New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic town, is a unique place to visit in WA. A couple of hours drive and 82 miles North of Perth, in the middle of outback country, magnificent, Spanish-influenced, heritage-listed buildings, olive trees and church bells nestle in a picturesque valley in the heart of the Australian bush. Established in 1847 by Spanish Benedictine monks as a mission for the Aboriginal people, New Norcia has been a centre of education for indigenous and non-indigenous children and is currently home to an active Benedictine monastic community.
How did it get here? Early in 1846 a small band of Benedictine monks led by Dom Rosendo Salvado and Dom Joseph Serra arrived in Victoria Plains from Italy. Their aim was to establish a mission for the region’s Aborigines and, after landing in Fremantle and walking North for days, they decided to stop here.
The mission settled on the banks of the Moore river as a it provided a good source of fresh water in this hot dry climate. New Norcia was named after the Roman city of Nusia, the birthplace of St Benedict. By the 1880’s, after a precarious beginning New Norcia had become a thriving community and focal point within this vast outback region. It then began to develop into the educational and monastic centre it is today.
We stayed at the New Norcia Hotel which comes under the category of faded grandeur. It is a rather imposing building which was originally constructed as a hostel for the parents of the children who were at boarding school here, when they came to visit them. There is a beautiful tiled balcony which gives a great view out over the countryside, a grand staircase and a very friendly restaurant and bar. We enjoyed our evening meal al fresco in the balmy Australian night, while listening to live music from Julius, and chatting to his mum, who had come here from Glasgow as a ten pound Pom after the second World War.
The next day after a very tasty breakfast with home made jam and fruited bread ( a favourite of mine) baked right here in the village, we set off for a village tour. We were shown around the old mill which ground the flour for many many years here. The building itself is incredibly solid and an infestation in the wooden beams is the only reason it’s isn’t still grinding today. New Norcia has been baking bread since 1858. The bakery still operates today and the 110 year old wood fired oven bakes bread seven days a week. Monks were also good at making wine and beer and some of their unique vintages can still be bought in the bar at the New Norcia Hotel.
The Monastery, where the monks live, work and pray, is at the heart of New Norcia. The monks of New Norcia live according to The Rule of St Benedict, which has been followed by monks since the sixth century AD. Monks who do so are referred to as ‘Benedictines’.
The grand buildings here are a real surprise and reflect Baroque, Gothic revival, Byzantine, Italian and Renaissance architectural styles as they rise up between the eucalyptus trees and dusty scrub. These were residential colleges for children but are now mainly used at holiday times, for school groups. St Ildephonsus’ and St Gertrude’s Colleges are striking enough from the outside but the highlight is inside where they have stunning Frescos created by one of the monks, the talented artist Fr Lesmes Lopez in their college chapels.
One of the classrooms has an exhibition focusing on the cultural differences between the native aborigines and the European monks. The monks thought of the local people as quite primitive and believed that they were doing them good by introducing religion and education into their lives. The aboriginal children were taken away from their parents and sometimes classed as orphans and had no choice in the matter. Some aborigines did benefit from this regime, but more of them apparently enjoyed the game of cricket at which they displayed some talent.
New Norcia now caters for all kinds of retreats and you can even go and eat with the monks if you are there at the right time. Apparently they enjoy a good chat with the visitors. There are only a few monks left now and they are quite old, but recently a new monk in his thirties joined them and has brought in a bit of fresh blood. New Norcia is rather a hidden gem out there in in the outback, It must have been a hard task indeed to create these buildings and establish communities in such a remote location. As a flock of brilliant green parrots screeched and settled to roost in the sun dappled gum trees, we headed back to be softies in the city, after another down under adventure.