There is a spot along the road below
Assisi where St. Francis bade farewell to his beloved hometown
near the end of his life. He was being carried to nearby St.
Mary of the Angels for his final days and asked to stop so he
could gaze upon and bless Assisi one final time. The spot is
marked well for today’s pilgrims walking or driving along the
road to Assisi. But looking up at Assisi any time in recent
months you would see building after building covered with scaffolding,
a medieval mountainside town dominated by building cranes. Assisi,
Italy, home of much Renaissance art, is experiencing a modern
renaissance. It is being rebuilt in the wake of devastating
earthquakes in September and October 1997. It’s not that the
town fell to the ground (as was the case for a town nearby).
But there was significant damage to many sacred places connected
to Francis and Clare, two of Christianity’s most popular saints.
Today there is a fervor of renovation as Church and Italian
government agencies scramble to prepare for anticipated millions
of Jubilee 2000 pilgrims. During a Holy Year when the pope has
called for pilgrimages, Assisi is predicted to be one of the
most popular pilgrimage destinations worldwide (Rome and Jerusalem
are others). What will pilgrims find? St. Anthony Messenger
took a preview trip there recently to see how things are coming
inside buildings has taken place at a feverish pace in preparation
for Holy Year pilgrims.
in a Shaken Economy
The past two years have been incredibly difficult for Assisians
and many in the surrounding region. The earthquakes that started
September 26, 1997, didn’t settle down completely for a full
six months. Major earthquakes occurred September 26 and again
on October 3. (Those dates, coincidentally, respectively mark
the birth and the death of St. Francis.)
During that first, hard winter, people lived in tents and with
out-of-town friends or family for terror of being caught inside,
especially at night. During September 26’s second quake two
friars and two Italian government inspectors died when the portions
of the vault over the main entrance in the Upper Basilica of
St. Francis caved in on them as they were inspecting damage
from the first quake.
Even at the end of 1999 many of the terremotati, Italian
for “earthquake victims,” remain homeless. Sister Nancy Celaschi,
O.S.F., a Rome-based American who visited Assisi regularly during
that time of initial shock, explains the hope of financial survival
for the region. “Most of the energy in Assisi is in the rebuilding
of the basilicas and the shrines in order to get ready for the
Jubilee,” she tells St. Anthony Messenger. The hope is
that the massive flow of pilgrims will return, she says, bringing
their shopping and lodging money back into Assisi. All signs
point to its fruition.
In fact, a colossal renovation effort has been under way throughout
this town, whose millions of visitors annually fueled the local
economy before the earthquakes abruptly interrupted things.
“Last year Assisi was a ghost town,” recalls Sister Nancy. She,
who had lived in Assisi in years past, would travel up from
Rome weekly to give moral support to merchants whose shops were
open but without customers. “When I first came up right after
the earthquake, people repeated an old Italian saying, ‘It was
bad but it could have been worse.’ As time went on and I came
back, they would say, ‘Thank God you’re here! It’s been so long
since we’ve seen an outsider, a friendly face!’”
Unbeknown to the shopkeepers, one of Sister Nancy’s reasons
for visiting was to bring financial donations to the local diocese
for emergency assistance. Worse off than the shopkeepers were
the residents whom the earthquake, the terremoto, had
forced from their homes. Sister Nancy, an educator, translator
and editor, is spirit and life director for the International
Franciscan Conference of the Third Order Regular, one of many
organizations which had been collecting relief funds. (There
are an estimated 125,000 Third Order Regular Franciscan sisters,
priests and brothers in over 400 congregations worldwide.)
Her donated funds and provisions were distributed by a pastor
to nearby farmers who could not abandon their livestock to move
to government-provided emergency housing. “If they lose their
livestock, they lose their livelihood,” explains the Franciscan
sister. Many local religious convents and guest houses were
forced to close for repairs, which created an employment crisis
for many Assisians and brought a halt to most pilgrimages and
Sister Nancy’s observations are easily verified by the locals.
Rosalie Conti is parish secretary at St. Mary Major Church in
Assisi. This is the site where, some 800 years ago, St. Francis
dramatically renounced his father’s wealth, disrobing in the
presence of his father and the bishop. It is one of the churches
Rosalie says Francis himself helped to repair in his day—the
region has always been prone to earthquakes.
Rosalie sadly reports that the net result of the most recent
earthquakes and two years of displacement is that many Assisians
simply have moved out of town for good. “They’ve invested funds
fixing up a house they might have had in the countryside, or
have found new housing in a nearby town.” The cost and effort
of moving back to Assisi and fixing up damaged homes is more
than many will bear, she says.
St. Mary Major’s pastor, Father Giuseppe Biselli, fears that
his parish roster has declined permanently in the earthquake’s
wake. About half of 400 families are gone, reports Rosalie.
St. Mary Major Church itself suffered extensive damage and
is scheduled for repair only now. Work on the basilicas took
precedence. Parishioners are worshiping at nearby St. Stephen’s,
a church within their parish boundaries. The estimated cost
of repairing St. Mary Major, which was in excellent condition
before the earthquakes, is about $600,000. It could be completed
in four months, says Father Giuseppe.
Home for English-speaking Pilgrims
Only a few doors from Assisi’s central plaza, the Piazza
del Comune, is a small storefront that is now seen as one
of several possible sites of St. Francis’ childhood family home.
(Nearby Chiesa Nuova is the traditional and official site.)
In that storefront Franciscan Sister Roberta Cusack, from Springfield,
Illinois, runs the English-speaking Pilgrim Center. In spite
of fewer pilgrims, she and Sister Lorraine Forster, F.S.P.A.,
have continued their ministry of hospitality. Sister Roberta
has been spending summers in Assisi since the 1960’s.
“Part of the reconstruction that has been occurring is earthquake,
part is millennium,” explains Sister Roberta. Even before the
earthquakes a certain amount of restoration had been under way
in Assisi in preparation for Jubilee 2000.
Sister Roberta notes that, although the basilicas of Francis
and Clare were seriously damaged, the hardest-hit facilities
were St. Mary Major, including the adjoining bishop’s residence
and offices, and the many religious houses. Almost all of the
pensiones (guest houses) were hit. Especially hard-hit
was the American house, run by the Atonement Sisters (see
Restoring St. Anthony's Guest House). “Immediately after
the earthquake many weren’t sure they would be able to recover,”
she says. Yet they almost all are in various stages of rebuilding
and have been reopening in 1999.
The sad exception is the protomonastery of the Poor Clare Sisters,
connected to the Basilica of St. Clare. Damage was so extensive
that all of the Poor Clares had to take up residence elsewhere
for the time being. According to some observers, the protomonastery,
because it is a cloister, had been skipped over in recent decades
when some facilities in Assisi were reinforced against earthquakes.
“It’s the first time in 800 years they were driven out of the
protomonastery,” observes Sister Roberta. It seems likely that
repairs on the monastery will continue for some time to come,
even after the Basilica’s 1999 reopening.
Much of what was closed in 1999 for construction had been open
during the first year after the earthquakes, Sister Roberta
reports, including St. Clare Basilica. “There was scaffolding
up, tastefully covered by wood. And they limited the guests
to 30 at a time at St. Clare’s. But by the end of summer, typical
of the Italians, everyone was getting in!” Then it was closed
again for the major repairs.
Sister Roberta says that hope is returning to Assisi as the
number of pilgrims increases: “Last year I asked the vendors
how they were doing and many of them said they could probably
survive one full year without business, but if it went any longer,
they could not stay in Assisi. This year they are much more
upbeat, including the city officials. Visitors who were afraid
to stay overnight last year are now starting to return for longer
John Paul II on Assisi
Another shrine that was closed for much of 1999 is the Portiuncula
chapel, in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. The Basilica
reopened July 31 this year just in time for the August 2 Feast
of Pardon, commemorating St. Francis’ overwhelming experience
of God’s mercy and his wish to share that experience.
It was on the occasion of that reopening that Pope John Paul
II, in a message to the minister general of the Order of Friars
Minor, Giacomo Bini, pointed out why the restoration of the
chapel, and indeed all Assisi, is so important: “The Portiuncula
is one of the most revered Franciscan places,” wrote the pope.
“It is dear...to all Christians who, almost overwhelmed by the
intensity of historic memories, receive light and a stimulus
for a renewal of life....”
The pope emphasized the specific message of the Portiuncula,
“a message of pardon and of reconciliation.” He prayed that
pilgrims visiting the restored church would, like Francis, “experience
the joy of meeting God and the tenderness of his merciful love....This
is the ‘spirit of Assisi,’ the spirit of reconciliation, prayer
and mutual respect.”
The pope is expected in Assisi sometime before the Feast of
the Immaculate Conception (December 8) to reconsecrate the main
altar at the Basilica of St. Francis.
Treasured Basilica of St. Francis
The Basilica of St. Francis has itself been the scene of the
most intense activity since the earthquakes. The Lower Basilica
was undamaged and has remained open throughout the past two
years. It holds chapels containing some of Assisi’s most famous
frescoes (paintings completed on fresh plaster). A crypt below
contains the tomb of St. Francis.
Friars Daniel Geary and David Suckling, two North American
Conventual friars on assignment at the Basilica, led me through
the closed-off construction areas, including the Upper Basilica
and a room devoted to piecing together the frescoes that collapsed
from over the main altar. Some have called it “the world’s largest
jigsaw puzzle,” says Friar Daniel.
The Upper Basilica required a massive effort to clean and repair
its precious artwork, as well as structural repairs. “It reminded
us of the call of Jesus to Francis from the cross at San Damiano,
‘Go, rebuild my Church which is falling into ruin,’” says Friar
Daniel. “But even that had a double meaning: not only the physical
rebuilding of the Church but also the spiritual rebuilding.”
He notes that in spite of the tragic deaths in the Basilica,
the earthquakes brought blessings: “People who didn’t talk to
one another now talk to one another. Friars felt called to more
prayer. I’ve heard some say that we were brought back down to
the tomb [undamaged beneath the Lower Basilica], to the roots
of who we are and what we’re about.”
rare view of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis under renovation
in July shows the extent of work under way. The Upper Basilica
is scheduled to reopen with a papal Mass in December.
Amid the noise of cranes and construction equipment, restorationists
with worklights clamped to scaffolding are cleaning, painting
and repairing the Upper Basilica frescoes. “The government is
primarily responsible for the renovation,” observes Friar Daniel.
It is being conducted by professionals, students and volunteers.
He quotes the words of Joachim Giermack, assistant general of
the Conventual Franciscans, who said to him, “In the rebuilding,
you see the same love and devotion that the people had as they
were building the Basilica.”
It is this love which was evident in the early days after the
first earthquakes, as people from all walks of life worked together
sorting through the rubble, pulling out and sorting pieces of
plaster related to frescoes. “Those who were able to find a
nice piece of fresco will remember for the rest of their lives
that they helped in the restoration,” comments Friar Daniel.
“This Basilica is a part of the treasure of the people.”
The friars predict that restoration work will go on in the
background for some time, even after the Upper Basilica opens
in December. There is talk of high-tech lasers or projectors
being used to fill in some of the missing artwork. Indeed, new
computer software has been written for the sole purpose of mapping
the millions of details hidden among thousands of color-coded
bins of fresco pieces that remain in the restoration room.
San Damiano, which Francis rebuilt and where Clare and her
sisters lived, is and has been open, with the exception of the
infirmary of St. Clare. The guardian of the friary there, Friar
Ambrogio, comments that as repairs go on and on, “the work seems
Yet, hike up the hill into Assisi and talk to Father John Wojtowicz,
O.F.M., and you might come away with the idea that the physical
condition of Assisi is not as critical as the inner disposition
of the pilgrims who come there. Father John, from Milwaukee,
is a director of Franciscan Pilgrimages, which has brought thousands
of pilgrims through Assisi and nearby Franciscan sites since
the 1970’s. They kept bringing pilgrims to Assisi even during
these past two difficult years.
Sitting at pranzo (midday meal) at a guesthouse named
for Pope John XXIII, he talks about why pilgrims come to Assisi.
“Even if the whole thing were a pile of rubble they’d come here
to see it,” he says. “Everyone—Catholic and non-Catholic, young
and old—can identify with Francis, either before or after his
At the sites closed for reconstruction, Masses and prayer rituals
were often held in tents outside. This still allows the group
to experience the “spirituality of place,” he says. For example,
healing services are held at San Damiano, where Clare conducted
her healing ministry. “The events of the past come alive again
today,” says Father John, as pilgrims relate these events to
their own experiences.
That’s the Franciscan appreciation for the Incarnation, says
the friar: “God reveals God’s self through the events and relationships
of life.” People come to Assisi searching for meaning and direction,
For Father John, the earthquake brought good news with the
bad: “Can you imagine how much money comes in during a normal
year here with 3 or 4 million visitors? But has the spirit of
Francis and Clare really captured them?” He sees the
earthquake destruction as a reminder of the deeper values.
Like Brother Dan Geary at St. Francis Basilica, Father John
is mindful of the message from the San Damiano Cross: “Watching
the buildings crumble and needing to be rebuilt, we see how
we are, through God, rebuilding the Franciscan family, rebuilding
the Church, brick by brick.”
It is that spirit of inner transformation that storekeeper
Walter Lutaz echoes in his shop on the plaza in front of St.
Clare Basilica. “We must understand the message of the earthquakes,”
he says. “During the past 30 years people have been getting
rich on St. Francis. The earthquake was a reminder that we must
come back to the simple things.” In that renewed spirit, he
awaits the return of the pilgrim throngs during the Great Jubilee.
St. Anthony's Guest House
As this magazine goes to press, the Franciscan Sisters
of the Atonement, also known as the Graymoor Sisters,
should be reopening St. Anthony’s Guest House in Assisi.
The house, on beautiful grounds overlooking the Basilica
of St. Clare and the stunning pastoral vista beyond Assisi,
was one of the hardest-hit during the 1997 earthquakes
that damaged Assisi (see accompanying article).
The pensione, or small religious hotel, was established
in 1931 as an ecumenical lodging place for American pilgrims
at a time when it was hard to find any English-speaking
people in Assisi. Indeed, thousands of English-speaking
pilgrims have stayed here over the years. The sisters’
goal remains to provide a place of atonement, or reconciliation,
a place where pilgrims can come and experience wholeness
in themselves and with all creation.
Atonement Sisters Rosita Perpetua and Alessandra Sciaboletta
are two of three sisters who stayed behind to oversee
repairs. St. Anthony Messenger talked with them
in their temporary quarters, a small, undamaged house
on the guesthouse grounds.
Sister Rosita has lived in Assisi for 24 years and experienced
earthquakes in the 1970’s and 80’s. But none of those
compared in damage to this one. This small woman whose
spunk belies her age recalls the day: “I was only really
afraid during the second quake. We were standing in front
of the TV, watching the news for scenes of Assisi—we had
heard many sirens in the night. Then I saw the walls began
to move in the room we were standing in! You could feel
the floor moving and see the ceiling moving. I thought,
Oh, we’ll never get out of this building safely!”
But none of the sisters or their 40 guests was injured.
“They said that, if the second earthquake, which lasted
48 seconds, had gone a few more seconds, Assisi wouldn’t
be here anymore,” recalls Sister Rosita with dread.
For 10 weeks following the quakes, the three sisters
who stayed behind lived in a donated camper placed in
an orchard on their grounds. “During the day we would
work in the [undamaged] building but always we would leave
the doors open. It didn’t come down with the first and
second quake, but you never know!...Eventually we had
the courage to move into the undamaged building at night.”
All of the 21 guest rooms and bathrooms had to be completely
renovated, says Sister Rosita. Sister Alessandra, superior
of the small community, says that the total cost of repairs
was estimated at $1,000,000, a small portion of which
the Italian government covered. The complexity and paperwork
of applying for further money would have kept the guesthouse
closed and unable to support itself even longer.
The original estimate did not factor in everything, either.
“The furniture’s been outside for two years,” laments
Sister Rosita. “Even though it’s covered, we don’t know
how much of it will be usable after the summer heat and
winter winds. We don’t know if the washing machines are
going to work. And we had to replace more flooring than
From where does the money for repairs come? Like the
families of Assisi and the surrounding region, says Sister
Alessandra, the sisters are trusting in Divine Providence,
spending savings and going into debt with bank loans.
Donations or requests for reservations can be mailed
to: St. Anthony’s Guest House, Franciscan Sisters of the
Atonement, Via Galeazzo Aless, 10, 06081, Assisi (PG)
See the sites and sounds of Assisi with the video Franciscan
John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication.