One of the Italy’s most famous basilicas, Santa Maria di Collemaggio, was very badly damaged in yesterday’s earthquake in Italy.

Founded in the late 1200s by Pope Celestine V — the only pope ever to have abdicated — some of Santa Maria di Collemaggio’s distinct pink-and-white stone-faced structure remains intact, but inside is “a disaster,” according to its parish priest, Canon Nunzio Spinelli.

The high altar and two side altars couldn’t be saved, Canon Spinelli told today’s La Stampa newspaper.

“In front of the altar there is a huge pile of rubble, fallen beams, bricks, stones, tiles,” the priest said. “But the body of St. Celestine is safe.”

“You know, it’s a miracle the mausoleum is safe,” he said. “The relic was also saved in the last earthquake disaster in 1703. The body is not ruined, and neither is the Holy Door.’

The door of the basilica is opened once a year, in September, for jubilee festivities in the town.

“It will take a decade to reconstruct everything — the paintings, frescoes, baroque decorations that were around the altar,” said Canon Spinelli in La Stampa’s report. “I fear that it won’t be done,” he said weeping.

Santa Maria di Collemaggio is the largest Romanesque church in the city of L’Aquila.

Famous throughout the world, it was built in 1287 under the direction of the hermit Peter of Morrone, who was later crowned Pope Celestine V on Aug. 29, 1294.

Together with Santa Maria di Collemaggio, other churches in the area — San Silvestro, Santa Maria of Paganica, Santa Maria del Suffragio, and the parish of Paganica — have been severely damaged, according to Archbishop Giuseppe Molinari of Aquila.

The government has appointed a special commissioner for cultural heritage, as happened in 1997, when a devastating earthquake hit Assisi. The commissioner will work with a civil defense force to reconstruct the historic buildings.

Saint Celestine

Pope Celestine V, who lived 1215–96, was elected July 5 ,1294, and resigned Dec. 13 that year. His election ended a two-year deadlock among the cardinals over a successor.

He was known for his austere life as a hermit and for his devoted followers, who called themselves Celestines, but he became easy prey to opportunists. King Charles II of Naples quickly dominated him and kept him in Naples. Celestine V later turned the duties of his office over to a committee of three cardinals and kept to his cell. He abdicated after only five months and ordered a new election.

His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, kept Celestine in confinement until his death, to avert possible schism among Celestine’s ardent followers.

Celestine escaped for a time and took shelter in his beloved region of Abruzzo, but was later recaptured by Boniface. After nine months passed in fasting and prayer, attended by two of his own religious, he died in his 81st year.

Celestine was canonized in 1313, and his feast day is May 19.