After Quakes, Norcia Monks Work to Rebuild in the Footsteps of St. Benedict
Monastery set in the hills near St. Benedict’s birthplace focuses on wisdom that is ‘always new.’
NORCIA, Italy — “In many ways we’ve had to start from scratch,” says Benedictine Father Benedict Nivakoff. “But we’ve found that God has blessed us in ways that we never thought possible.”
As prior of the Monastero di San Benedetto in Monte (“The Monastery of St. Benedict in the Mountains”), set in the rolling Umbrian hills just outside St. Benedict’s birthplace of Norcia in central Italy, Father Nivakoff has faced a traumatic three years since the 6.6-magnitude earthquake devastated the town in the early hours of Oct. 30, 2016.
The severe tremor, which caused some damage even in Rome, made the monastery uninhabitable. It also destroyed the 12th-century basilica in the center of the town where the monks had celebrated liturgies in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite and prayed the Divine Office.
Forced to build a makeshift monastery on land they had purchased a couple of miles away, Father Nivakoff, a native of New Canaan, Connecticut, was appointed prior less than a month later, succeeding the founder of the community, Father Cassian Folsom of Lynn, Massachusetts.
But despite these pressures, the young priest is upbeat when we meet in his office on a roasting sunny June day, and he sees the hand of God in what has happened since. “He took away everything,” he says, “but He gave us much more than we could have asked for.”
The international community of monks had lived in the center of Norcia, St. Benedict’s native town, having re-established a monastery there in 2000 after a break of 190 years*. To celebrate Mass over the precise birthplace of the founder of Western monasticism was a “great treasure and blessing,” Father Nivakoff says.
But monastic life in a 21st-century town center “isn’t easy for monks,” he says. The noise of late-night revelries in the adjacent central piazza would interfere with their prayer times. “A man becomes a monk to live with God in his soul,” Father Nivakoff notes. “The concerts last until about 2 o’clock in the morning, and since we get up at 3, that made life a little bit challenging.”
The earthquake thus gave them the opportunity to push forward with the reconstruction of an old Capuchin monastery, next to an abandoned church, on the land they had bought just a decade ago. Their plan was to restore it in about 20 or 30 years’ time, but it “turned out it was the only place that was ours after the earthquake, the only place we could go to when everything else had fallen,” explains the prior, who sees the calamity as “God’s invitation to build a permanent monastery here in Norcia.”
Being on higher ground with a sweeping view of the valley was also more appropriate for a monastery. “Symbolically, mountains have always been a place that monks have gone to pray, following Christ,” says Father Nivakoff. “A mountain looks closer to heaven, it looks closer to God, and, as such, helps a monk to keep his thoughts vertical.”
Father Nivakoff’s office is located within the temporary monastery, a large one-story building hastily constructed after the earthquake. The inner walls, including those of the chapel, are lined with pine slats, giving it the feel of a mountain lodge.
The monastery’s monks — who now number 17, including many Americans — designed it, and after the earthquake-proof frame was assembled by a company from northern Italy, the monks themselves set about installing floors, the roof, windows and walls.
But such industriousness and enterprise is typical for these religious, already world-famous for brewing a popular “Birra Nursia” beer (the beer is now exported to the U.S. and can be purchased at BirraNursia.com) and launching their own CD of Gregorian chant, which topped the Billboard classical chart in the U.S. for 10 weeks in 2015.
They also, of course, continue to take an interest in Norcia’s reconstruction efforts. The Italian state has offered to restore all the damaged historical buildings, most of which were churches, but so far little has been done, incurring the wrath of local residents. As bureaucratic and financial obstacles hinder progress, banners with slogans venting the locals’ frustrations have been draped over balconies across the town. “Unblock the reconstruction,” pleads one. “We’ve been forgotten.”
“The permissions come slowly,” says Father Nivakoff, adding that just clearing the rubble from the basilica costs about a million euros.
Much discussion has centered on how the basilica will be rebuilt. Many of the local people and some key figures, including the town’s mayor, want it returned to how it was, leading to hope late last year that that would indeed happen. “But we’re a long way away from a decision,” cautions Father Nivakoff, as other voices, including that of the local bishop, have expressed openness for a more “fluid and contemporary design.”
He also says a “really important technical question” needs to be addressed first, which is how to build the basilica “in a safe way.” And that really can’t be assessed “until it’s cleaned out,” he says.
Some observers saw that fateful October morning as an ominous sign, linking it to the collapse of the faith and Christian civilization in Europe and the West. The statue of St. Benedict in the town square remained untouched, and most of Norcia’s buildings withstood the quake, but almost all of the town’s churches were destroyed.
“It’s difficult not to see the symbolism,” the American prior says, noting that St. Benedict himself helped steer the Church through the dark period after the fall of the Roman Empire and threats to the Church, from Arianism to the northern Barbarian tribes.
St. Benedict’s answer, Father Nivakoff recalls, was to build a place of “refuge where the perennial worship of God could continue, despite whatever else was going on outside.” On the ruins of the old, he says, St. Benedict “built the new.”
“When you see the home of the founder of Western monasticism — and who is, many would say, the protector of Western culture — go up in a cloud of dust, as if in smoke, one can’t help but think of death. It’s where we’re all headed and where each of the monks are headed,” reflects Father Nivakoff. “It helped to put everything in perspective.”
And he adds that even though the present difficulties and problems in the Church can “be so alarming,” in the “context of history and where we’re ultimately destined to go, these things can be easier to understand.”
The monks also saw the hand of God in other ways that Sunday morning: Because of preceding quakes, including the deadly Amatrice tremor 30 miles away just three months earlier, many churches remained closed on Oct. 30, saving many lives. “We went from house to house,” often “pulling people out,” but they “found no one dead,” Father Nivakoff recalls. “We thought it was a great miracle,” he says, that many “still don’t fully appreciate.”
But now the challenge is preventing the local people, especially the young, from moving away and seeking further opportunities in urban areas — a phenomenon already common throughout Italy’s rural areas and heightened by the low birth rate, but here further exacerbated by the earthquakes.
Plenty of pilgrims and tourists were visiting in mid-June, and it continues to sell its famous produce — truffles, wild boar and chocolate — but the town is a shadow of its former self, with many shops and businesses boarded up or located elsewhere. One store that sells trekking equipment had moved all the way to Rome.
Yet away from the town and the turbulence of temporal challenges in Norcia, and even the deeper problems in the Church, the monastery continues as a steady rock. Father Nivakoff says the monks hear from many people “really suffering and worried, given the crises in the Church,” but who look to the monastery as a place of refuge, as they always have throughout history.
That is because monks, “in their own weakness,” put their “faith and trust in God,” he says, and continue with the one thing “no one can stop you from doing: that is praying and converting your life.”
This year, to mark their 20th anniversary, they’ve chosen a motto for the monastery for the first time: Nova Facio Omnia — “Behold, I make all things new.” It reflects St. Benedict’s wisdom that is “always new,” Father Nivakoff says, because it “has the face of Christ on it, never gets old, and that’s the beauty of the tradition.”
Their use of the extraordinary form, he says, represents an “unseen thread” that goes back all the way to Christ, but he stresses monastic life is not just about “embracing that aspect in the Mass, but the entirety of the tradition.”
That helps them to pray and convert their lives — “two things” that monks “have done for centuries, and what Catholics can do in times of trial and times of crisis, regardless of the winds of the time.”
“I hope that Norcia can, in its own small way on this mountainside, offer that to people, through our great patron, St. Benedict,” Father Nivakoff says. “It’s he who taught it to us.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
* Monks did return briefly to Norcia during those 190 years: in 1965, a small community of exile Czech Benedictine monks from Emaus abbey in Prague was established in the town and stayed there until the 1990s when they were able to relocate back to Prague after the fall of the communist regime.