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Rebuilding Assisi, Stone by Stone


Cranes dominated Assisi's skyline in July.





Assisi will be one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations of the coming Holy Year. After two years of earthquake recovery, the town is ready to roll out the welcome mat.

Text and Photos by John Bookser Feister

Web Exclusive! Hear the author's audio report from Assisi.


Homeless in a Shaken Economy

 A Home for English-speaking Pilgrims

 Pope John Paul II on Assisi

 The Treasured Basilica of St. Francis

 Why Pilgrims Go

  Sidebar: Restoring St. Anthony's Guest House


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 along.

Renovation inside buildings has occurred at a feverish pace in preparation for Holy Year pilgrims.

Renovation inside buildings has taken place at a feverish pace in preparation for Holy Year pilgrims.

Homeless 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 tours.

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.

A 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 stays.”

Pope 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.

The tiny Portiuncula was shielded by plastic during renovation.

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 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.

The 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.”

The Upper Basilica of St. Francis

This 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.

Why Pilgrims Go

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 endless.”

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 conversion.”

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, he adds.

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.


Restoring 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 we expected.”

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) Italy.

See the sites and sounds of Assisi with the video Franciscan Holy Ground.

John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of this publication.


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