TABLE OF CONTENTS:
of Contessa Entellina,
Wonk, Dixie Newspaper N.O., 1983
The Contessa Entellina
booklet published 1961, New Orleans
of Contessa Entellina
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.
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.
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.
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
Menat," some of the older members called out, wishing good
day to one another in their ancient Albanian dialect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
the Arbreshe, everything went by the male. With the Sicilians,
it was a matriarchy. The Arbreshe men really were the boss."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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
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:
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
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."
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."
Arbreshe differ racially from the Sicilians. They spoke a foreign
language. And perhaps most importantly they followed a different
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.
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,
Arbreshe were never assimilated. There was some mixing with
the native population, but the taboo against intermarriage was
older woman of Arbreshe descent remembers an aunt who married
a Sicilian and was so ostracized she was forced to leave Contessa.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ciacco's grandfather was a successful miller, for instance.
And Gaspar Schiro's grandfather was the secretary to the Contessa
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.
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.
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.
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.
society also provided a doctor, a pharmacist and a burial crypt.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
procession is not much to see now," Liuzza says, "But
in those days it was a real event."
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."
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.
the stubborn Arbreshe pride almost met its nemesis in the American
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
shrugs apologetically. "We call ourselves Italian over
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
asked him to put a hat like Skanderberg on him and have it be
a Skanderberg picture. The Albanian hero."
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
to get closer to our time:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
"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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
HORA (CONTESSA ENTELLINA)
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.
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.
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: