Norcia’s Benedictines: Recovery Under Way in Wake of Devastating Quake

The monks have retreated to two tents while the restoration of their monastery is ongoing, according to the prior of the Monastery of St. Benedict.

Rubble surrounds a damaged building on Aug. 24 in Accumoli, Italy. Central Italy was struck by a powerful, 6.2-magnitude earthquake in the early hours, which has killed at least three people and devastated dozens of mountain villages.
Rubble surrounds a damaged building on Aug. 24 in Accumoli, Italy. Central Italy was struck by a powerful, 6.2-magnitude earthquake in the early hours, which has killed at least three people and devastated dozens of mountain villages. (photo: Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)

NORCIA, Italy — Restoration of Norcia’s Benedictine monastery and basilica will cost millions of dollars, following last week’s devastating earthquake, according to the community’s monks.

“Both the church and the monastery are too dangerous to live in,” Benedictine Father Cassian Folsom, prior of the Monastery of St. Benedict and a Massachusetts native, told the Register Aug. 28. “So we’ve put up two tents; one is a dormitory, and the other is a chapel.”

The tents are located about a mile away, outside the city walls, next to a medieval monastery the monks have been restoring but which was also badly damaged by the natural disaster; it will need to be rebuilt.

The 6.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the region Aug. 24, and its continued aftershocks, forced the monks to transfer to Rome for three days, leaving two of their brethren to camp out in tents so they could mind the basilica and monitor developments. Almost all of them have since returned and will be living in the makeshift accommodations until buildings are made safe.


St. Benedict’s Birthplace

The birthplace of St. Benedict, the patron of Europe, Norcia was just eight miles from the quake’s epicenter. But it remarkably escaped with relatively little damage and no loss of life, compared to the nearby towns of Amatrice and Accumoli. Although just 25 miles by car from Norcia, they and a number of surrounding medieval mountaintop villages were closer to the fault line and had many buildings that were not earthquake-proof, and so were practically wiped out by the natural disaster that took 291 lives, many of them children.

Pope Francis said Aug. 28 that he intends to visit the villages “as soon as possible” and also expressed his “spiritual closeness” with the victims.

“I want to tell these beloved people once again that the Church shares in their suffering and their concerns,” he said. Italy held a national day of mourning on Aug. 27.

Downtown Norcia superficially looks almost untouched, but some buildings suffered considerable structural damage.

“The town is a lot worse off than it looks,” said subprior Father Benedict Nivakoff. He said the basilica has “lots of aesthetic damage to the baroque structure inside, the side altar is badly damaged, there’s plaster damage.” He also pointed out “bigger structural concerns: The dome has some serious cracks in it, the façade next to the roof has a lot of cracks, and there are signs that the building might not hold up.”

“Candlesticks, crosses — everything — was tossed around or had fallen over,” he added, and he pointed to one of the small spires on the façade, which had “made a little dance,” turning 45 degrees on its axis without toppling to the ground.

“Of course, we’ve seen worse, but one has the sense of a sort of war zone going on in there.”

“Most of our monastery was built in the 1950s, and it was never earthquake-proof, which is why it’s mostly now unlivable,” said Father Nivakoff, adding that the older parts, built in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, held up better mainly because they were purposely built at an angle and have three-foot-thick walls that withstand such tremors.


‘Huge Rebuilding Project’

The true extent of the damage won’t be known until a full analysis can be carried out once the aftershocks have ended, but Father Cassian predicts it will be a “huge rebuilding project.”

Still, it could easily have been much worse. Father Cassian is grateful that the monastic community is safe and no one was hurt, and he believes it was divine Providence that the monks were unusually out of bed at 3:35am when the quake struck.

“Usually Matins is at 4am, but Wednesday was a second-class feast day, so it was 15 minutes earlier. We were already up, and so we could get out immediately — and all went to the piazza.” 

The Monastery of St. Benedict, which has only been in Norcia since 2000 (Napoleonic laws forced the previous community to flee in 1810), has become well established and much loved by the local people. One of the few religious communities in the world to celebrate both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite, the monastery draws thousands of visitors every year. It recently became famous for its brewery, opened in 2012, which produces its popular “Birra Nursia.”

“We’ll take a little pause from brewing and bottle what we’ve already got in the fermenters,” said Father Nivakoff, who is also the brewery director. Challenges in having grain delivered and other complications mean it will be “two months before we start brewing again and get up to speed,” he said.


‘Land of the Saints’

Norcia is part of the beautiful region of Umbria, the so-called “Land of the Saints” because of the many holy men and women born there, and the “Green Heart of Italy,” on account of its verdant, alpine scenery. August is the height of the tourist season there, but the town was practically deserted the weekend after the quake, except for emergency vehicles and some television vans. Many of the citizens who remained in the town camped outside in fields or slept in cars.

“One feels brave and willing to confront any situation during the day, but at night, when there’s a tremor, what do you do? Where do you go?” said Armando, a 72-year-old Norcia local. “So only a few have been staying indoors at night, and engineers are systematically and courageously going door-to-door to check homes.”

Many see it as miraculous that Norcia wasn’t more badly hit.

“It certainly seems that way to me,” said Fabio, 48, an engineer from Norcia. “The miracle is also the work of human effort, because improvements in building techniques saved some lives.”

The town and some of its surrounding villages have been rebuilt several times over the centuries, most recently after the town was struck by an earthquake in 1979 and reconstructed using earthquake-resistant techniques.

“Some of the reconstruction was good, some not, but it has certainly helped, and so thanks is owed to God, for sure,” said Fabio. “For me, it’s certainly a miracle for the town.”

Canadian native Hilary White, who lives just outside the city walls of Norcia, headed for the town center immediately after the earthquake.

“By the time I got to the piazza, the monks were all there, with about 200 locals and tourists. People were wrapped up in blankets and hotel bathrobes — it was quite cold,” she recalled.

“They were talking and hugging each other, exchanging information (lots of iPhones) and counting heads. One by one, the things we all needed were procured.” The monks led everyone in a Rosary, the town’s mayor and his wife were already there, and the head of police arrived early “in his hastily thrown-on sweats.”

“What was obvious was that this was a people who cared about each other,” White noticed. “No one was waiting for ‘the government’ to ‘do something.’ What needed to be done, and was possible to do, was done right away by the people who knew the town, the people of the town.”

Father Nivakoff said the earthquake “sadly served as a healthy reminder” for modern society, where “people can get so used to things being exactly how they expect them to be” that they cannot “control everything.” He said it will take some time for the town to get back to normal, and as it is very hard to obtain earthquake insurance, those hardest hit, including the monastery, will apply for government grants to help rebuild.


Useful Purpose

But for the monks, too, who take a vow of stability to live the rest of their lives where they took their vows, the event will serve a useful purpose, helping them to “root” themselves even more in the locality. “When you lose something that you’ve come to love, and we’ve been restoring this place for the last 15 years, one has to really dig in more; and so that’s what we’re doing, renewing and expanding our commitment,” said Father Nivakoff.

He said people can help by praying for them, the people in Norcia and the people hard hit in Amatrice and Accumoli. “That’s the most important thing: supporting us with prayers, sacrifices, acts of charity,” he said. He also said people can also help the rebuilding efforts by buying a best-selling CD of Gregorian chant that the monks produced last year, buying their beer and also making donations.

Father Nivakoff said the monks will also be giving around 15%-20% of whatever they raise to the people who most need it.

“The vow of stability means you love the place,” said Father Cassian. “We love the place, and so it needs to be rebuilt.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

He filed this report from Norcia, Italy.