The birthplace of Saint Benedict and his twin sister Saint Scholastica is very sacred to Benedictine monks, nuns and oblates. The city is now called Norcia, but in the time of Saints Benedict and Scholastica, born in 480, it was called Nursia. It is located in the beautiful Umbrian region of Italy, part of the province of Perugia, set in a wide plane next to the Sibylline Mountains (Monti Sibillini), a sub-range of the Apennine Mountains. Though located in a vulnerable position in an open valley, the small medieval city had thick and high walls around it to protect it, completed in the fourteenth century.
The mountainous region of Norcia is subject to earthquakes, a regular feature in the area, with several devastating ones in 1763, 1859, 1979, as well as in the past few years. The strongest one in living memory occurred on Sunday morning, October 30, 2016, causing considerable and perhaps irreparable damage to the region. Thankfully, no lives were lost, but homes, businesses, churches and monasteries in Norcia and its environs were leveled or seriously damaged. Many residents have since left the city and its surroundings to continue their life and employment elsewhere. A few years ago numbering around five thousand residents, Norcia today has considerably fewer.
The town square of Norcia contains the city’s cathedral as well as the nearby thirteenth century basilica of Saint Benedict, built over the family home of Saint Benedict. Both churches were destroyed in the 2016 earthquake, having a magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale. The monks who lived next to the basilica had to leave, as well as the Poor Clare nuns and Benedictine nuns in town. Also in the center of Norcia is its large town hall which is close to the cathedral and basilica and was seriously damaged in the 2016 quake.
Prior to the recent earthquakes, Norcia was an important tourist attraction, not only for its being the birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica, but also as a place for mountain climbing and hiking. Hunting was also popular, especially for wild boar in the forests around Norcia. Sausages and hams made from the wild boar are widely known in Italy and beyond. The products in fact are called “norcineria,” and considered among the finest sausage and ham in Italy. Hiking, hunting and the production of meats have not completely disappeared in the region since the earthquakes, but are certainly reduced as tourists and residents are now fewer. This has definitely harmed the economy of the area.
We know that in the eighth century an oratory or place of prayer was established in Norcia, to honor the birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. By the tenth century Benedictine monks were residing in Norcia. By the twelfth century Norcia was designated as within the Papal territories, giving the town increased political and economic prestige.
I had been hoping to visit Norcia since my arrival in Rome in January of 2017, and an opportunity finally arose in June of this year. Three of us from our Curia Sant’Ambrogio in Rome drove to Norcia, a journey of about two hours, to see the little city dear to the hearts of Benedictines, and to visit the monks who have relocated just outside of town. The Benedictine nuns of the city, whose monastery of San Antonio Abate has existed there for centuries, have for the time being been welcomed by the Benedictine nuns at Trevi, not too far from Norcia.
Before our visit to the monks, we met up in the center of Norcia with Mother Abbess Caterina of the Norcia, and she showed us the heavily damaged monastery that she and her community had to abandon after the October 30th earthquake of 2016. To say the least, their home, built on one of the corners of the small walled city of Norcia and not far from the town square, has been very seriously destroyed. While there is some hope of restoring the monastery, at least in part, it will cost many millions of dollars. How and when that will come to be remains to be seen.
Nonetheless the nuns desire to at least return to their property in Norcia as soon as possible and hope to place some pre-fabricated buildings in their large garden that will accommodate the nuns and their monastic life. We pray that this may come to be sooner than later, as the nuns are understandably anxious to be back in the holy ground of Norcia. Even the possibility of future quakes does not deter them.
After of a visit of an hour or so at the nuns’ damaged monastery, we made our way to the monastery of monks, just a couple of miles outside of the Norcia, pleasantly located on the slopes of the Sibylline mountains. There was once a Capuchin Franciscan monastery there, which the Benedictine monks purchased a few years ago. For all practical purposes, it was nearly a ruin, abandoned since the 1800s. Some restoration work had taken place on the church, but that was set back by the 2016 earthquake. The already fairly ruined cloister next to the church completely collapsed in the 2016 quake. The monks have done a great job of clearing away the rubble where the cloister had been and hope to build a future, more earthquake-proof monastery there one day. The church might still be able to be restored.
In the meantime, they have completed a simple but attractive and practical seismic-proof monastery of wood and glass, for housing the monks, and containing a chapel, refectory, kitchen, sleeping area, library and other needed space for a regular Benedictine monastic life. The twelve monks are mostly young, comprised of men from the United States, Brazil and Poland. They live a life of prayer and work, the latter especially being in the form of beer production since 2012, which has become quite popular in Italy and somewhat abroad. Every Saturday morning the beer is sold at their shop at the entrance to their property and they also distribute in quantity to various outlets. The monks do all the brewing and bottling at their brewery in town which survived the 2016 earthquake. In addition to beer production and sales, benefactors are relied on for some of their income.
The monks’ night Office of Vigils begins at 3:30 am and they chant all of the Opus Dei, or Liturgy of the Hours and Holy Mass each day. People join them for some of the prayers and Mass, and they have some space for private retreatants.
The move from town to the hillside was obviously necessary after the earthquake and the monks seem very content where they are now, with more quiet than in town and more room to grow. They are attracting other young men to their way of life and this is good to see. Currently they are “sui juris,” that is, an independent monastery, under the direct authority of the Benedictine Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation.
The monastery began in 1998 and moved to Norcia in 2000. Their presence is much appreciated by the people of Norcia, and even though now a little removed from town, they are part of the restoration work and life of the Valley of Saint Scholastica, as the lovely valley is called.
The recent visit to Norcia was mixed with sadness at what has happened there, but also with joy at seeing life returning. The hopes and plans of the nuns and monks of Norcia is inspiring, to say the least. Saints Benedict and Scholastica, pray for us!