of two crowned eagles, one on each side of a crowned female sphinx holding a reptile in each hand.
Surely this is indicative of their wish to perpetuate the memory of their native land, their “Shqiptar,” their “land of the Eagles,” their “Bukura Albania,” Gjaku ine i shprishur!
SA TE MBIEDEM GJAKUM SHPRISHUR
New Orleans, USA
In the Arbreshe character there is that search for new horizons and a restlessness that stamps those who move around. The migration from Contessa Entellina to New Orleans, for instance, was not because the emigres loved Contessa any less, but because America, and particularly New Orleans, was a challenge. So they came in substantial groups in the closing decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century.
At one time, there were more Arbreshe in New Orleans than in Contessa. Perhaps that is true now. But let’s look at what the early Arbreshe of New Orleans did to bind the blood that had scattered. Sa te mbiedem gjakum shprishur!
Though the early Arbreshe colony was amazed by, and immediately attracted to this, their new found home in the fabulous and wonderful land of America, those who came to New Orleans nevertheless felt a keen nostalgia for their Sicilian sanctuary.
It was a natural reaction as the Arbreshe feel very close and affectionate to all their kin whether in Contessa, or here. So, before long, there arose the need for getting together and reminiscing; the need to keep alive the spirit of Contessa, the experiences, associations and traditions.
The best way to do this was to organize a society made up of native Arbreshe Contessioti – men from Contessa Entellina, and their male offspring.
The “Societa Italiana diBeneficenza Contessa Entellina” was founded and organized on September 8, 1886. The Arbreshe colony chose that date to officially band themselves in honor of Mother of God under the title of Shen-Meria Favara, symbolized by statues and pictures of the original shrine in Contessa Entellina. This venture of grouping themselves succeeded, and the Society grew.
Not too long ago there were over 500 members in the Society. Today, the membership is about 225. Over the years many Sicilians from near and around Contessa have wished to join, but because of their non-Arbreshe stock they could not meet the first requisite for membership. The Arbreshe colony has indeed been impressive in the past 75 years, but as for the future, who knows? Will the younger generation of Arbreshe take up the challenge? We hope they will!
The Arbreshe, members of Contessa Entellina have given New Orleans; Priests, doctors, lawyers, and members of other professions, including politics. Their ranks have included citizens in all walks of life: from owners of hotels and steamship companies, to humble cobblers. The Arbreshe of New Orleans are highly esteemed and respected.
Even on the occasion of this diamond jubilee, a day of joy and jubilation, there lurks in the hearts of many Arbreshe a sweet nostalgia for Contessa Entellina and the oft-repeated folklore which extolled the heroes of Albania, particularly that champion of freedom, Prince Don Giorgio Castriota Skanderbeg, whose devotion to God and country challenges us, in this day of political and religious unrest, to emulate his virtues. Sa te mbljedin Gjakun Shprishur!