My Second Father – 20 Years Since the Death of Gjon Sinishta by Stephen Schwartz

The flag of the Albanian Nation

The flag of the Albanian Nation

On Friday, May 8, 2015, a mass was announced at the grand and beautiful St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Gjon Sinishta, the indispensable intellectual guardian of the Albanian Catholic heritage in the diaspora.

Gjon was born in Podgoricë, Mal i Zi, in 1930 and died on May 9, 1995, in San Francisco. He worked for many years as sacristan of St. Ignatius while producing the encyclopedic, annual Buletini Katolik Shqiptar/Albanian Catholic Bulletin (ACB), finally under the rubric of the Albanian Catholic Institute named for Fr. Daniel Dajani, S.J. Dajani was martyred by the brutal Communist regime of Enver Hoxha in 1944. The entire series of the ACB is accessible online through the library of the University of San Francisco, where St. Ignatius Church is located, here.

I collaborated with Gjon on the last four issues of the ACB, 1991 through 1993, helping him improve its English translations and physical design. I was then employed by the San Francisco Chronicle. We established a group of Friends of Kosova with others sympathetic to the cause of Albanian freedom. I wrote Gjon’s obituary for the Chronicle, which may be read here.

Pope John Paul II with Gjon Sinishta

Pope John Paul II with Gjon Sinishta

Gjon was my second father. He guided my path during the first Yugoslav wars, which came to define my career as a journalist and author, and directed me toward Kosova, Albania, Macedonia, and Mal i Zi. He enabled my contributions to Illyria, which continue today.

He never tried to bring me into the Catholic church. Rather, when we began our work together he wanted to be assured of my openness to working with Albanian Muslims, in line with the national tradition of interreligious respect.

His beloved friends were Imam Vehbi Ismail and Baba Rexheb Beqiri, both of Michigan, and Father Arthur Liolin of Boston, who lives today. He admired the tireless scholarly efforts of Robert Elsie. In recent Albanian literature and history, he introduced me to Martin Camaj, who became a stylistic mentor for me, and, earlier in time, to Hafiz Ali Riza Ulqinaku, Naim Frashëri, and Gjergj Fishta; to Isa Boletini, Ismail Qemali Vlorë, and Luigj Gurakuqi; to Faik Beg Konica and Theofan Stilian Noli; to Migjeni. As he was dying, Gjon urged me to research and write on the relationship between Faiku and the great French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Ultimately, because of Gjon I learned of my namesake, the Jewish translator and poet Robert Schwartz, born in Sarajevo, who became an adopted son of Shkodra.

Shkodra… above all, Gjon worked to preserve the Catholic cultural legacy centered in Shkodra, where he was educated for the priesthood. He could not fulfill his vocation because of the Communist suppression of the Catholics. Eventually, he fled to Yugoslavia, where he was imprisoned, and then came to the United States. On American soil, he memorialized the calvary of the Albanian Catholics in his classic work, The Fulfilled Promise, which deserves to be read widely and republished. Therein, he praised the writer and linguist Arshi Pipa, another defender of northern Albanian and Kosovar culture, of Muslim origin. In 1993, describing a visit to post-Communist Albania for the USF News, he recalled the road to Shkodra “as it once was, with streets decorated for the saints’ feasts.” He wrote, “I remembered the liturgical hymns we would sing, and how even some of the Muslims learned the Latin responses so they could join in.”

As if watching over all these events and personalities stands the example of Skenderbeu.

It would be too lengthy for me to recite here the full roster of the poets and heroes of the Albanian lands to whom I became bonded thanks to Gjon. It would be equally banal for me to say how much I owed him in teaching me the realities of the Yugoslav war, which had become a topic of obsession for me. I had been sent to Gjon by Croatian democrats who valued his work. Inspired by George Orwell, I was looking for something like the Spanish civil war. But foreign meddling in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s has resulted in a permanent partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina and unresolved aggression against Albanians in Kosova and Macedonia, although Albania is sovereign within its 1912 borders.

I call Gjon “my second father” additionally because he helped me through the death of my own father in 1992. At that time, he gave me Baba Rexheb’s The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism, which became a source of consolation for me. My tasks with him provided some of the happiest times of my life.

He was closed-minded about nothing that was Albanian. When I asked him to let me write about the Albanian Trotskyist exile Sadik Premtaj, killed by agents of the Communist regime, he said, “He was a fierce enemy of religion but he deserves to be included in history, so go ahead.”

Gjon was never unhappy and never unkind, although the excesses of the Communist regime angered him. He trusted in God’s grace, even as he was tormented by a fatal illness.

His memorial mass 20 years ago was served by the Jesuit clerics who direct USF. I wish he had lived to see the freedom of Kosova, however flawed it may be, and the beatification of Mother Teresa.

Gjon often quoted Pope John Paul II, who declared, in reference to the anti-religious tyranny of the Albanian Communists, “never forget martyred Albania!” The new Pope Francis will visit Sarajevo next month and I hope fervently he will be reminded of these words.

Of Gjon, it deserves to be said, in paraphrase of Shakespeare, “we will not look on his like again.” Especially in these dark times when Christians and Muslims appear at odds across the globe, and the example of their national unity among Albanians means so much, let us recall Gjon Sinishta with love and appreciation.