This article will focus on the history of the Protestant movement among the ethnic Albanian populations in Sicily, especially Hora e Arbëreshëvet, or Piana degli Albanesi, repeating material from Young (Lëvizja protestante, 2011) and adding the fruit of further researches undertaken during the period 2012-5. It will supply an example of the embedding of the Evangelical faith among ethnic Albanians, and will demonstrate the falsehood of the assertion that it is foreign, non-Albanian, missionaries who have brought that religion to Albania, by briefly chronicling three visits into Albania from Piana in the Communist period, made solely for the purpose of seeking opportunity to speak to people about the Christian faith. The article will also include some observations on the Scriptures in the Sicilian and Calabrian Albanian dialects produced in the nineteenth century by Prince L. L. Bonaparte. —David Young
Calabria and Sicily in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
According to Anton Logoreci (Albanians in Sicily and Calabria, pages 51-5, in The Contemporary Review, Vol CLXXIII, January 1948), Albanian migration to Calabria and Sicily took place from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries as an escape from the Ottoman invasion and empire and from conversion to Islam under the Turks. Many leading families emigrated to Sicily where they founded Piana dei Greci, so called because of their attachment to the Greek Orthodox Church. The village—now a small town—later came to be known as Piana degli Albanesi, by reference to the population’s race rather than their religious affiliation.
Concerning Calabria, Thomas Humble Bruce, British and Foreign Bible Society agent for Italy, wrote in 1872 that “there are ten or twelve Albanian villages, all the inhabitants of which are well disposed to the Truth, and that at San Demetrio the colporteur always finds some customers, in addition to receiving board and lodging free of expense. There is but little of that scepticism so common in other parts of Italy prevalent here” (1872 BFBS Annual Report, p. 147). A colporteur was an itinerant worker for the Bible Society, whose purpose was to sell, or sometimes give, copies of the Scriptures to the people of the area where he served. Bruce worked for the Society from 1860 till his death, which was reported in their annual Record in 1881. He was replaced as agent by Auguste Meille, a Waldensian Christian and native of Florence.
The work was centred on the Society’s depot in Naples, and covered three-quarters of the ex-kingdom of Naples and the whole of Sicily. The area in general was felt to be inferior in population, education and civilisation to the rest of Italy, and the Society reported that “scarcely one in ten of the young men drafted into the army from these parts can read.” This level of illiteracy naturally operated against the work of Scripture distribution.
In 1887 the Society was able to note that “Sicily possesses several old-established and flourishing Italian evangelical congregations.” Nonetheless, ten years later, they wrote that “The island of Sicily is, without doubt, the most difficult part of our field. Here superstition of the worst kind reigns supreme. The more incredible, the more absurd, a new legend, about the Virgin Mary or the Saints, the more readily it is received by the people, and devoutly believed in.”
One of the Society’s colporteurs was Marco Mariani, of Cosenza. By 1888 he had served for twenty-seven years, and had “remained for twenty-three years almost the only witness of the Gospel in the vast wild and mountainous region of Calabria. … During the first years of his stay in Calabria his was a more difficult and chequered life. He met on every side with determined opposition, and was even twice taken by the brigands. But all that is now a thing of the past. ‘I can now,’ he writes, ‘travel by day or by night through Calabria, and nothing ever happens to me. I find almost everywhere friends and sympathisers, from the town to the remotest hamlet in the immense forest of the Sila.’” The Society’s 1890 Report records that Mariani “fell ill and died on a Calabrian high road”. He was:
one of the most lovable and praiseworthy servants of the Society. Marco Mariani, though a Tuscan by birth, had laboured in wild Calabria for more than a quarter of a century, refusing to leave the place, even to return to his native Siena, … but on June 25, as he was nearing Catanzaro, on his sacred calling, he was struck with apoplexy and died alone on a Calabrian high road. Two carabinieri on their round found his body, and the police had his remains buried in the nearest cemetery, before any of his friends were aware of the facts. It is sad to think of the old colporteur dying in this way by the roadside, without a friend by his side, without a brother to follow his remains to the grave. But we may be sure that the Lord he had served so faithfully was with him in his last moments, and received him to his rest.
In June 1903 an Albanian Congress was held at Naples to promote ties to the rest of the Albanians (Skendi 220). Colporteur Egidio de Turris attended and found it an excellent opportunity for continuing his work among the Albanians of Italy. As recorded in the Society’s 1904 Report (page 70), the Congress was attended by many of Italy’s most eminent Albanians, from Apulia, Calabria and Sicily:
They still cling tenaciously to their old nationality and continue to cast longing eyes across the Adriatic to their former patria; … One resolution of the Congress was that their ancient language should once more be used in public worship, and that the Scriptures should be circulated in Albanian. Our colporteur was provided with Bibles and Testaments in the Tosk and Geg dialects of Albania, of which he sold some copies. It is touching to see the attachment of these people to the memories of their race.
I searched the Society’s annual published reports from 1868 till 1908, and was unable to find anything further about their work among the Albanians of Italy. Nonetheless, a few details may be extrapolated from the above:
- San Demetrio (Shën Mitër) is the main centre of Albanian language and culture in mainland Italy.
- The Sila is one of the main areas of Albanian settlement.
- Albanian villages were better “disposed to the Truth” than Italian ones.
- De Turris’s visit to the Albanian Congress was a continuation of his work among Albanians, even though I found no previous specific reference to that ministry.
Scriptures in Arbëresh
The Bible Society’s archives, under reference BSA/E3/8/4/4, contain information about translations of the Gospel of Matthew into the Albanian dialects of Sicily and Calabria, with some background information as follows:
In Southern Italy and especially Calabria are numerous Albanian colonies which are the descendants of Demetrius Reres Castriota, his son Captain Scanderbeg and their followers who left their mother country in about 1440. They now  form in all a population of more than 200,000 souls. The language spoken in these colonies differs somewhat from the Tosk and Gheg dialects, but is almost identical with that which is spoken by the Albanian colonies in Greece.
The Sicilian translation was the first of the two, printed in 1868 in London by Strangeways and Walden at the expense of Prince Ludovic Luciano Bonaparte. Only 250 copies were printed. It is described as being in “the dialect of Albanian spoken in Sicily near the town of Piana, and a few other places in the province of Palermo … made by a native of that place and revised by Don Demetrius Camarda, the author of an Albanian Grammar.”
In 1869 “A translation of S. Matthew into the dialect of Albanian spoken at Frascinato in North Calabria was made by Signor Vincenzo Dorsa and revised by Don Demetrius Camarda” (BSA/E3/8/4/4). It too was printed in London, 250 copies, at the expense of Prince Ludovic Luciano Bonaparte.
Although the Bible Society has copies of these Gospels, they do not bear the Society’s imprint as publisher, and they do not appear in the Historical Table of Languages and Dialects … at any time promoted by the British and Foreign Bible Society. Pages 68-9 of the 1902 Report supply a list of “languages in which we circulate the Scriptures” in Italy, namely, the Diodati version in Italian, plus English, French, German, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, plus “various other languages,” but Albanian is not mentioned. French and German would have been needed in northern Italy, Hebrew among the Jewish communities, and Greek in seminaries or universities.
The Church at Hora e Arbëreshëvet
The main Arbëresh settlement in Sicily is Piana degli Albanesi (Hora e Arbëreshëvet), where the leading Evangelical family today is the Petta family.
Giuseppe Petta was born in 1932. When he was nine years old, the country was suffering from hunger under Benito Mussolini, and Giuseppe was sent away from Piana to work as a shepherd. When he was seventeen, another shepherd, who was an Italian Pentecostal believer from San Giuseppe Jato, came to work with the flock, and through his contact with him Giuseppe became a believer.
In 1957 two Italian brothers, Vittorio and Vicenzo Maniscalco, masons from Palermo, came to work for some months in Piana (Hora). They were Pentecostal believers. They made friends with a tailor called Bellone, and began to speak with him about the Lord. They spoke to other people about the faith, and persuaded some to embrace the same belief and experience. Another person involved in the early meetings, who still worships with them, was Maria Damiani, a dressmaker in the early days. With Bellone’s help, they began to hold meetings. The majority were not of high social standing, but were poor villagers, peasants, farm labourers, artisans, nurses.
Giuseppe grew to manhood and became a shop-keeper in Piana. He was looking for a Christian community there. He made the acquaintance of people who had become believers through the witness of the Maniscalco brothers, gathered them together, and became their leader. Giuseppe’s wife began attending the meetings and was also brought faith in Christ. Giuseppe Petta invited the pastor of a large Pentecostal church in Palermo to come regularly and lead services, and they began holding services at the home of a sister called Vo Pipinia. Other early services were held at the home of the tailor Bellone. Giuseppe Petta kept the group of believers together, preaching when the pastor from Palermo was unable to come, and giving pastoral oversight. They were also joined by Giuseppe Plescia, who had heard the Gospel in Germany. Thus in a short time a group of about ten people was formed.
As well as owning a shop, Giuseppe went to people’s homes to repair their televisions, and often spoke of his faith in that context. Other members of the group also spoke of their faith, and thus by personal evangelism further people were added to the group. One man had a wife who opposed his attendance at the meetings, and would devise means to keep him away, such as hiding his shoes: but he attended barefoot. They still had no public meeting place.
They suffered opposition and persecution from the Byzantine Church and from their families. Some did not resist their family pressure, and gradually left the group.
From the start there was opposition and discrimination from the Byzantine Catholics, and the Evangelical believers became isolated in the town. The Catholics began to hold services near to the Evangelical ones, the priest making loud noises with a bell to disturb the Evangelical worshippers. The civil authorities also put difficulties in their way, for example against acquiring suitable rented property, and for this reason today they call themselves not a church but ‘Centro Culturale Biblico Cristiano’. Italian law still favours Catholicism, as seen in Article 7 of the Civil Code:
Lo Stato e la Chiesa cattolica sono, ciascuno nel propprio ordine, indipendenti e sovrani.
[The State and the Catholic Church are, each according to its own manner, independent and sovereign.]
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Giuseppe Petta was building the family house and promised the Lord that once he had finished, his desire would be to hold worship services at his home. This desire was fulfilled, and for many years the church met there. Eventually over thirty people embraced the Evangelical faith. Around the years 1970-1980, some families attended worship in Palermo and transferred there, whilst others fell away. By about 1985, it was decided to have a church separate from the house, so that it would be more visible and the testimony more open. After much time, during which they were unable to find a place, a woman offered a small, disused room where they could hold the worship services. Since then, they have changed venues four times.
Unfortunately a split occurred in the 1990s, and more than half the members left, and, after a time of wandering, joined new Pentecostal communities with so-called “Toronto blessing.” Maria Damiani was one, but she returned to the Piana church. Some members died, others emigrated, and the membership was reduced to about thirty people by 2000. It was decided that the community should be led by Giuseppe Petta, his son Girolamo, and Giuseppe Plescia as elders.
The church’s goal remains to do the will of God using only the Word of God exclusively as its source. Local people continue to ostracise them because of their faith, by such means as not doing business with them.
Ministry in Communist Albania
The closing years of the 1980s witnessed two simultaneous trains of events. Interest and prayer concerning Albania grew, and people came to Piana from several countries after learning that there was an evangelical community functioning there among ethnic Albanians. Thus, Giuseppe Petta’s home became a centre for this interest. Prayer meetings for Albania were held, on occasions on the Kumeta mountain. Much prayer was being made for Albania at the time as foreign missionaries and other Christians, concerned for Albania, came to Piana and visited the Petta household. This prayer movement was not taken up by the whole church, but Plescia was always present, as was Gesina Blaauw, a Dutch missionary who came and worked with the Petta family.
Secondly, in the years 1987-90 Girolamo and Liborio Petta, sons of Giuseppe, made three trips into Albania. They journeyed to Holland and secured financial support for their ventures, for which they set up an import/export business as a cover for the trips to Albania with a view to making personal contact with people there. The fact that they were native Albanian-speakers made this a real possibility. Various goods were imported into Albania, and Albanian goods, largely small decorative items, were purchased for sale in Italy.
The possibility of meaningful personal contact with people inside Albania was enhanced when a woman living in Piana supplied the brothers with the name of a relative of hers living in Tirana.
The first trip was made in 1987 in a Volkswagen van belonging to Gesina Blaauw. They took a ferry to Igoumenitsa in Greece and drove up to the border at Kakavijë where they were met by government ministers and taken in official vehicles to Tirana, being obliged to leave the van at the border. They had small gifts with them to give to people, including children, in order to make contact, but people were afraid to accept them in case the Sigurimi (secret police) were observing. In the day-time a government ‘minder’ accompanied them everywhere in Tirana. Although they were allowed to go wherever they wished, their minder continually suggested sites worth visiting and wished to guide them there, and they were not permitted to talk with the people. Nonetheless one evening they had the opportunity to go out without his company, and met up with a lady whose name had been given to them by her relative in Piana. Her family seemed prosperous by Albanian standards. It was agreed that Girolamo and Liborio would go out for a walk one evening to a pre-arranged spot, and from there follow this lady discreetly at a distance to her home. There she had gathered a number of close relatives, and an evening was spent together, most of which was recorded on video. The family sang Albanian songs to Girolamo and Liborio, who in turn sang Gospel songs and spoke about the Christian faith – but these parts of the evening were not filmed, to avoid creating evidence in view of the possibility of trouble arising from the Albanian authorities.
The second trip took place in 1989, by the same route, using the Petta family’s own Iveco van, which they were permitted to take into Albania. They drove up to Tirana where they engaged in their commercial business and also met again the family they had come to know in 1987.
The third trip, in 1990, took them via a different route, south through Yugoslavia, in Girolamo’s car, accompanied with a Norwegian woman. They went to Durrës. There seemed to be slightly more freedom in Durrës than there had been in Tirana, and no government official accompanied them. They were not the only Italians there. They met two young men on the beach, who wished to talk with them. One was openly wearing a necklace with a cross, and when asked whether this was not forbidden, he explained that change was in the air. They were able to converse for a while, and when Girolamo told the man wearing the cross that people all over the world were praying for freedom to come to Albania, he threw up his hands in pleasure and exclaimed, “Hallelujah!”. They also met the lady from Tirana again. Girolamo seems to remember her coming to Durrës to visit them, but Liborio thinks they went to Tirana. After the end of the Communist years in Albania, the lady came several times to Piana, spending time especially with Giuseppe Petta. She had begun attending a church in Tirana.
Giuseppe Petta died in 2004 at the age of 72 and his son Girolamo now pastors the church. The congregation is no longer attached to the Pentecostal mother church in Palermo, but is independent.
There is no Bible and no hymnbook in the Arbëresh dialect, and public services were – and are – held in Italian; at present there is also an Italian family in attendance at the services, who do not speak Arbëresh. In private prayer, God is addressed in Arbëresh.
Georgio Guzzeta (1682-1756) founded a seminar in Palermo in 1734. The book Hora e Arbëreshëvet (page 25) explains:
Tek e para gjymsë e shekullit XVIII arbëreshët pianiotë, te një periudhë krizje të thellë shoqërore-kulturore, nisën proçesin e ringjalljes shpirtërore e kulturore për hir të Atit Gjergj Guxeta, themelues i Seminarit greko-arbëresh të Palermës, institute çë i dha një përkrahje vendimtare për ruajtjen dhe zhvillimin e pasurisë besje e kulturje të bashkësivet sikulo-arbëreshe.
Seminari kreu rolin e tij të ringjalljes tue përgatitur jo vetëm proftrat e ritit greko-bizantin, por edhe gjithë shtresën udhëheqëse dhe intelektuale arbëreshe. Atje studiuan disa nga më të ndriturit përfaqësues të bashkësisë … Shekujt XIX e XX kanë shënuar një të rëndësishëm e të mëtejshëm përparim te kultura e te letërsia arbëreshe.
[In the first half of the eighteenth century the Arbëresh of Piana, in a period of deep social and cultural crisis, began the process of spiritual and cultural rebirth, thanks to Father George Guzzeta, founder of the Greco-Arbëresh seminary, an institute which gave decisive support to the preservation and development of the richness of faith and culture of the Sicilian Arbëresh.
The seminar fulfilled its reviving role by preparing not only priests of the Greco-byzantine rite, but also the whole leading and intellectual Arbëresh stratum. Some of the most outstanding representatives of the society studied there … The 19th and 20th centuries have signalled important further progress in Arbëresh culture and literature.]
It was suggested to me both by the Bishop of Piana, Giorgio Demetrio Gallaro, and at the museum in Piana, that the Calabrian and Sicilian Arbëresh Gospels of Matthew printed at Prince Bonaparte’s expense would have been read by students at the seminaries in Palermo and San Demetrio Corona, where not only candidates for the priesthood but also other men studied. A prominent spokesman and leader in the nineteenth century Albanian nationalist movement was the poet Girolamo de Rada (1814-1908), who played a significant role in Albania’s struggle for freedom from Ottoman rule and for independence. This struggle, says Logoreci, was “the consuming passion of his life” and he was in contact with leading intellectuals in Italy, France and Germany, as well as Albania. It was perhaps in the context of this Albanian renaissance among the Arbëresh that the Sicilian and Calabrian scriptures of the 1860s found their place.
Other Protestant groups in Sicily
There is also a Pentecostal congregation in Mezzoiuso, an Arbëresh village in Sicily where the language is now Italian; indeed, the use of Arbëresh was already in decline there by the late 19th century. I was granted an interview with the pastor, Vincenzo Rosavalle. He told me that about eighty years ago, there was one Evangelical family in Mezzoiuso, but they left the village because of the persecution they suffered from the Catholic church. In 1976 Rosavalle came and a church began under his ministry. The people still see themselves as Arbëresh, even though they have lost the language. Rosavalle himself has experienced resistance from the Catholics, and the believers encounter similar opposition to that experienced in Hora.
There is also a Pentecostal assembly in Contessa Entellina (Kundisa) which came into existence through evangelism undertaken in the period 1946-51 at Kundisa by Italian Christians from Corleone. When I visited in 2012, about twenty people used to gather for worship in their church building.
The Albanian National Awakening. Stavro Skendi (Princeton University Press) 1967.
Anima mia, avanti con forza! Castrenze Cascio (Palladium, Corleone) 2009.
British and Foreign Bible Society’s annual Reports 1868-1908.
Hora e Arbëreshëvet Pietro Manali (kujdestar) (Bashkia e Horës së Arbëreshëvet) (Palermo) 2005.
Interview with Antonina Bondi, Kundisa, 2012.
Lëvizja protestante midis shqiptarëve 1908-1991. David M. Young (Tenda, Prishtina) 2011.