The Arbreshe and Contessa Entellina
There exists in New Orleans today a very unique benevolent society. Unique not only because it is the oldest such society in New Orleans, but moreover due to the composition of its membership. This society, the Contessa Entellina, or as it was originally named, “la Societa Italiana de Beneficenza Contessa Entillina”, was founded on September 8, 1886, and is composed of the descendants of the Afresh or Albanian settlers who founded the small Sicilian town of Contessa Entellina some five-hundred years ago.
The Arbreshe, as speakers of the Albanian (Arbreshe) language, at one time populated a much greater land area than the present-day country of Albania. They comprised the populations of the Illyrian and Macedonia empires as well as the empire of Epirus. These people have yielded such great sons as the Emperor Diocletian, Constantine the Great and Alexander the Great. This, though, is the ancient history of the Arbreshe people.
Modern Arbreshe history begins in the fifteenth century. Although in the west the moors were being driven out of Spain by the Christians, in the east the situation was reversed. The Ottoman Muslims had captured Adrianope. Albania was quickly becoming one of Their fallen victories. Its was around the year 1431 that John Kastriot was forced to surrender Croja, the capital city of His Albanian state, to the Turks. Moreover, He was forced to surrender His four sons, among whom was George Kastriot, soon to be proclaimed by the Turks, Skanderberg (literally, “Prince Alex”, an honorary reference to Alexander the Great).
Young George Kastriot was educated in the Ottoman religion and ways of life and was soon to become a favorite of Sultan Amurat II, a commander of Ali Pasha. Amulet II appointed George Kastriot commander in charge of five thousand of His warriors. DuringHis first campaigns, Skanderberg exhibited a high degree of dexterity, valor and prudence, especially for His young age. Yet a strong fire still blazed in His heart for His old country and religion His ancestors. Finally, after having learned many Turkish military secrets, Skanderbeg joined with many of the Albanian tribal chiefs and revolted against His long-time Ottoman captors. He sent a messenger to ask Alfonso V of Aragon, Pope Eugene IV, the Republic of Venice and all Christian leades to help Him stop Turkish invasion and to help restore Christianity to the east.
In 1448, while Skanderbeg was victoriously fighting off Turkish invasions, three military colonies, commanded by Demetrio Reres along with His sons Giorgio and Basilio, were dispatched to help Alfonso V of Aragon, King of Naples and Sicily, defeat the barons of Naples who had rebelled against Him. After the defeat of the rebellious barons, Alfonso V sent Demetrio Reres and His son Giorgio to Sicily. Demetrio, promoted to commander, and His son, Giorgio, to captain, They left Naples to defend Sicily against the raids of the Angioni. Thus in 1448 Giorgio Reres, leaving His father in Calabria, took His Arbreshe troops to Sicily where They stationed Themselves in the old Castle of Bisiri, located between Mazara del Vallo and Marsala. In 1450, after two years of battling the Angioni, the Arbreshe left the castle victorious. After leaving the Castle of Bisiri the Arbreshe, led by Giorgio Reres, split up into three groups.
The first of these three Arbreshe groups ventured into the interior of Sicily, to the lands of the house of Cardona-Peralta, and founded a small town in the vicinity the ancient military fortress and Trojan settlement of “la Rocca di Entella” (Rock of Entella). They named Their newly found home Cantessa, after Countess (Contessa) Cardona-Peralta dei Colonna, who’d given Them this land. During the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, the “Contessiotti” (citizens of Contessa) added to the name of Their town, Entellina. They did this to record the fact that Their town was founded near the site of “la Rocca di Entella”. Thus, that first Arbreshe settlement in Sicily is known by us today as Contessa Entellina.
The second of the three Arbreshe groups ventured still deeper into the interior of Sicily, her the lands of the monastery of “San Giovanni deli Eremiti” and of the house of Cardona-Peralta. They settled near the ruins of the old castle of Mensel Jusphuh, (Castle of Joseph), and founded the town of Mezzojuso.
The last group went, following the previous two, westward onto the slopes of the “Montagna delle Rose” (Mountain of the Roses). There, on a high plain, dominated by a very fertile valley which is irrigated by the River Sosio, They founded Palazzo Adriano.
Evidence that these three towns were originally part of the military colony of…
– above edited by Justin Lance Schiro, Duke of Epirus, Contessa Entellina Society Historian
Evidence that these three towns were originally part of the military colony of Giorgio Reres is easily seen. The Arbreshe language is spoken, with few exceptions, with equivalent pronunciations in three towns, unlike the pronunciation in Piana degli Albanesi. Also, all three communities, Contessa Entellina, Mezzojuso and Palazzo Adriano, originally shared the same patron saint, San Nicolo di Mira. San Nocolo di Mira, or “Shen Nikolli” as he is known in Arbreshe, was also the patron saint of the Reres family.
It was also around this time that another group of Arbreshe immigrants founded Piana degli Albanesi (Plain of the Albanians). This town was mistakingly called Piana dei Greci (Plain of the Greeks) for a long time, until Mussolini corrected its name to reflect the town’s true, Arbreshe founders. From Piana degli Albanesi a nucleus of Arbreshe later settled in the nearby town of Santa Cristina Gela.
There are four other Sicilian towns, that are of Arbreshe origin, they are: Sant’Angelo Muxaro, San Michele di Ganzaria, Biancavilla and Bronte.
In 1453, Maometto II, Sultan Amurat’s successor, conquered Constantinople. This meant that the Turks could intensify and concentrate their strength on the Albanian populus. This led to the immigration of many prominent people, coming from many regions of Albania, to Contessa.
In 1462, the “Bisirioti” of Contessa, those who had fought the Angioni in the Castle of Bisiri, left for their homeland. Seeing the eminent danger to “Shqipria” (Arbreshe for Albania meaning “land of the eagles”) they naturally wanted to rejoin the ranks of Skanderberg and their fellow countrymen to fight for Christianity and their beloved “Shqipria”. Skanderberg was having great success battling the Ottomans, who were now commanded by Maometto II. At times, Skanderberg and his twenty-thousand Arbreshe warriors had defeated up to two-hundred thousand Turks.
On January 17, 1468, at the age of sixty-five, Prince George Kastriot Skanderberg died, thus leaving his Holy War against the Ottoman Turks in the hands of his son, John. Young John Kastriot, though a brave Albanian soldier, could not contain the Turks as his illustrious father had done. Not long after, Maometto II and his men finally crushed the Arbreshe forces and dominated Albania.
The Turks, as much of an enemy to Skanderberg as they were, visited his tomb to secure pieces of his bones to make potions to cure fear and to strengthen oneself.
After the death of Skanderberg and the fall of Albania, the Arbreshe who remained in Albania were forced either to convert to the Muslim religion and forsake their ByzantineCatholic faith, or die. In order to preserve their Holy Catholic tradition, these remaining Arbreshe resolved to leave their homeland. This large migration was delayed until 1521, when the first founders of Contessa along with other families from Pelopensia (Greece) returned to Contessa. The evacuation of their homeland was to be the saddest event in their lives.
“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! Farewell Albania!”
“Gjaku Ine I Shprishur!”
The last line, “Gjaku Ine I Shprishur!”, when translated from Arbreshe reads, “Our blood has been scattered!”
Thus, the Arbreshe were destined to live a life in Contessa, very different from their past. They were to put away their weapons and begin new lives, which although filled with nostalgia for Albania, these new lives were to serve as the beginning of a whole new epic of Arbreshe history. One can still stroll through the streets of present-day Contessa and almost relive the past. When the founding fathers were laying out their streets, they called upon their rich, Arbreshe heritage. In Contessa there are such streets as: VIA ALBANIA-recalling the beloved homeland; VIA CIACCIO-a family of old Contessa; VIA CLESIan old Albanian family; VIA CUCCIA-an old Albanian family; VIA SCHIRO-a distinguished family of Contessa; VIA SCIAMBRA-an Albanian family, VIA VERGINE -honoring the Blessed Mother whom we celebrate as patroness of our society as “Shen Meria e Favars”, VIA ZAMANDA-an Albanian family; and one of the main streets, VIA KASTRIOTTA -named after the great Albanian hero, George Kastriot Skanderberg, and many other such symbolically named streets.
Even the coat of arms of Contessa retains a bit of old Albania. The coat of arms depicts the two headed eagle of Albania, upon which a warrior’s shield rest. Upon the shield there is a column which is surmounted by a crown. In between the eagles’ heads there is a female sphinx grasping two snakes.
Contessa itself lies in the brim of Mount Genuardo. The town is framed by three hills which the “Contessiotti” call, “Brinjat” (Arbreshe for “Horns”, because of their peering, hornlike appearance). Contessa belongs to the province, military district and postal district of the capital city, Palermo, Many “Contessiotti” live in and/or work in Palermo, which is only ninety kilometers or fifty-four miles away.
When the Arbreshe settled in Contessa, they did so by the hundreds. This gave Contessa the population necessary to sustain a town. Naturally, Contessa began to grow, but this growth was never so large as to crowd the town. Between the years 1516 and 1554, under the rule of Emperor Carlo V, Contessa’s population numbered over five-hundred. The chart below shows the growth and partial decline of the “Contesssiotti”. The population had grown
from 1,565 inhabitants in 1718 to over 3,400 in 1861. It was around 1861 that Contessa reached her peak in population. It was around that year (1861) that the Arbreshe of Contessa made their second great immigration in over four-hundred years. Due to the social and economic conditions of Italy at that time, and also due in part to the bright promise of the United States, the “Contessiotti” left their town to find a brighter future. The major part of this immigration, which soon numbered almost three thousand, settled here in New Orleans. These Arbreshe immigrants came to New Orleans as strangers, but in time they were to assume meaningful roles in New Orleans life. It was on the feast day of “Shen Meria e Favars” or “Santissima Maria della Favara” that the Contessa Entellina Society was founded. On September 8, 1886 the “Contessiotti” of New Orleans united into a brotherhood, where each member could find shelter, relief and help from within their own ranks. Incorporated on October 22nd of that same year, the Contessa Entellina Society sought, and still seeks to preserve the rich heritage of the Arbreshe people and to keep their people united.
Year 1516-54 1583 1653 1718 1798 1861 1881 1911 1921 1976
Population 500+ 676 990 1565 3018 3472 3293 2117 1910 3500
This unity of the Arbreshe has proved to be one of their strong points. This unity plus their fierce religiosity has helped to preserve the Arbreshe, both in Contessa and here in New Orleans.
This religious fervor is attested to by the ample number of churches in Contessa. There are four churches within Contessa, these being; the Church of the Annunciation and San Nicolo di Mira, the Church of “Shen Mena e Favars”, the Church of San Rocco and the Church of the Purgatory.
Up until the year 1624. the religion of Contessa was strictly Byzantine Catholic. It was around this year (1624), due to the large influx of Latins or Roman Catholics, that the Latin rites were introduced to Contessa.
The Byzantine Catholic Church is the descendent of the Church of the primitive Christians in the Middle East. The Byzantine, or Greek Catholic Church was the Church in Jerusalem. The Church spread to Antioch where Saint Peter founded the See of Antioch before moving to Rome. The Patriarch of the Byzantine Catholic Church is the successor of Saint Peter in Antioch. In the tenth century, when the Moslems were occupying the Middle East but not as of yet in Constantinople, the Byzantine Church looked over to Rome, rather than the Eastern Church of Constantinople. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks occupied Constantinople. The Sultan gave all the rights to the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. It was at that time that the Byzantine Church looked to him and the Orthodox Church, although they had remained Catholic in past centuries. In 1724 the Church divided again. The Byzantine Church choose the Roman Catholic section. The Byzantine Church has thus remained Catholic since 1724.
Although the Byzantine Church (the Church of Contessa) has been Catholic for over two hundred and fifty years, it has retained its own traditions, vestments, liturgies, brevity and canon law. In relation to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, the Byzantine Catholics remain autonomous but obedient.
The priests of the Byzantine Rite are called “Papas”, as opposed to “Padre” or “Father”.
In Contessa, the “Papas” are held in high esteem, just as the “Contessiotti” hold their religion. During the early years of Contessa Entillina, the “Papas” were the teachers in the elementary schools. The “Papas” have always been the scholars and men of learning. This tradition of scholarly priests is carried on even today.
Possibly the greatest author of Contessa was a priest or “Papas” of the Byzantine Church. Born in 1740 in Contessa Entellina, Papas Nicolo Chetta was the rector of the Greek-Albanian Seminary of Palermo. He is considered to be the only author who has been able to amply illustrate the dialect of Contessa. Among his other works he wrote an Albanian-Italian dictionary, a history of Epirus and Macedonia, accounts of the Albanian colonies of Sicily and an autobiography. He died on November 15, 1803.
The “Contessiotti”, being as religious as they are, have always held their patron saint, San Nicolo di Mira in high esteem. San Nocolo di Mira, or “Shen Nikolli” as he is known in Arbreshe, was the patron saint of the Reres family. As Giorgio Reres was the leader of the “Bisirioti”, it was only natural they would choose to worship San Nicolo as their patron saint.
In Contessa, San Nicolo is known as, “Shen Nikolli, Buke e Burr”. This endearing term means, “Saint Nicholas, Bread and Fiance”. This devotion to “Shen Nikolli” is probably derived from the episode in the saint’s life when he procured gifts of food and clothing, etc. for some peasant girls. Without the saint’s gifts, the girls would not have been able to accumulate the proper dowry necessary for marriage. The girls of Contessa thus believe that as “Shen Nikolli” saved those girls, so will he procure husbands for them. “Shen Nikolli” is still faithfully worshipped in Contessa today.
In Contessa, as well as in some of the other Arbreshe towns, the Arbreshe language is still spoken and preserved as a native tongue. This Arbreshe language belongs to the IndoEuropean family, though it is the sole survivor of its kind. The language of the northern part of Albania (Ghegeria) is known as “Ghego”; the language of the south (Toskaria) is known as “Tosko”.
Just as the Arbreshe founders of Contessa were from both “Ghegeria” and “Toskaria” so is the language part of both regions. The dialect of Contessa. and most of the ArbresheSicilian towns, is mainly a “Tosko” dialect. The particular dialect of Contessa Entellina bears a Close resemblance to the dialects of Mezzojuso and Palazzo Adriano. This is understandably so as the people of all three towns share a common ancestry. The dialects of these three towns differ slightly from the Arbreshe which is spoken in Piana degli Albanesi.
Just as the language of Contessa is a mixture of northern and southern Albania, so were the founding families of Contessa. Many family names reoccurring in the rolls of the Contessa Entellina Society, also among those first families of Contessa Entellina, were: Caliva, Carlisi, Carnesi, Chetta, Chisesi, Ciaccio, Clesi, Cuccia, Curbi, Custagliorsi, Ermi, Foto, Gassisi, Grisaffi, Lala, Lopes, Manale, Masaracchia, Nicolosi, Petta, Plescia, Reres, Sagali, Schiro, Sciambra, Serveja, Spata, Stassi and Zamanda.
When the “Contessiotti” of New Orleans formed the Contessa Entellina Society in 1886. they elected as their first officers: Luigi C. Tortorich, president, Giuseppe Terranova, Ist vicepresident; Salvatore Valenti, 2nd vice-president; Luigi Genovese, secretary: Antonino Licalzi. financial secretary; Giuseppe Foto, treasurer, Giovanni Schilleci, collector and as grand marshal they chose Giuseppe Vaccaro.
At one time in our history, “la Societa Italiana di Beneficenza Contessa Entellina” numbered nearly six hundred members. Today, the Society’s membership, which is limited to the direct male descendents of the “Contessiotti”, numbers approximately one hundred and twenty-five.
During its ninety years, the Contessa Entellina Society has carried with it the pride of the Arbreshe. This pride stemming from its unity, longevity and such honors as eight of its members being knighted or raised to the title of “Cavaliere” by the Italian government and church. The “Cavalieri” of our Contessa Entillina Society are: Cav. Peter N. Ciaccio,* Cav. Phillip C. Ciaccio, Cav. Rosario Graffagnini,* Cav. Ted R. Liuzza, Cav. W. N. Parrino,* Cav. Dr. John P. Schiro, Cav. Joseph G. Schiro, Cav. Lucas J. Schiro.* Among other honors, the Contessa Entellina Society has one of the three Arbreshe families admitted to the Order of the Knights of Malta. In the year 1500, a Clesi was accepted into the Order of Malta. A descendent of Skanderberg was accepted into the Order of Malta in 1565, and another Arbreshe soldier of the family of Bruno was accepted into the Order in 1571.
Above all else, we are proud of the present and past members of the Society, who have sustained our Contessa Entillina Society for the past ninety years and who have helped to preserve our rich Arbreshe heritage.
Thus, the Arbreshe have suffered many harsh setbacks which could have easily doomed any creed. This is not the case with our people. After losing our beloved Albania we went on. Seeking to preserve our Holy religion and creed we established new lives in Sicily. Even here in New Orleans we can be proud representatives of our Arbreshe ancestors. The history of the Arbreshe people is one of great pride. Of our Arbreshe history Dr. Giuseppe Schiro of the University of Rome says, “Our history, then, can be sad but heroic. First, from a heroism that tolerated the use of the sword and a continually dangerous life with agriculture; a humble and silent humility, and a life of sadness and nostalgia. ”
Although the Arbreshe have produced many great sons, this energy has never produced a great nation. This may be due to the fact that we have always been a rebellious and independent people. The historically well known Byzantine princess, Anna Comnena, once called the Arbreshe, “a people without a king.”
When the Arbreshe left Albania and exclaimed, “Gjaku Ine I Shprishur!” (Our blood has been scattered!). Little did they know that they were beginning a whole new period of Arbreshe history.
Were they here today, perhaps they would rejoice and exclaim, “Sa Te Mbiedem Gjakum Shprishur!” (Our scattered blood has been gathered!).
We, the Arbreshe should dedicate ourselves to preserving our rich heritage. Remembering our Arbreshe pride and unity, we should and shall stand here together, again, on September 8. 1996 and thank “Shen Meria e Favars” for our society’s centennial.
With our reflections on the past ninety years of our Contessa Entellina Society, let us also reflect on over five hundred years of Arbreshe freedom, and pray for at least that from the future.
BRET A. CLESI
Former Historian, Contessa Entellina Society
New Orleans, Louisiana
Let’s preserve storied illustrations of the greatness that is in our blood.
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Brought to you by:
Justin Lance Schiro, Married Monastic
Contessa Entellina Society Historian
Double Eagle Award Winner 2015