BARBULLSH – One Sunday morning Don Leonardo took me with him to celebrate a mass in a village called Barbullush and told me that in that church on Christmas night 1963, while he was celebrating mass, Dom Ernest Simoni was arrested. Then appointed Cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016, he is the last remaining priest who served 28 years in prison and hard labor for the simple fact of being a priest.

Ernest Simoni was born on October 18, 1928 in Troshani. When the Communists arrived, he was facing the novitiate and attending the Franciscan school, schools which were then closed. Despite the persecution of the religious, the imprisonment and the shootings, Ernest applied to become a priest, clandestinely concluded his theology studies and on 7 April 1956 was ordained a priest in Shkoder by Monsignor Ernest çoba.

Subsequently he was entrusted with the parish which included three villages, including Barbullush. We are at the beginning of the sixties, most of the Albanian priests were shot, died during captivity or forced labor. Among the few priests still alive is Dom Ernest who in 1963, while celebrating mass on Christmas Eve with all the faithful gathered, was blatantly arrested and handcuffed after mass just finished by the agents of Sigurimi.

After three months of solitary confinement, torture and interrogation, the trial came. On the basis of interviews with Mimmo Muolo, author of a book on the life of the cardinal, he was accused of wanting to flee to Yugoslavia and during a search of his home, a French magazine of the Soviet Union “L’Union Sovietique” was found with the image of President Kennedy and his wife. They accused him of being pro-Soviet (in 1960 Hoxha broke off relations with the Soviet Union) and a friend of imperialist America.

First he was sentenced to death, then he was given 25 years of hard labor and served 18 years for good behavior. He spent 6 years breaking stones and the next 12 in the mines of Spaç. The work continued uninterrupted 24 hours a day with three shifts of 8 hours, many, exhausted, died during the imprisonment.

In 1981, at the age of 53, he was released and then forced to work in the sewers of Shkoder, until the fall of the regime. Nonetheless, he was a secret priest all the time.

In 1991, with the collapse of the regime, he welcomed Mother Teresa to his home in Shkoder, met Pope Wojtyla in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, and in Albania on 25 April 1993 during one of his visits. Perhaps, however, the most important meeting was with Pope Francis in Tirana on 21 September 2014, when he moved him by telling his story and who then proclaimed him Cardinal on 9 October 2016.

Today Cardinal Simoni lives in Florence with his nephew Antonio and despite some health problems and his advanced age (92 years) he continues to do his duty as a priest and to say Mass every day, as his nephew Antonio told me speaking to phone.