A city of faith comes back to life Monastery: Five American nuns and a team of British archaeologists are reviving a medieval abbey so grand the descriptions were once thought to be exaggerated.

Sun Journal

June 11, 1996|By Paula Butturini | Paula Butturini,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN VINCENZO AL VOLTURNO, Italy -- One of the grandest medieval abbeys of the Mediterranean Basin is returning to life after 500 years, thanks to five American Benedictine nuns, a team of British archaeologists and the worm-eaten manuscript of a 12th-century monk.

In its heyday -- which ran from the late 700s until its destruction by Saracen invaders in 881 -- the Abbey of San Vincenzo al Volturno was home to more than 1,000 Benedictine monks. They lived in what is best described as a monastic city set in the center of a starkly beautiful plain high in the Appennines.

The site is about 30 miles from Monte Cassino -- where St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of monasticism in Western Europe, established his first abbey in 529. It once marked the southern edge of Charlemagne's empire. Today, we may think of it in terms of its distance from Rome: a 2-hour drive to the southeast of the capital in Italy's National Park of the Abruzzo.

There one finds one of the biggest churches of the high Middle Ages, a basilica more than 300 feet long modeled on the original St. Peter's in Rome. The abbey boasted seven smaller churches and chapels, decorated with extraordinary Carolingian Renaissance frescoes. It had richly decorated guest quarters for its noble visitors, a 400-seat refectory, ancient Roman columns, sculptures, inscriptions and artifacts, a glass factory, endless barns and outbuildings.

But after Oct. 10, 881, when Saracen invaders fired flaming arrows into the complex, virtually destroying the city and killing about 500 monks, San Vincenzo's fortunes slid into an 1,100-year decline.

Marauders, earthquakes, fires and wars have repeatedly shut down the abbey since its founding in 703. Before the American nuns arrived six years ago, the last Benedictines to live at San Vincenzo left in the 1400s. Though various religious groups came and went in the interim, the property finally passed out of church hands in the 1800s. It became a ghost town in 1944 after German troops, holed up in the mountains along the Gustav Line, bombed the abbey church to hold off Allied advances.

But the property was returned this century as a personal gift to the abbot of Monte Cassino, allowing the current abbot, Bernardo D'Onorio, to seek yet another rebirth.

Mother Miriam Benedict and Mother Agnes Shaw answered D'Onorio's challenge in 1990. Sent by their mother abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., the two women reinstated the observance of Benedict's Rule at San Vincenzo. The Rule prescribes an unceasing round of prayer and work, beginning each day with the Office of Readings at 5 a.m., followed by the chanting of Lauds at daybreak and continuing devotions at regular intervals until Compline at 8 p.m.

When they are not swathed in blue denim smocks for farm work, the nuns dress in the Benedictines' traditional white wimple and black robes. Between prayers, they tend the fields and the livestock -- only chickens and cows since wolves swept down from the mountains and slaughtered their sheep in broad daylight in November.

They also pursue individual crafts: Mother Agnes is a bookbinder, historian and Latin scholar; Mother Filippa Kline has just finished her doctoral thesis on archaeology; Mother Bernadette Frenzel is a printer who makes paper by hand; a postulant is a potter; Mother Miriam, whose personal mission is to foster Jewish-Christian ties, is the superior and coordinator.

As the first prioress of a cloistered, monastic community that for more than a millennium was strictly male, Mother Miriam says the nuns "hope to present our simple medieval way of life as a still viable answer to the stress of the modern world."

The nuns see no contradiction in living their medieval reality in the midst of the most modern advances. Mother Miriam may grow her own food and make her own cheese, but the abbey has a fax and cordless phone to link it to the outside world. She rejoices in knowing that the profound picture they possess of the old San Vincenzo comes from a 12th-century illuminated manuscript as well as from the latest computer technology that has given them virtual reality "photos" of the destroyed basilica.

Ironically, it was the abbey's destruction that ultimately transformed it into a virtual key to monastic development in Europe: So destroyed was the original site that after two centuries of failed attempts to rebuild, the monks moved to fresh ground just across the Volturno River.

Archaeologist Richard Hodges, former director of the British School at Rome and head of the team still digging on the site, flatly describes San Vincenzo as unique in Europe, the only abbey that provides a clear, comprehensive picture of how a monastery developed, flourished and was transformed throughout a millennium.

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