New Norcia

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New Norcia is unique in Australia: it’s a village founded and mostly inhabited by a group of Benedictine Monks. Yes, Benedictine Monks, who settled the community in 1846. Why? Good question. It would appear, however, the founder, Dom Rosendo Salvado, had a belief in the need to form an Australian ministry and, according to the museum, had a particular interest in forming an Aboriginal priesthood.

Although the drive from the centre of Perth takes about two hours, it’s a reasonably pleasant one and there are a number of places along the way to stop off and explore, especially in the Swan Valley. On this occasion, however, we didn’t. Although it’s not all that well signposted for the early part of the trip, sticking to the Great Northern Highway makes it relatively easy to locate.

We arrived a fraction too late to take one of the two walking tours offered each day which was a bit of shame because I would have liked to ask some more questions about the Benedictines and the foundation of the community. The museum gives some information but I always want to ask some more (maybe if we had bought the books in the shop..)

On arriving in New Norcia, Sue and I were a little hungry, so we wandered off to the local pub. The pub, built in 1927, is gorgeous with a terrific verandah and an enormous internal staircase that takes you from the rather grand lower floor to the more “country pub style” first floor. With some thought to restoration, I’d like to see the carpet removed from the staircase itself and the paint removed from the probably gorgeous timber. While Sue enjoyed a Ploughman’s Lunch, featuring some local cheeses, I enjoyed an assortment of dips (probably made with local olives) with one of the famous local breads. The Monastery owns a 100 year old oven in which they bake a variety of breads; the bread I enjoyed was similar in texture to Turkish bread, but perhaps with an olive bread taste. I also had a glass of one of the local wines which, the brochure tells me, was “made exclusively for New Norcia from fruit grown at the Abbey’s selected vineyard at Bindoon”, which is a nearby service town to New Norcia.

As we began to wander around the village we became instantly aware that, despite the sightly Spanish flavour of the community, we were in the Australian outback. How? The flies. Flies were everywhere, thousands of them all sensing human flesh on which to do their worst. Although it may have been seasonal, we’d both recommend some Aerogard if you decide to visit New Norcia.

The village graveyard is fascinating: although mostly occupied by former monks, there are some local family burial plots as well. Although the graveyard contains large burial plots for the abbots, the ordinary brothers/monks are buried in a more simple manner. In fact, it looks as if they might have done a “bulk lot” on brass crosses, with the graveyard taking on, in some ways, the appearance of a “war graveyard”. We guessed that most of the local families buried in the graveyard were also Catholic, given the Irish and (one) Italian name located on the gravestones. The most recent grave we saw was of someone buried in 1998.

Amongst the other buildings in the village are two schools – boys and girls – which are now mostly used for camps and conferences. It would appear, however, they were used by the Marist Brothers and Josephite Nuns to teach “the young men and women of Western Australia”.

Although the Monastery itself is off limits to the public, there is a guesthouse closeby and, although we didn’t go in, presumably the nearby Abbey Church is also open to the public.

As we wandered around we wondered how the monks, themselves, felt about the town being transformed into a tourist centre. Sue notes that The Benedictines seem to focus their Rule of Life on being in community and respect for others. Seems like you always place the needs of the other above your own and that in doing this you reflect something of God’s love – although that was not really explained.

After consideration of the enormous of cost of maintaining the buildings, we decided that pragmatism probably demanded this. The Museum has for sale a range of memorabilia, ranging from the spiritual to the culinary.

On the lower floor of the museum there is a collection of artefacts from the history of the mission with a particular emphasis on the contact with Aboriginal people. Sue notes that There was a lovely story about the first contact with the local Aboriginal people. Seems like both communities were a touch frightened by the experience but by sharing food together a bond was formed and peaceful relationships established. Seems like an incredibly sensible approach to life – finding meaning and relationship as we break bread together – that notion gets mentioned a lot in a book I read regularly….

On the upper floor there are two collections of religious artworks – one historical, the other contemporary – which contain some terrific works. Of the contemporary work, I was amazed at the calibre of some of the artists featured – mostly West Australians – including a small work by Howard Taylor and two larger works by Julie Dowling. There is also a series of contemporary paintings of some of the monks who have been in the community in the last few years which I thought were terrific, especially as they featured short biographies of the subjects. The historical works are in the more traditional style of European masters.

Overall, it’s a terrific place to visit. Highly recommended.