Today marks the 128th Anniversary of the re-opening of Our Lady of Shkodra church. The church is located just outside the center of the city in an area called Bachallek, it is situated in the shadow of Rozafa Castle. The church has a long history, going back through the centuries. However, in all the written histories of the church the fact that it was my great-grandfather, Kapidan Marka Gjoni of Mirdita, who was instrumental in having the church reopened and the first Holy Mass conducted there, after a 410 year period of darkness at the hands of the Turks, is never mentioned. This fact is also proven in the writings of Dom Nikole Kimeza as written in an essay sent to Pope John XXIII in July 1958: “Appunti Albanese, Mirdita e il suo Principe a sua Santita’ Giovanni XXIII”.
Below is a brief history of the church and the events leading up to the first Holy Mass conducted there in 1889.
In 1479 the Turks conquered Shkodra and in their infinite wisdom destroyed the Church of Our Good Council, which is situated between Rozafa Castle and the city of the time, from where the fresco of the image of the Lady of Our Good Council fled miraculously with two men from Shkodra and arrived in Genezzano, Italy on 26 April, 1467; 98 days after the death of Albania’s hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg. Through the years numerous attempts were made to desecrate the remaining walls of the room where the fresco hung but all attempts were in vain, Our Holy Mother protected it and nothing could damage it further, nor human nor nature. In these holy walls the Turks never allowed another Holy Mass to be conducted.
At the request of some Catholics in Shkodra Kapidan Marka Gjoni, who was involved in activities against the Turks, expressed his opinion to Mons. Doci; to conjoin and reopen the church of “Our Lady of Shkodra” in Bachallek, which had remained closed since Shkodra fell in the hands of the Turks in 1479. Mons. Doci, after a slight hesitation based on good reason as he was being observed by the Turkish government for national activities since the time of the ‘League of Prizren’, for which he was interned, took into consideration the importance of this critical Catholic matter and accepted it.
Thus on April 26, 1889, (exactly 410 years later) he conducted the first Holy Mass. Abbat Doci administered the masterpiece as a religious mission by explaining: “Whenever and wherever it is requested from the people to give the Holy Mass, I, as a religious man, cannot decline.” It was a very important religious and political event of the time.
Marka Gjoni had the support of two people from Shkodra in this movement: Palok Kurti and Kole Deda, of the House of Dede Jakupvet, who was a considerable power among Catholics in Shkodra in the area of Qafe Hardhi, behind Rozafa castle. From there, Marka Gjoni was informed not to go toward the bazaar because a crowd of Muslims from Shkodra lied in ambush waiting for him and that he would be better off to pass via Qafe Hardhi. They helped Marka Gjoni without shedding any blood.
However, Marka Gjoni did not stop his momentum and we see him again in 1890 leading the clergy and the people to the Church of St. Mark in the village of Vau Dejes, and there among the ruins, the Holy Mass was celebrated.
Subsequently ever since 1889 the Holy Mass is conducted at the Lady of Shkodra church on April 26, where worshipers from all over Albania gather in celebration.
To this date no mention of the importance of the this event, which took place in 1889 led by Kapidan Marka Gjoni and Abbat Doci, is mentioned nor written about nor whispered. It is a shame that Albania is still to this day trying to minimize the importance and influence that my family had in preserving Catholicism in the country, the risks they took and the ultimate sacrifices they suffered.