(See below for updates):

A powerful 6.6 magnitude earthquake has struck close to Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, destroying both the basilica of St. Benedict and the co-cathedral in the town.

The quake was so strong it also caused cracks and other minor damage to the basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls in Rome, about 120 miles away. 

All the monks of Norcia are reported to be safe and so far there are no reports of casualties, although there are injuries.

The quake’s epicentre was near Pie del Colle, only about 6 miles north of Norcia, and was slightly stronger than the devastating earthquake which destroyed the nearby town of Amatrice in August.

The monks, who had transferred to a makeshift monastery a mile or so from central Norcia after the August quake, tweeted that the basilica had been “flattened” in the latest severe tremor and that they were searching for residents to see if any need Last Rites.

Father Benedict Nivakoff, subprior of the monastery, later released the following statement:

Dear friends,

Around 7:40 AM, a powerful earthquake struck close to Norcia. The monks are all safe, but our hearts go immediately to those affected, and the priests of the monastery are searching for any who may need the Last Rites.

The Basilica of St. Benedict, the historic church built atop the birthplace of St. Benedict, was flattened by this most recent quake. May this image serve to illustrate the power of this earthquake, and the urgency we monks feel to seek out those who need the Sacraments on this difficult day for Italy.

Relying, as ever, on your prayers and support,

Fr. Benedict

Subprior

This morning’s tremor, which was strongly felt in Rome, caused frightened residents close to the quake to rush into squares and streets. Heavy damage is also reported in other parts of Norcia.

The ancient town is popular with pilgrims wishing to honor St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism whose Rule became one of the most significant influences on Western Christendom and culture. 

Many of the buildings surrounding both churches in the city’s central piazza were damaged but, unlike the basilica and co-cathedral, generally left intact.

Here below are photographs from a Norcia resident who told the Register that “there are injuries” and that the “biggest problem is old people refusing to come out of their houses. There are collapsed houses, and it is possible there are deaths. Too soon to know.”

The monks are appealing to help in the rebuilding process by donating here.

Oct. 31, 17.00 CET:

A new statement from Father Benedict:

Dear friends,

How can I even begin to describe the scene we witnessed yesterday in Norcia?

It was like those photographs of bombed-out churches from the Second World War. It reminded me of all those ruined monasteries one sees passing through the English countryside. It was an image of devastation. All the churches in Norcia are on the ground. Every single one. The roofs caved in on all of them; they are no more. What remains of them are a few corners, a facade, a window with the sun coming through from the wrong side. Inside are “bare ruin’d choirs” as Shakespeare wrote of the destroyed monasteries in his time.

The wonder, the miracle, is that there were no casualties. All the fear and anxiety following the first few earthquakes now seem a providential part of God’s mysterious plan to clear the city of all inhabitants. He spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town.

Is it over yet? We do not know. These are mysteries which will take years -- not days or months -- to understand. We watch and pray all together on the mountainside for Norcia and for the world. The priests go into town to visit the sick and the homeless. We are grateful for your prayers, as ever.

In Christ,
Fr. Benedict
Subprior

18.08 CET:

Despite the size of the quake and the widespread damage it caused, many see God's merciful hand at work in that no casualties have yet been reported. Part of the reason is that it occurred early morning rather than in the middle of the night, and the winter time change also helped. 

According to Corriere della Sera, about half an hour before the earthquake hit, the people of Valnerina, close to Norcia, were also warned of the natural disaster when they heard a "single, mournful howl that came up through the villages, orchards and vineyards".

The newspaper quotes Valerio de Rubeis of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology who said "the acoustic effect produced by an earthquake is a very low frequency noise, below the threshold of human hearing, but not that of an animal." He said animals such as dogs are "able to hear very well before men do, and not surprisingly get nervous or flee." 

16.18 CET:

The earthquake damaged the basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls in Rome, Italian media has reported with supporting photographs.  The basilica was closed for safety reasons but has since been reopened.

Reports say that cornices fell, cracks appeared in the walls, and a beam that supported a large candelabra had also become detached causing more damage. Firefighters and police were called to the basilica following this morning's quake which woke many people up here and was the strongest felt in the Eternal City for decades. 

St. Paul's Outside the Walls, often the site of major ecumenical gatherings in Rome and also run by the Benedictines, is one of the city's four ancient papal basilicas, along with St. John Lateran, St. Peter's, and St. Mary Major.

15.40 CET:

Pope Francis prayed for victims of the earthquake at the Angelus on Sunday. 

“I express my closeness to the earthquake victims of central Italy,” the Pope said. "Also this morning there was a strong shock. I pray for the injured and for the families that have suffered major damage, as well as for the personnel involved in rescue and assistance. May the Risen Lord give them strength, and Our Lady watch over them.”

15.15 CET:

The monks of Norcia have issued a new statement:

Dear friends,

After offering spiritual support to the people in town following this morning's intense earthquake, the entire monastic community is together again at our mountain monastery which overlooks a now fractured Norcia. Messages are pouring in from all over the world, and we are grateful for your prayers for us and for the people affected.

Because we want to be present to the people of Norcia, and also due to the poor cellular and internet connectivity this emergency has created in the area, we will be difficult to reach by phone or e-mail for a while. We want to assure our friends and family that we are safe, and also that we are doing everything possible to help to our suffering neighbors. Please continue to pray Norcia.

Relying, as ever, on your prayers and support,

Fr. Benedict

Subprior

10.07 CET:

Norcia is reported to be cut off from transportation until checks have been made. Roads are closed and trains have stopped running in Umbria and Marche. The tremor was so strong in Rome that its two metro lines A and B were temporaily suspended and then reopened.  

9.50 CET:

Italian media is reporting that according civil protection, three people were pulled alive from the rubble in the nearby town of Tolentino, where several buildings have collapsed. 

"Everything's collapsed, I see columns of smoke, it's a disaster in a disaster!," said Marco Rinaldi, the mayor of Ussita, one of the municipalities most affected by the earlier 5.9 earthquake that struck last week.

"It's all came down, there aren't villages anymore," said Aleandro Petrucci, the mayor of Arquata del Tronto, which bore much of the damage of the August quake. "Fortunately there were [already] red zones [no go zones. The few people who have remained took to the streets and hugged each other. Now we're going around the villages to see what happened."

More to follow.  

The basilica of St. Benedict.

The central piazza with a statue of St. Benedict and the town hall behind.

The bell tower of the townhall.

Downtown Norcia.

Another view of the basilica.

Norcia's co-cathedral, a block away from the basilica.

How Norcia looked before this year's quakes hit the town (Photo: Umbria tourist authority):