Nun recounts roar of earth during prayers

TREVI, Italy (AP) — Sister Caterina was praying with the eight nuns of her Benedictine order in the central Italian town of Norcia when the earth began to roar.

The abbey and the ground beneath the nuns’ feet shook and they were thrown around. The ceiling cracked and crumbled. A cupboard crashed to the ground.

Stepping to the door, Sister Caterina caught a glimpse of how the Sunday-morning earthquake was being experienced in the town below.

“Smoke, and people’s cries of fear. If I close my eyes, I cannot help but relive it,” she recalled.

But once the 72-year-old nun saw that her fellow sisters were unharmed and the abbey’s prayer room was still standing, she turned to her safe haven — her faith — and led the nuns back to prayer, asking that God might “at least save some lives.”

Their prayers, it seems, were granted.

No deaths have been reported so far from the quake that hit Norcia and the surrounding region — the third to shake the mountainous region just over 62 miles northeast of Rome since August.

The latest earthquake — magnitude-6.6, the strongest to hit Italy in 36 years — caused no deaths or serious injuries largely because the most vulnerable city centers had already been closed due to previous damage and many homes had been vacated.

What it did not spare was the nuns’ own religious order, razing the basilica that had been built in 1200 on the ruins of a 1st-century Roman building, and remodeled several times over the centuries, including the addition of a 14th-century bell tower.

Only the facade remains.

“Seeing the basilica collapse was truly sad, like cutting a story: here it ends. But how do we start again?” said Sister Caterina.

After 30 to 45 minutes of prayer, police arrived at the abbey to bring the nuns to safety, along with eight other cloistered nuns who had no contact with the outside world.

Television pictures showed some of the nuns running into the town’s main piazza as the earth began to shake again, and later kneel in prayer.

Sister Caterina went back into the monastery only once, to get her cell phone, which was ringing with calls from worried relatives.

Caterina is not new to earthquakes.

She was born in Norcia and has lived through vicious ones in the 1970s and 1990s. But “this was the worst of them all.”

The repeated shocks — this week’s followed an initial earthquake in August that killed 300, and there were more tremors last week — are causing people to lose hope, she said.

The loss of the Benedictine basilica is a hit not only to her but also to the population of the town, for whom it was a proud symbol of their home and a draw for tourists.