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Historical Archives Curiosities and news Father Giacomo Gardin, prisoner in Albania

Father Giacomo Gardin, prisoner in Albania

Giacomo Gardin SJ - Archivio Storico - Provincia Euro-Mediterranea della Compagnia di Gesù

Our column today tells the story of Fr Giacomo Gardin: a Jesuit who was prisoner in Albania between 1945 and 1955.

The story of Giacomo Gardin SJ is one of the many that are emerging from the historical archives of religious bodies in the aftermath of their opening on 2 March 2020. It bears witness to the situation of religious who were persecuted in such as China, Russia and Albania in the aftermath of World War II.

The persecutions of the Enver Hoxha regime

Enver Hoxha’s regime began a systematic persecution of religious men and women, requisitioning church property, desecrating places of worship and changing their use. For decades, for example, the church of the Society of Jesus in Tirana become a cinema; the College of Shkodra was partly destroyed, partly converted into a workshop. The dictator’s party would later proclaim Albania as the only atheist nation in the world.

Hundreds of religious were imprisoned, summarily tried, sentenced to imprisonment in prison camps, real lagers, many of them were killed.

In 2016, 38 priests, members of religious congregations and bishops known as the ‘Martyrs of Albania’, executed between 1945 and 1974, become blessed. Among them were also the Jesuits Giovanni Fausti SJ, Gjon Pantalia SJ and Daniel Dajani SJ.

The Jesuits of the Veneto-Milan Province lost contact with all their confreres in Albania. For years, several fathers and brothers, members of the communities in Shkodra and Tirana, were in the annual catalogue as ‘dispersus’ or ‘captivus’ if they were known the arrest.

For decades, the plight of the Albanian people failed to filter through the iron curtain of the Albanian borders, not least because of the repression carried out by the regime through the Sigurimi, the dreaded police force that was guilty of espionage, torture and the murder of thousands of civilians.

It was only with the death of the dictator and the fall of the regime a few years, later that Albania was able to come to terms with this part of its history, thanks to the research and studies that inaugurated strands of research into the history of the Albanian nation during the regime.

Although our archives do not preserve locally produced documentation, such as the house diaries or the registers of the Scutari boarding school, several folders of letters, reports and documents can help researchers to shed light on the events that affected the Jesuits in Albania.

Fr. Giacomo Gardin

Fr Gardin’s story is particularly interesting because it helps us to open a window on the release of prisoners and their conditions thanks to the documentation preserved in the Archives.

Born in 1905 in Prodolone, he joined the novitiate in Gorizia in 1923 and during World War II was in Shkodra, Albania, where the Jesuits had a boarding school and the Society was entrusted with the local diocesan seminary. He had already been living there for some years, since 1938 taking care of the spiritual care of the collegians and the formation of the seminarians.

In 1945, he was arrested by the Albanian police and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, which would later be prolonged. Thus began ten years of hard labour for the Jesuit. He took part in the reclamation of the Korça and Kavaja areas, before moving on to the prison camps in Tepelena, then Vlora, Tirana and Lushnja.

Giacomo Gardin SJ - Historical Archives - Jesuits, Euro-Mediterranean Province

Some accounts of imprisonment

During the course of his imprisonment, the Jesuit sent a number of letters to family members and confreres. Copies of some of the missives are now in his personal file. Some have been used to compile a typewritten memo, in which some significant passages have been collected.

Here are a few passages:

“In his letters from the labour camps, he describes his priestly work, sometimes in figurative language so as not to arouse suspicion. From camp No. 5 in Lushnjë: “Now I am a farmer in a state company: old job! I roam and shave, I prune and graft, I sow with my hands and water with sweat; an Other will take care of the harvest; perhaps I won’t see the harvest: it will be safe…” […] Only I beg you not to forget me, because a small light at the slightest breath could be extinguished”.

“For the past nine years in all my painful stations I have carried on my shoulders and without great effort all that constitutes my patrimony: bed, a few garments, a bib and water bottle, a book of spiritual exercises, the Gospel and a little bread, and my heart fixed on the One who has been at my side and guiding me since my youth.”

[…] I would not like to spoil the beauty of this Spartan poverty that has given me the practical sense and taste of the one I have devoted to the Lord, by taking advantage of your charity”.

This was the answer, the memo tells us, and given to a confrere who asked him if he needed anything. Only at the insistence of his superiors did the Jesuit ask for some cloth for the winter, but added: ‘If my request is seen to be exaggerated, let nothing be done: He who clothes the lilies of the field, I have firm confidence that he will also think of me.

A letter to his confrere

He wrote in a letter to Fr Viezzoli on 12 June 1955, not imagining that he would live out his last months of imprisonment:

Dearest Lorenzo, […] in addition to the rest, I have not been writing for a long time sitting at a table, where there is paper and envelope at hand, pencils that act as fountain pens, (by the way, if you would send me some, with spare tubes, you would work with almost plenary indulgence) or better typewriter: but I sit in a stone block and lean on my poor box. Anyway, I write.

My health is fine: work hardens my muscles and tames my spirit to sacrifice, resignation, humility, creating in my heart a fund of perennial and serene conformity to God’s dispositions.

Of course I too would like to see this apprenticeship, which has now been going on for ten years, come to an end, but human events I would liken to a mighty machine that passes over generations, and some it raises, some it breaks, some it brings to light, some it leaves in the shadows. It comforts to think that God presides over everything and guides everything for the good of those who love him. I only regret that I do not know how to sanctify myself as much as I should. There are and will be, as there were, workers like me who became great through the work of their hands and above all through the beauty of their hearts.

[…] However, since we are still suspended, and waiting for your government to smoothen and improve relations with this country, preparing us for a not-too-distant return to the family, I don’t know what to ask for that would be really useful. Two seriously coloured woollen pullovers would be preferable to anything. […]

Fifty is close to ringing for me too, however young I may look, and in work, I do not let myself be overcome by younger companions. However, I have, thank God, always enjoyed good health: work in this respect too has brought me great benefits. However, I save myself from being a labourer in Panara, when I return, because my entire scientific and cultural apparatus has been left behind for a millennium and the mental machinery is so rusty that there is no lubricant that can put it back into operation.

I speak of exteriority, because the basic soil is still healthy, discreetly cultivated, and, if it cannot display rare flowers, it always bears some good fruit from a poor vegetable garden.

Therefore, dear Lorenzo, partly in earnest and partly in jest, I have written you four pages. Now take care, say hello to Dalle Nogare [one of his confreres] [un suo confratello]and the other friends. Pray for me.

Other sources

In order to reconstruct the whole story of Fr Gardin, in addition to studying the correspondence of the Provincial and the General, thus both in our archives and in ARSI, it would be necessary to check the documents in the Albanian State archives, together with those kept in the Italian archives concerning the Jesuit’s release. These could testify to more details of his detention.

In 1955, news of the Jesuit’s release finally arrived.

The magazine of the Veneto-Milan Province recalls the stages of his return:

On 25 September, evening, at 8.30 pm, on the steamer “Acilia” sent by the Italian government to Durres, the thirteen repatriates from Albania arrived in Brindisi. Among them was Fr Giacomo Gardin, after 10 years of imprisonment and internment in compulsory labour. […] The Rev. Father Provincial with Father Palladini and his nephew Father Alfenore had gone to meet him in Bari, to then continue on to Rome. On Sunday 2 October in Milan, Father Gardin celebrated the 11.30 a.m. Mass in S. Fedele […] On Sunday 9 October, he was able to see Prodolone (Udine) again, festively welcomed by his family and fellow villagers, who were able to soothe the pain of the missing embrace of his mother, who died a year ago.

The photographs accompanying today’s episode were taken on the very occasion of the Jesuit’s return, portrayed in a car on his way to Leo XIII. Father Gardin appears very thin and particularly tried after his long imprisonment. A few days after his return from Albania, the Pope also received him on 1 October 1955, to testify about the situation of the Catholic clergy in Albanian land.

P. Giacomo would die many years later, on 4 August 1996 in the infirmary of the Society of Jesus in Gallarate, after several decades of apostolate between Lonigo, Reggio Emilia, Trieste, Parma. He was spiritual director of the Jesuits in the Carissimate, superior in both Reggio and Trieste and parish priest in the latter city, and was involved in the Apostolate of Prayer at the diocesan level.

Other Jesuit prisoners

Fr. Gardin was not the only Jesuit prisoner of the Albanian regime, Brother fr. Anton Luli also served a very long period of imprisonment and forced labour until the 1980s, in even harsher conditions.

Unlike Gardin indeed, Luli was released much later. He was an Albanian citizen and not a foreigner like his brother, and was only able to leave Albania in the 1990s, living the last years of his life in Italy, where he died on 9 March 1998. Fr Gardin and Fr Luli were not the only ones who were able to return from a long imprisonment.

At the same time that Fr Gardin was released, two Jesuit prisoners of the Soviet regime returned from Russia: Pietro Alagiagian SJ had returned to Italy in 1954, after eleven years of imprisonment; Pietro Leoni SJ return a year later.

Maria Macchi