Many churches were damaged in L’Aquila’s earthquake. Masses were celebrated either in tents or in the open air on Easter day. Copyright: Caritas/Michelle Hough
By Michelle Hough, Caritas Internationalis
The church of Saint Francis of Assisi in the neighbourhood of Pettino was filled with boxes rather than parishioners this Easter Sunday. Meanwhile, the local bishop was living in a tent in his sister’s garden. Elsewhere a priest celebrated mass behind an improvised altar perched atop an army truck in the car park of a shopping centre.
Welcome to Easter in L’Aquila in Italy, where just one week ago a massive earthquake left almost 300 people dead and tens of thousands of people homeless.
Saint Francis of Assisi church is the coordination centre for the Caritas relief effort. The Caritas office in L’Aquila was heavily damaged in the earthquake – along with the bishop’s apartment. This concrete church in Pettino is one of the few churches in L’Aquila to escape serious damage.
I arrived in Pettino at 9am on Easter morning to find volunteers busily loading and unloading relief items which had been sent by nearby Caritas organisations.
The church’s massive basement was full of everything from loo rolls to children’s toys – and not forgetting pasta and tinned tomatoes. The church itself was full of boxes of clothes donated by well-wishers and outside there was a tent with an improvised kitchen to provide people with hot meals.
While I was there, people came and looked through the clothes and chose things to take away. The earthquake struck at 3.30am last Monday morning and many people fled their houses in their pyjamas and slippers, taking nothing with them. They haven’t been able to go back since.
Midmorning, a crowd gathered for Easter mass. Someone from Caritas Italiana had told me about the importance of creating a sense of community and belonging for people following the earthquake so they didn’t feel alone.
I visited a number of “tent cities” while I was in L’Aquila. The big blue tents which could hold up to eight people had been set up all around L’Aquila by Italy’s Civil Protection. Tens of thousands of people where housed that way. Others had decided to stay close to their homes by either camping in their own garden or sleeping in their cars near their homes.
It was in one of the tent cities that I finally understood what Caritas meant by “ascolto” – or “listening”. I accompanied Don Dionisio Rodriguez, director of Caritas L’Aquila, as he went and talked to some of the immigrants living in the tents and asked them what they really needed from Caritas.
The tent cities seem very well organised. In the tent city in Paganica, near l’Aquila, I attended an afternoon mass where two children were being baptised by the parish priest – Don Dionisio Rodriguez. The enormous tent which was filled with churchgoers has been used as a dining room over the past week for those in the tent city. After mass I hung around and watched the preparations for dinner. One man drained bag after bag of mozzarella and chefs in a mobile kitchen prepared a delicious-smelling meal for that evening.
The people living in tents told me their immediate needs were being catered for. It was cold in the tents at night – L’Aquila is up in Italy’s Appenine snow-capped mountains – and they didn’t have hot water, but the aid effort had made sure they had everything else for now.
However, the concern of everyone is what will happen when the world no longer sees L’Aquila as an emergency. When will they be able to return to their houses, which are currently undergoing structural evaluations to see how safe they are? When will they be able to return to their jobs, which they’ve not been able to do since the whole city came to a standstill? When will their city be rebuilt and when will their lives be able to return to normal? People are now stoically putting up with the enormous difficulties of the present, however, everyone I spoke to is worried about the future. They are afraid that once the world is focused on another crisis, their needs will be forgotten.
The situation for the immigrant population is even more serious. Many have jobs with little security. They don’t have a family network which can provide support. And those who are undocumented and who have lost their houses are fearful of registering with the authorities for temporary lodging in case they are thrown out of the country. The civil protection has asked Caritas to pay special attention to the immigrant population, as they are particularly vulnerable in this desperate situation.
There’s still a lot of fear among the people of L’Aquila. One person told me that following the initial earthquake, the ground didn’t stop shaking for five hours. Others said that, as the aftershocks continued throughout the week, they couldn’t function properly and couldn’t comprehend what had happened. There were still aftershocks yesterday and at one point I stared in amazement as a car next to me rocked from side to side as the earth moved beneath my feet.
Archbishop Giuseppe Molinari of L’Aquila celebrated Easter mass yesterday on the same massive parade ground where the funerals of 205 earthquake victims took place two days earlier. The mass was attended by the Italian Prime Minister. The archbishop took the opportunity to remind the Italian Government of its commitment to rebuilding L’Aquila.
Archbishop Molinari was surprisingly warm and positive when I spoke to him after mass. In a much better mood than I would have been if I’d spent the past week camping in my sister’s garden.
He reflected on the difficult Easter day that he was sharing with his diocese and told me: “Jesus will rise again in L’Aquila. A sign of his resurrection is the love, the solidarity and the work of all the volunteers who have come to L’Aquila to help us this week.”