From the outside, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Tolentino, a town of about 20,000 people in central Italy, still looks like an ordinary Catholic church. On the inside right now, however, it more closely resembles a homeless shelter, because that’s exactly what it’s become.
After the latest earthquake to strike central Italy last Sunday, a 6.6-magnitude tremor that left at least 4,000 people injured and thousands more homeless, the Tolentino parish decreed that it would open its doors to anyone needing shelter, since the small town in Italy’s Marche region was one of the epicenters of the disaster.
Originally, according to Father Sergio Fraticelli, the pastor, the plan was to convert some rooms normally used for catechism lessons into a makeshift shelter, which would be able to accommodate perhaps 10 or 15 people.
In fact, however, roughly 220 people showed up, some of whom had seen their homes damaged or destroyed, but many others who were simply afraid to be alone. The Oct. 30 quake came on the heels of an August 24 tremor in the same general area that left almost 300 people dead and flattened entire villages.
Looking at the scene inside the Tolentino parish, in which the usual kneelers have been removed to make way for cots, Fraticelli said, “My church has never been so beautiful.”
Fraticelli is a disciple of the famed Italian priest Father Oreste Benzi, who died in 2007, and who was the founder of the Community Association of John XXIII. Benzi spent his life fighting for the poor and the marginalized, and a sainthood cause for him was launched in 2014.
When faced with the sudden influx of people seeking shelter, Fraticelli told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, “I hadn’t planned anything, but for sure I couldn’t close the doors to those who no longer had a home.”
Among those now taking shelter in the church are Ida Mogliani, a local woman who’s 97 years old, as well as catechists from the parish and many children. Having run out of space for cots, some of those spending the night at Holy Spirit are sleeping on two chairs pushed together, and some of the children are sleeping three or four abed.
On Wednesday, Fraticelli celebrated an outdoor Mass in front of the Church of the Holy Spirit for the people sleeping inside, as well as others from the local community.
“Look, we’re not doing anything special,” Fraticelli said. “The Church welcomes people, always.”
Also in Tolentino, the local movie theater has removed its wooden seats from the interior and turned the space into a soup kitchen, serving meals on a daily basis in three shifts.
Fraticelli said that financial assistance to cope with the situation has been arriving from priests in nearby parishes, and that a couple from Tolentino now living in London has launched a fundraising campaign to provide additional help.