The strongest earthquake to hit the country in 36 years has displaced 15,000 people as well as destroying homes and churches

Sister Caterina was praying with the eight nuns of her Benedictine order in the central Italian town of Norcia when the abbey and the ground beneath the nuns’ feet shook and they were thrown around. The ceiling cracked and crumbled. A cupboard crashed to the ground.

Stepping to the door, Sister Caterina caught a glimpse of how the Sunday-morning earthquake was being experienced in the town below.

“Smoke, and people’s cries of fear. If I close my eyes, I cannot help but relive it,” she recalled.

But once the 72-year-old nun saw that her fellow sisters were unharmed and the abbey’s prayer room was still standing, she led the nuns back to prayer, asking that God might “at least save some lives.”

Their prayers, it seems, were granted. No deaths have been reported so far from the quake that hit Norcia and the surrounding region — the third to shake the mountainous region some 100 kilometres northeast of Rome since August.

The latest earthquake — magnitude-6.6, the strongest to hit Italy in 36 years — caused no deaths or serious injuries largely because the most vulnerable city centres had already been closed due to previous damage and many homes had been vacated.

What it did not spare was the nuns’ own religious order, razing the basilica that had been built in 1200 on the ruins of a 1st-century Roman building, and remodelled several times over the centuries, including the addition of a 14th-century bell tower. Only the facade remains.

“Seeing the basilica collapse was truly sad, like cutting a story: here it ends. But how do we start again?” said Sister Caterina.

After 30 to 45 minutes of prayer, police arrived at the abbey to bring the nuns to safety, along with eight other cloistered nuns who had no contact with the outside world.

Sister Caterina went back into the monastery only once, to get her mobile phone, which was ringing with calls from worried relatives.

Sister Caterina was born in Norcia and has lived through severe earthquakes in the 1970s and 1990s. But “this was the worst of them all.”

The repeated shocks — this week’s followed an initial earthquake in August that killed 300, and there were more tremors last week — are causing people to lose hope, she said.

For the foreseeable future, the nuns will live at the Santa Lucia di Trevi Benedictine monastery with nine nuns already in residence, where they have found space to maintain their tradition of prayer, work and sleep in equal parts.

Civil protection officials said the number of people needing housing has risen by 15,000 since Wednesday, a figure that does not include the 2,000 who remained displaced from the August earthquake.