When Jeremy Nivakoff was young, he asked for only one thing at Christmas — power tools. And one year, his uncle Don decided to help the 11-year-old put the tools to good use, building a presepio, or nativity scene, in the basement of his home.
His uncle Don — Deacon Don Foust, administrator of St. Margaret Shrine in Bridgeport — taught him the fundamentals of carpentry and those skills served him well. Today, Jeremy is Fr. Prior Benedict Nivakoff, prior of the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Nursia, Italy, which is being rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 2016.
“Growing up, we did a lot of great projects together,” Father Benedict recalled in a recent interview during a visit to Connecticut. “He is a man who loved building, and I’ll never forget the beautiful presepio we built from scratch. It was 6-by-4 feet. He went on to rebuild St. Margaret Shrine, and I’ve done some rebuilding, too.”
During his stay in the diocese, Father Benedict celebrated Mass at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Oratory in Bridgeport and the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, where he held a conference and talked about the monastic life and the reconstruction of the monastery. Close to the monastery is the Basilica of St. Benedict, which the monks oversaw. It was also destroyed in the earthquake. Constructed in the 14th century on the site of the birthplace of St. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica, the basilica is being rebuilt under the direction of the Italian government and the European Union.
The Catholic faith, which many parents and grandparents in the diocese passed on to their descendants, ultimately come through the evangelization of Europe by monks, Father said.
“The rebuilding of our monastery is both very far and very close because it touches our roots,” he said. “And at the moment, Europe — and the United States too — is a little bit past the precipice. The Church and the faith have become something of a relic, so supporting the monastery and this reconstruction is also an evangelical effort now that Europe is mission territory.”[For more information about the Monastery of St. Benedict in Nursia and the work of the monks, visit en.nursia.org]
Father Benedict, who grew up in New Canaan, graduated from University of the South in Tennessee. For a while, he considered entering then-St. John Fisher Seminary in Stamford to discern his vocation.
“There are good priests here, and I thought about the diocese, but it seemed to me that God was calling me to something that involved withdrawing from the world and being able to pray for the world and offer one’s life for the world,” he said. “Then, when I found the monastery in Italy, at St. Benedict’s birthplace, it seemed the right fit.”
He entered the monastery in 2001 and lived there until it was destroyed by the earthquake in October 2016, when the community was forced to move to a nearby abandoned Capuchin monastery. Shortly after the earthquake, he was named prior of the community of some 20 monks.
His love of the monastic life is something Father shares in his talks.
“It is a small number of men who eventually become monks,” he said. “It is the vocation of someone who believes they want to do the most possible for the world, and to do the most possible for the world, they have to embrace a life that is immaterial, where the fruits of life will
be more supernatural. That is monastic life, where a man tries to become a saint by dying, and so in his death, some part of the world might have life.”
The lives of the monks center on prayer and work. The motto of the order is “Ora et labora,” which St. Benedict promulgated in his Rule.
The community chants the Divine Office in Latin seven times during the day and once at night, in addition to offering Mass. They pray for those who have asked for their intercession, for the Church and for the world.
In 2015, the monks released an album titled “Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia,” which reached the top of the Billboard charts and is available on iTunes.
Among their projects, the monks began in 2012 to brew beer, which is imported to the United States and available through retailers in New York City and San Diego and can be shipped to homes. They brew a Belgian-style dark ale and a blonde ale. For more information, visit birranursia.com
“The project of the monastic brewery was conceived with the hope of sharing with others the joy arising from the labor of our own hands, so that in all things the Lord and Creator of all may be glorified,” their website says. All the revenue the monastery produces is used to support the work of prayer and evangelical witness at the monastery in Nursia. St. Benedict believed true monks live by the work of their hands.
Deacon Don Foust accompanied Father Benedict over the weekend. He described his nephew, who is the son of his sister Patricia, as “a phenomenal guy.”
“We have always been very close, and at one point, we moved in with them because we were building a house and had no place to live,” Deacon said. “When he comes home to visit his mother, he always visits me and my wife, Natalie.”
Deacon Don has been to Italy twice to visit the monastery and says, “It was like walking back in time to be in this historic place that had seen so much, and being with the monks was a very special experience.”
The two men have much in common. In addition to the religious life, they both appreciate the importance of construction projects, which they often did together throughout Jeremy’s youth. Just as Father Benedict has been overseeing the monastery reconstruction, Deacon Don initiated capital improvements at St. Margaret Shrine at 2523 Park Avenue in Bridgeport.
Over the weekend, the deacon gave the prior a tour to show him the new stone work at the shrine and the recently installed tiled sidewalks. The We Stand With Christ capital campaign helped finance a number of necessary restoration projects, including the repair of the waterfall, which comes from a 200-foot-deep natural spring.
There have been a number of additions in recent years, including outdoor shrines for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of LaVang and St. Pio of Pietrelcina, along with a Veterans Memorial and one for the children who died at Sandy Hook. There is also a presepio carved into a hillside cave with figures depicting life in 18th century Naples.
“I took him around the shrine and showed him the mason work we have done,” he said, expressing his appreciation for the contractors who freely donated their time and talent.
Administrator of the shrine for 11 years, Deacon Don says he’s responsible for “facilities, finance and functions,” the biggest of which is the annual St. Anthony Feast the second weekend in June.
St. Margaret Shrine attracts more than 350 people from the surrounding communities for weekend Masses, one of which is in Italian. The shrine, which is dedicated to St. Margaret of Antioch, a 4th century 15-year-old martyr, was started in 1941after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the pastor of St. Raphael, Father Emilio Iasiello, decided to build an altar to the Prince of Peace on a site he had purchased for a chapel to serve parishioners in the North End of the city.
Deacon Don calls it “an oasis of peace” for prayer, meditation and daily Mass.