VATICAN CITY — A massive earthquake hit Norcia this morning, destroying the Basilica of St. Benedict, site of the birthplace of the father of Western monasticism and one of the most influential figures in European civilization and culture.
The 6.6 quake hit central Italy at approximately 7:40 am, with the epicenter near the town of Pie del Colle, located 6 miles from the walled Umbrian town of Norcia. The quake was felt strongly in Rome and at the Vatican, where buildings swayed for close to a minute. It was also felt as far north as Bolzano, near the border with Austria.
The local co-cathedral, located just a block from the Basilica, was also destroyed.
While the town hall positioned just opposite the Basilica in the main square suffered heavy damage, the figure of St. Benedict standing at the town center remained intact.
Frightened residents rushed out into the main square in Norcia, while fireman helped the cloistered community of Poor Clare Nuns leave their monastery. There has been no news on the Benedictine Nuns.
The earthquake comes nearly two months after a major earthquake killed almost 300 people and destroyed several towns in central Italy last August. It is the strongest quake to hit Italy since the magnitude 6.9 shock in the southern Italian region of Campania in 1980. That quake killed nearly 3,000 people and left 200,000 people homeless.
Reports from the Norcia Monks
After the August quake, and with continuing aftershocks (the latest, a 4.2, hitting last evening), the monks had transferred to a makeshift monastery on the mountain overlooking Norcia, approximately 2 miles outside the city walls. This morning, the monks 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.
“We felt the shocks and saw dust raising from the town and slowly covering it,” one of the monks told Aleteia. “We are all safe. Please pray for the victims and our priests who are in town to give the last sacraments.”
The earthquake comes on the traditional liturgical Feast of the Kingship of Jesus Christ.
Father Benedict Nivakoff, Subprior of the Norcia monastery, posted the news on the monks’ website:
“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.”
Those who wish to contribute to the monk’s rebuilding fund may do so here.
Reaction from Norcia Residents
Injuries are being reported, but as one resident said early this morning: “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.”
Vincenzo Bianconi, whose family owns several hotels in Norcia, reported: “Our hotels and all of our guests are okay. It is too soon to know about the rest of the town, because there are collapsed buildings in Norcia for the first time. We will continue to stand strong with our fellow Nursini.”
Tremors still keep coming sporadically.
Meanwhile, the condition of the crypt under the Norcia Basilica, where St. Benedict and his twin sister, Scholastica, were born, is still unknown. In many ways, this ancient crypt is the heart of Norcia and the birthplace of Western Monasticism. Let us hope that this heart remains.
12:30pm Rome, Sunday October 30: At the Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis expressed his closeness to the people of central Italy struck by this morning’s earthquake. He said: “I pray for the wounded and for the families who have suffered great damage, as well as for the personnel involved in rescue and assistance. May the Risen Lord give them strength and Our Lady guard them.”
3:15pm Rome, Sunday October 30: The Subprior of the Norcia monks, Fr. Benedict Nivakoff, has sent out this update. It is still unclear how many people were injured.
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,
4:20pm Rome, Sunday October 30:
The Italian news agency ANSA has reported that this morning’s earthquake has also damaged the basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome.
It says that cornices fell, cracks appeared in the walls, and a beam that supported a large candelabra had also become detached causing more damage. The report said 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, is one of the city’s four ancient papal basilicas, along with St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s, and St. Mary Major.
5:20pm Rome, Sunday October 30:
According to the most recent Italian news reports, Italy’s president Matteo Renzi has responded to news of the earthquake, saying: “We will rebuild everything …They are wonderful territories … We want Norcia to have a future and for that to happen we have to repair houses, churches and shops. But I do not say this just to Norcia,” he added.
However, with Norcia located in a mountainous area of Umbria at higher elevations, immediate assistance will be needed as cold winter temperatures arrive.
Meanwhile, Norcia firefighters are seeing God’s merciful hand even amid the rubble, saying they were saved by the time change (Europe set their clocks back last night). The firefighters were to begin their normal check of buildings damaged by continuing aftershocks at 8am this morning. Had Italy still been on summer time, the quake would have occurred at 8:40 am and not 7:40 am, with the risk that many firefighters could have been inside churches and buildings and would have been hit by debris.
5:45 Rome, Sunday October 30:
The head of Italy’s Department of Civil Protection, Fabrizio Curcio, has issued the following statement, saying no one has died or is currently missing as a result of the earthquake: “There are no additional wounded compared to this morning, nor are there any persons missing at the moment. The department is working tirelessly to address the emergency in all the areas affected, nearly all of which have been reached.”
2:00 pm Rome, Monday October 31:
Italian news is reporting that two 4.2 magnitude aftershocks hit Norcia last night, the first at 4:27am (with the epicenter in Norcia) and the second at 8:05 am, while at least 115 lesser magnitude shocks occurred throughout the night.
Meanwhile, at least two churches in Rome’s historical center have been declared unusable following inspections by the local fire brigade after yesterday morning’s earthquake. The two churches are San Francesco, in the district of Monti, and the Church of Sant’Eustachio, which is located next to one of the most famous coffee bars in Rome