Preserving Albanian Heritage: Byzantine Catholics in Italy

by Daniel Morneau

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The remote hilltop hamlet of Lungro in southern Italy looks just like any other bustling, modern, apparently prosperous Calabrian village tucked away in the mountains. Political posters plaster the town walls, just as they do in Rome or Palermo, and men gather to play cards under the banner of their preferred political party. An unknowing visitor might never realize Lungro was Albanian and its religion firmly of the Byzantine rite. The religious fidelity of these Albanian descendants evokes what those on their native soil have lost: the right to open religious expression.

Southern Italy’s 40,000 Albanian Byzantine rite Catholics trace their history in Italy back to the middle of the 15th century. Emigration across the Adriatic began in 1448 when Alfonso I of Naples invited Albanian mercenaries led by Demetrio Reres to help put down a revolt among the nobles. For their services, the king awarded Reres and his men lands in that part of Italy known today as Puglia, in the heel of the Italian boot. Of those who remained, two of Reres’ sons soon led a portion of the community to Sicily, where their descendants live today in Italy’s other Albanian diocese of Piana degli Albanesi, not far from Palermo.

Turkish incursions into Albania itself precipitated further large-scale migration to Italy. Inspired by their heroic leader, Georgios Kastriotes, universally known as Scanderbeg, the Albanians launched a fierce, though ultimately unsuccessful resistance against the Turks, which was to last for nearly a century.

In 1459, during a brief respite, Scanderbeg came to Italy to help Alfonso’s successor put down another revolt. Again, the king rewarded the Albanian leader and his followers with large tracts of land. Many members of Scanderbeg’s family and entourage established themselves permanently. When one of his relatives became a princess of Calabria in 1470, a large contingent of Albanians followed her to that mountainous region in the toe of Italy. Among other places, they founded Lungro.

Scanderbeg’s death in 1468 was the signal for the Turks to invade Albania in earnest. Though resistance was strong, the violence forced steady streams of soldiers and peasants to flee their native land to join their countrymen in Puglia, in Calabria, and in Sicily. Many of their descendants preserve the Byzantine rite and the Albanian language and culture in Italy today.

Maintaining an identity has been difficult. Contact with Albania itself effectively ceased after the Turks consolidated their power in the 1550s. Over centuries, Puglia’s Albanians steadily merged into the mainstream of Italian life, so that now not even the language remains. Calabria’s poor roads and forbidding countryside, on the other hand, were far more conducive to the conservation of an Albanian identity and, most importantly, of the Byzantine rite.

Originally Orthodox, over the years these Christians gradually allied themselves with Rome, though they never made a formal break with Constantinople. They kept the Byzantine rite and endured centuries of difficulties as they attempted to preserve that allegiance.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Albania Italy Italo-Byzantine Catholic Church