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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Italian monastery to feature latest seismic technology

Voices Oct. 10, 2018

Father William Ashley of St. James Parish, Abbotsford, celebrates Mass for Vancouver pilgrims in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia, one year before the building was destroyed in a devastating 2016 earthquake.   (OC-Travel photo)

The Italian town of Norcia is a major pilgrimage destination for Italians and others. Each year many pilgrim groups arrive on bus tours on their way to and from Rome.

Norcia is famous because it is St. Benedict’s hometown, the birthplace in 480 of both St. Benedict – the founder of Western monasticism – and his twin sister St. Scholastica.

Monks have had a presence in Norcia for more than 15 centuries, existing and engaging in a hidden life of evangelization combining the Benedictine motto of prayer and work.

Norcia is also located on an earthquake fault system known as the Amatrice-Monte Vettore – one of the largest and deadliest in Italy. About 70 km in length, it is a volatile area that produces “cascading” earthquakes – when seismic earthquakes trigger other earthquakes. 

On Aug. 24, 2016, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake hit near Norcia, causing major damage to the region and destroying the nearby town of Amatrice.

Two months later, on Oct. 30, a more severe 6.5 earthquake hit the same region, causing heavy damage. No lives were lost in Norcia. However, the spiritual and cultural heart of Norcia, the invaluable 14th-century basilica named after St. Benedict, was destroyed.

This important pilgrim sanctuary, built atop the underground crypt that houses the original home and birthplace of the twin monastic saints, has yet to be rebuilt. 

Since the Holy Year 2000, the basilica and its crypt have been under the care and direction of the Monks of Norcia, a group of American and Canadian monks who were founded in Rome in 1998.

There they lived in an attached monastery, ministering to locals and pilgrims alike. Their hospitality was known to all and their gift shop was immensely popular, accommodating thousands of pilgrims annually.

Although none of the monks were harmed, the monastery had to be evacuated and closed permanently because the buildings were deemed structurally unsound, damaged beyond repair. 

As a result, the monks now live outside the city on the dilapidated property of a 15th-century church that was once part of a Capuchin friary, known as Santa Maria delle Grazie. 

The property, most recently used as a seminary for the Diocese of Norcia, was abandoned in the 1960s. 

Providentially, the monks purchased it in 2007 with the hopes of turning it into a mountainside summer retreat. 

Now with their former monastery in ruins, the monks are rebuilding their lives and putting down deep roots on this piece of rural land located on the edge of town in the peaceful countryside.

The site is located on a picturesque hillside – an ideal location for the quiet refuge of monastic life. It is a few kilometres east of Norcia, a fitting location removed from the noisy heart of the downtown.

The monks have constructed temporary accommodations while awaiting the construction of a larger, more permanent monastery for the long-term future. 

The new monastery has been named San Benedetto in Monte (St. Benedict on the Mountain), fittingly overlooking the valley of St. Scholastica. 

After two years of operating since the 2016 quakes in “emergency mode,” the monks are finally ready to build. Construction is set to begin after two years of waiting. The project will restore the monks to a fully functioning monastery.

The new monastery will have all the traditional requisites, including a proper refectory, chapter room, scriptorium, library, cloister, dormitories, and chapel with monastic choir stalls and belfry to announce the hours and call the monks to prayer. 

Most importantly, the monastery will be built with all the latest technological eventualities in mind, building it to withstand strong earthquakes as a lasting legacy for future generations.

All architectural plans have been approved by the Italian government with particular respect to historical sensitivities.

Anti-seismic technology is required for any new construction in Norcia. The monks’ new permanent home will be fitted to secure the buildings on firm footings in anticipation of future quakes.

To ensure the best possible protection for the new structures, the latest in base isolation technology will be used, consisting of a foundation of earthquake-resistant isolators. 

In short, the floor junction system will include a rigid diaphragm secured on a series of seismic isolation devices fitted to a background system that will be fixed atop properly prepared ground.

The construction of this first-of-a-kind earthquake proof monastery is projected to cost over 5 million euros. 

The Monks of Norcia Foundation, a registered tax-exempt US-based charity, has already received a strong response with generous donations and pledges.

The construction plan has been divided into three stages. Phase 1 covers the foundations, presently underway, including the excavation of the remains of the 16th-century Capuchin monastery.

Phase 2 covers the walls, raising the frame and infrastructure of the new monastery complex, which will be equipped to house at least 30 monks, giving the community adequate space to grow and house visitors.

Phase 3 will complete all the interior and exterior finishings, including flooring, electrical wiring, indoor plumbing and heating, as well as outdoor gardens and landscaping. 

St. Benedict emphasized the importance for monks to live by the work of their own hands, so the monks are busy raising funds through their own craft and trade.

The new monastery will also include a brew hall where the monks will continue to raise funds by making their own craft beer. 

Since 2012 the monks have produced on site in Norcia their own popular brew Birra Nursia, named after the ancient Roman name for the city of Norcia. 

The motto of the brewery comes from Psalm 106: Ut Laetificet Cor (so that the heart may be gladdened).

What makes this beer unique is that it will continue to be made in the monastic enclosure exclusively by the monks themselves.

The local mountain water has helped make the beer famous, taken from the Sibylline mountains in the valley of Norcia.

Norcia is known for its outstanding culinary and gastronomic specialties, including wild boar and truffles. Local restaurants make the monastic beer available as the perfect complement for both.

Pilgrims are encouraged to visit Norica, an easy day trip from Rome with a stop in neighbouring Cascia to see the Shrine of St. Rita. 

The monks of Norcia are an international community, with a strong American presence. English is spoken by all. 

The Rule of St. Benedict has a section reminding the monks that every guest who shows up at the door should be treated like Christ. The monastery receives many pilgrims especially in the summer months.

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.