Franciscan tasked with locating, preparing bones of Albania's martyrs

IMAGE: CNS photo/James Martone

By James Martone

SHKODER, Albania (CNS) — Human
bones, old shoes and deteriorating priest collars fill cardboard boxes in the
office of Franciscan Brother Vincenzo Foca, an Italian who lives and works in

The “relics” belong to
Catholics killed under Albania’s previous communist, staunchly atheist regime, Brother
Foca explained to Catholic News Service on an unusually hot day in May.

“I hope you don’t mind
being surrounded by bones,” he started, before pointing to the boxes, labeled
with names and set in a row upon a long table.

He explained how he’d devoted
much of the past 24 years in this traditionally Catholic stronghold locating,
disinterring, cleaning and preparing the bones and other various remains of Catholics
who were murdered here for their faith, sometime between 1945 and 1974.

The Vatican’s move in April to recognize
the martyrdom of 38 Albanians — including a woman — set the stage for their
possible beatification and injected special meaning — as well as impetus — into
his work, Brother Foca said.

“What I have before me are
six martyrs,” he said, lifting each box, one by one, and naming the priest
whose remains each filled. They were among those on the pope’s list for
martyrdom, he said.

“This first box is Don Ndre
Zadeja, the second is Don Dede Malaj, the third is Don Jak Bushati, the fourth
is Don Anton Muzaj, the fifth is Don Luigj Prendushi, and the sixth is Don Ndoc
Suma,” Brother Foca said, using the Italian title for Father to name the
diocesan priests.

“I have brought the bones
here in my office in order to clean them, as some have been underground for up
to 70 years. We have found a lot of bones, not all, but quite a lot, on which I
have already done a preliminary cleaning,” said Brother Foca, 54.

Then, he reached into the boxes
containing Fathers Malaj and Suma’s bones and pulled out a deteriorating priest’s
collar from the first one and a pair of disintegrating shoes from the other.

“We don’t have to do an analysis
on these, because they were identified by the families who buried the priests,
or knew where the bodies were,” he said of the six sets of bones and
various accompanying artifacts.

“The families were present
when we dug the bodies up… and they were crying, but they were also joyful,”
because the priests — their relatives — “were going to be beatified,”
Brother Foca said.

He said he was awaiting the
arrival at the end of May of a specialist from Italy, who would do the final “conservation
of the bones … to ensure they last for a very long time” in Albania,
which also has large Orthodox Christian and Muslim populations, who suffered as
well under the previous atheist regime.

Brother Foca said that, almost
from Day One, he had been “searching all over Albania for all Franciscan friars
who died during the communist period, up until 1992,” and that he had
located 14 of them so far. He said he reburied them in Shkoder’s Franciscan church.

Eight of the martyrs on the pope’s
list were Franciscans, but among those only the bodies of three had been found,
including that of Archbishop Vincenc Prennushi, a Franciscan prelate, he said.

Some on the list had already
been reinterred, he added, citing as an example the only woman on the list,
Maria Tuci, whom Brother Foca said had died in 1950 due to various, horrific
methods of torture, inflected by state agents because of her Catholic faith. She
was now entombed in a Shkoder convent.

“Part of her torture
consisted of her being put naked in a cloth bag, with a feral cat,”
Brother Foca said. “They beat the bag, and the cat would tear into her,”
according to Tuci family members who lived to tell about her ordeal.

He said that when the pope
recognized the 38 Albanian martyrs last April, Catholic churches in Shkoder and
other parts of the country rang their bells loudly.

“All the bells rang out …
and the people came running, asking, ‘What has happened, what has happened?’ And
we told them, and they were very much moved … because there are still some older
people who lived this period of persecution and they remember. The ’70s was not
that long ago,” Brother Foca said.

He noted that in September 2014,
Pope Francis visited Albania and was moved to tears after listening to the
stories of two survivors of Albania’s former communist crackdown against the

At the time, the pope had called
the country “a land of heroes and martyrs.”

“Albanians are very happy; they
now have heroes … who never gave up, and who died for the church and for the
pope, in whom Jesus Christ lives,” said Brother Foca.

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