Pope tells area hurt by quakes to rebuild On visit, pontiff views damage, efforts to restore central Italian towns


ASSISI, Italy -- Pope John Paul II knelt before the bare stone tomb of St. Francis yesterday and prayed for the areas of central Italy devastated by earthquakes three months ago.

Later, the pope urged crowds of several thousand people who cheered him to bear the hardship caused by the earthquakes "in a Franciscan spirit" and to rebuild quickly, "so that damaged homes, churches and other monuments may return to their earlier charm."

Frames of steel pipe, like a giant Erector set, cradled the damaged walls of the transept of the huge basilica and stretched up the facade to provide access for restorers securing its partly collapsed vaults.

The catastrophe left 11 dead and more than 13,000 homeless.

This Umbrian hill town -- birthplace of St. Francis, Italy's patron saint, and a crucible of the Renaissance -- was the last of three communities the pope visited yesterday in two regions hit by earthquakes in September and October, the worst in Italy since 1980.

Pope's central message

Early in the day, the pope flew by helicopter from Rome to the tiny hillside village of Annifo, where many residents still live in campers and steel containers fitted out as dwellings.

At a ceremony, the pope struck the central note of his message, asking, "How could one not see in the destroyed homes, churches, streets and piazzas the emblems of wounded

intimacy, of human ties violated, of historic continuity interrupted, of a sense of security lost?"

But, he added, the earthquakes "have not wiped from your hearts the greatest treasure: the patrimony of your Christian and human values."

In the devastated village of Cesi, about five miles from Annifo, it was a moving moment when Pope John Paul entered the gray corrugated container that has been home for three months to Celestino and Maria Albani.

Television microphones caught the conversation as the pope, who is 77, asked the couple's ages.

Mrs. Albani, looking stunned and nodding toward her husband, said that she was 76 and he 81. Their marriage of 56 years "is a beautiful marriage," she said, adding, "There have never been words."

The pope blessed them and said, "May you live to be 100."

Pope John Paul, despite the heavy Christmas and New Year's schedule just behind him, appeared rested. He wore a white coat over his robes in bright sunshine.

After addressing the throng in Assisi, he visited the nearby monastery of St. Francis and dined with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

Restoration work

Giorgio Croci, the engineer overseeing the reconstruction of the St. Francis basilica's vaults, with saints painted by 14th-century masters such as Giotto and Cimabue, said restorers are securing the damaged vaults spanning the nave below the outer roof by plugging cracks with special compounds and anchoring the masonry vaults to the roof with steel cables.

The task, he said, "requires great attention."

Once the securing is complete, perhaps as early as the end of this month, restoration of the collapsed vaulting will begin.

An earthquake on Sept. 26 caused the collapse of two 360-square-foot sections of the ceiling, with frescoes attributed to Giotto or his school and Cimabue saints.

This will require the building of scaffolding in the 228-foot nave, below the vaults, and Croci said the goal was to be finished with restoration by the end of 1999.

In 2000, millions of pilgrims will celebrate Christianity's third millennium in Rome and such other pilgrimage sites as Assisi.

In many communities of Umbria and Marche, the two regions hardest hit by the earthquakes, most houses are still standing.

But in tiny villages like Annifo and Cesi, where the old houses are maintained by an aging population who have stayed on after their children have left to seek work elsewhere, the damage was heavy.

Reconstruction and rehabilitation have been given high priority by Prodi's government, in an effort to avoid the recriminations that arose after a major earthquake devastated areas of southern Italy near Naples in 1980.

Then, reconstruction took years, or never happened, and the extent of the money earmarked for reconstruction that disappeared into the pockets of unscrupulous politicians came to light only with the corruption investigations in Italy in the early 1990s.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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