On Saturday 5 November 2016, up to 20,000 people attended a Mass at the Shen Shtjefni cathedral in the Albanian city of Shkoder to celebrate the beatification of 38 Albanian Catholic martyrs executed or tortured to death during the former communist regime.
Among those beatified are eight Franciscan friars – one bishop and seven priests.
Brief accounts of the lives of some of these martyrs give some insight to what they suffered and the strength of their faith.
Blessed Gjon Shllaku, priest OFM (1907-1946)
His martyrdom comes at the start of the persecution, as he was condemned to execution by firing squad together with six companions in March 1946.He made his solemn profession in 1928 and was ordained a priest in 1931. He was considered one of the greatest Albanian intellectuals of his time.
Father Gjon Shllaku, along with two Jesuits and four laymen, were put on trial in the “Rozafa” cinema in Scutari on the trumped up charges of wanting to start a resistance movement. They were condemned to death by shooting on 4th March 1946, at the cemetery in the town. The night before the execution the condemned were heard praying and singing at the top of their voices, up to the time they left to be martyred whilst singing litanies to Our Lady. The bodies of the martyrs were never found.
Blessed Bernardin Palaj, priest OFM (1894-1946)
He made his solemn profession in 1917 and was ordained as a priest in 1918. He was a teacher and a parish priest. A prolific writer and man of culture he was arrested at the Rrubik friary whilst he was parish priest and guardian there on 22nd October 1946. In order to find a reason to charge him the police set up a scene whereby arms were discovered in the friary, hidden there unbeknownst to the friars by party members.
He was brought to Scutari and imprisoned in the Gjuhadol friary which had been requisitioned and transformed into a prison. He had spent the finest years of his religious formation there, carried out his priestly ministry and his teaching duties. Subjected to inhuman torture he resisted for a total of forty days. He died tied to a tree in the friary, having contracted tetanus through contact with rusty iron which cut into his wrists. It was 2nd December 1946.
Blessed Vinçenc Prennushi OFM, Archbishop of Durazzo (1885-1949)
He was the leader of the band of martyrs by reason of his ecclesiastical dignity as the Primate of Albania (1946). Twice Provincial Minister, from 1929 to 1935, he was elected Bishop of Sappa and consecrated in the cathedral in Scutari on 19th March 1936. He was transferred to archbishopric of Durazzo and from 1943 was the Apostolic Administrator of Southern Albania. Monsignor Prennushi represented the highest authority of the Catholic Church in Albania. His capture and condemnation was essential to the Communist regime’s strategy to attack Catholicism. The dictator had asked the bishops to create a national church separating it from the Holy See, to which he had received a blunt refusal.
Arrested and imprisoned in Durazzo on 19th May 1947, he was condemned to twenty years detention. The serenity with which he faced up to the punishment was manifest in his continuing exercise of charity even within the restrictions of imprisonment. He died on 19th March 1949 of a heart attack, caused by the maltreatment, tortures and fatigue to which he was subjected. He is buried in the Cathedral of Durazzo.
Blessed Ciprian Nika priest OFM (1900-1948)
He made his solemn profession in 1921 and was ordained a priest in Rome on 25th July 1924. A teacher, Master of the clerical students, Master of the novices, Provincial Minister, Director of the Franciscan college, and from 1944 Guardian of Gjuhadol friary. He was arrested in Scutari on 8th November 1946, falsely accused of having hidden arms in the church which the Communists themselves had planted.
He was shot on 11th March 1948 together with 16 other persons at the cemetery of Rémaj and abandoned there. He had gone to his execution reciting the rosary in a loud voice and concluding with the Te Deum laudamus. His last words were: “Long live Christ the King and we forgive our enemies”.
Blessed Gaspër Suma, priest OFM (1897-1950)
He made his solemn profession in 1919. He was ordained as a priest in Genoa in 1921, and arrested on 24th May 1948 at Gomsique where he was parish priest. He was then brought to Scutari and detained in the Gjudadol friary, of which he had been Guardian, and which in the meantime had been turned into a prison. Here he was questioned at length and tortured. The harsh prison regime and lack of medical attention aggravated his precarious health situation, already weakened by cancer, meant the he died suffering greatly on 16th April 1950.