Beer-Brewing Monks Are Helping Rebuild Earthquake-Devastated Town In Italy : Parallels The Benedictine monks of Norcia are known for their chart-topping album of Gregorian chants — and their beer. They're donating proceeds to rebuilding efforts, and helping the Umbrian town recover.

Beer-Brewing Monks Are Helping Rebuild Earthquake-Devastated Town In Italy

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In central Italy, at the birthplace of Saint Benedict, an enterprising group of mostly American monks spend their days chanting prayers and making beer. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli recently visited the monks a year after a devastating earthquake killed some 300 people in the region and left their monastery in ruins.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: It's very quiet up here on the mountainside, high above the walled town of Norcia, birthplace in the year 480 of Saint Benedict, patron saint of Europe.


POGGIOLI: A community of Benedictine monks has moved up here to build a new monastery after last year's quakes devastated the grandiose 13th-century basilica and left much of Norcia in rubble. The monks now celebrate Mass in a brand-new chapel made of wood.


POGGIOLI: Choirmaster Father Basil Nixen, a native of Arizona, says medieval Gregorian chants make up what he calls the life-beat of their lives.

BASIL NIXEN: We're chanting, singing our prayers about four to five hours a day. So it has a very important role. It's what unifies us as a community, brings us together.

POGGIOLI: The monks settled in Norcia in 2000, 190 years after the monastery had been shut down on orders of Napoleon. Now numbering 14, the monks do not live a cloistered existence. In 2015, they gained international fame when "Benedicta," their CD of Marian chants, was no. 1 on Billboard's classical charts for 17 weeks. Three years earlier, seeking a reliable source of income, they trained with Belgian monks and embraced a centuries-old monastic tradition - making craft beer. It's called Nursia, from the town's Latin name, and it's a popular item in Norcia along with the local specialties - cured meats and truffles. Brother Augustine, from South Carolina, is the brew master.

AUGUSTINE WILLMETH: We very intentionally chose the name of the town for the beer to involve the townspeople, involve the rich culinary and cultural and spiritual tradition of this town.

POGGIOLI: The prior of the community, Father Benedict Nivakoff, a native of Connecticut, explains the spiritual aspect. People kept asking the monks for a product they could take home with them.

BENEDICT NIVAKOFF: Because they can't take a monk home. To take something that the monks make is a way of bringing a little bit of monastic life into their home. To bring home a wine or a beer or a product that monks or nuns make sort of sanctifies their home for them.

POGGIOLI: Piero Coccia, a local mason who has been working for the monks for many years, is grateful for what they've done for Norcia.

PIERO COCCIA: (Through interpreter) The monks have symbolically brought Saint Benedict back to his birthplace. And economically, they've been vital to our town, not just attracting tourists, but also showing solidarity and helping those whose homes were destroyed.


POGGIOLI: On this hot August day, Coccia, along with the monks' plumber, carpenter and electrician, has been invited to a small ceremony to bless the land and lay the cornerstone of the new mountainside brewery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Italian). Bravo.

POGGIOLI: Father Benedict, the prior, plunges the shovel into the hard earth while the other monks pass around goblets of ice-cold Nursia beer.



These monks came to Norcia to observe a contemplative life of prayer, but now they're also full-fledged members of the town, contributing to its economy and becoming its spiritual and cultural point of reference. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Norcia.

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