Australia's Only Monastic Town
The historic town of New Norcia is Australia's only monastic town. This peaceful place lies in the Shire of Victoria Plains on the banks of the Moore River in Western Australia some 132 km north of Perth.
The 65 or so buildings lay either side of the Great Northern Highway which is one of the major highways running to the north of the state. This creates a dangerous situation with at least one monk having met his end when struck be a vehicle when crossing the road.
The monks continue to live in the monastery and are involved in most of the enterprises in the town. A group, the Friends of New Norcia, are responsible for organising accommodation in the town for retreats and/or workshops. Visitors are welcome to join the monks during their six-times-a-day prayers.
New Norcia, around the 1950s, was stable and orderly. However, the monastic life was failing to attract new recruits, especially Australians. The Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s saw monastic life further simplified, adapted and clarified. The numbers didn't increase. Soon, the monastery was staffing only the New Norcia parish. In the 1970s, the aboriginal schools closed and in 1991, the New Norcia Catholic College closed. In the same year, the Friends of New Norcia was formed by those who wanted to see the town continue.
Today over 2,000 people belong to the group which, through financial assistance, advocacy and voluntary labour, has assisted in the restoration of buildings, the implementation of new projects and the general rejuvenation and well-being of the town.
The beautiful old buildings are distinctively Spanish in style, exuding such a grace and serenity that you suddenly find your steps have slowed and your heart lifted. The two once-thriving boarding schools, St Gertrude's and St Ildephonsus', are now used for accommodation and various social functions. There is an old mill, a wine press, a hotel, the Abbey Church and the monastery itself. Vineyards and olive groves dot the paddocks.
Hospitality has flourished and diversified. The Museum and Art Gallery attracts thousands each year. Guided tours of the town are held most days. School camps, adult conventions, workshops and retreats make use of the various buildings. An Education Centre was established in 1996. Traditional crafts such as bread making and olive oil production have been revived.
The special project of the Friends of New Norcia in 2008 was the restoration of the Blacksmith's Shop. The building was given a new roof and work was done on the walls, windows and doors. A striking example of the early work done by the blacksmith is the balustrade that graces the eastern balcony of the monastery oratory. This was manufactured in the late 19th century and the square scrolls are so rare that a similar example has been found only in Majorca.
The story of new Norcia really starts back in 1835.
An anti-clerical government in Spain had closed all the monasteries and confiscated all the property. Two monks, Rosendo Salvado and Joseph Serra, had come by different means to Cava near Salerno in Italy to the Abbey of the Most Holy Trinity. In 1844, the two applied to be sent as missionaries – anywhere – and were sent to Western Australia, assigned to the newly appointed Rt Rev John Brady, first Bishop of Perth.
In January 1946, the two Spanish Benedictines, an English Benedictine, a French Benedictine and an Irish catechist were to go to New Norcia to mission to the indigenous people in the area. (Multiculturalism had already started in Australia obviously!).
Although three missions to the aborigines had been started, only one had survived more than a few months. However, the Englishman fell ill, the Irishman was accidentally shot dead and the Frenchman was so overcome by the tragedy that his mental health deteriorated to the extent that he returned to France. It was left to the two Spaniards to make the journey on foot to the mission. They arrived in the area in March 1846, about 8km north of the present site.
Exactly a year later, on 1 March 1847, the foundation stone of the monastery was laid at the present site. The birthplace of St Benedict was Norcia in Italy and the new monastery was named New Norcia. Unlike the pronunciation of its namesake, New Norcia is pronounced 'New Norse–ia'.
Of the two monks, Serra was the elder. In 1849 he was appointed co-adjutor Bishop of Perth. After ten hectic years in the position, Dom Joseph Serra went back to Europe in 1859 and didn't return. His appointment as co-adjutor Bishop had an adverse impact on his involvement with New Norcia and the period from 1846 to 1900 can safely be called the Salvado era.
Bishop Rosendo Salvado was a towering figure. His original vision involved creating for and with the indigenous population a Christian agricultural village which would be largely self-sufficient. However introduced diseases decimated the aboriginal population in the 1860s and he began to concentrate on providing a practical education to indigenous children who came to the school from all over the state. Although he aimed to 'civilise' his subjects, he had a sympathy for indigenous culture which was rarely seen in those times.
At its height, the community numbered almost 80 men, most of them Spaniards and lay brothers. Salvado made frequent trips to Europe raising funds for the acquisition of land, the construction of buildings and the purchase of artworks, books, vestments, stock and equipment. He was a practical man with considerable charm, an international figure in the Benedictine world and a notable Western Australian. In 1900, he travelled to Rome but died while there. He was 86. As had been his wish, his body was brought back to New Norcia and his tomb is in the Abbey Church.
Over the next fifty years, New Norcia became more of a traditional European style monastic settlement and the emphasis shifted. More time was devoted to prayer, intellectual pursuits and artistic endeavours.
In 1901, Salvado's successor, Bishop Fulgentius Torres arrived. Some of the land was sold to raise funds for the building of St Gertrude's Ladies College in 1908 (above) and St Ildephonsus College for Boys in 1913 (below). The Sisters of St Joseph and the Marist Brothers ministered to the children. Two separate boarding schools for aboriginal children were built next to the Colleges. In 1972, the schools became co-educational being renamed Salvado College in 1974 and New Norcia Catholic College in 1986. The school closed at the end of 1991.
Bishop Torres was Abbot for 14 years, carrying out significant improvements. A Spanish woodcarver Juan Casellas and monk-artist Fr Lesmes Lopez were brought from Spain to New Norcia and are responsible for many of the fine works that are now part of the artistic heritage of the town. The interior of the colleges have impressive frescoed work, as has the Church.
There are two interesting organs. One was built by Albert Moser of Munich, Germany to the design of organist Dom Moreno. It was built in Munich in 1922 and displayed at the German Trade Exhibition before being dismantled and shipped to Australia in 24 zinc-lined cases. It is a large 35 rank organ and was erected in The Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity in New Norcia between April and August 1923. It was refurbished in 1978. Part of the refurbishment involved unblocking the mouths of many of the pipes which were found to be blocked by candle grease.
It was an extremely advanced instrument for its time, with a wide dynamic range and generous tonal structure. Moser has only two organs in Australia, the other being in the Mary McKillop Memorial Chapel (formerly St Joseph's Convent Chapel), North Sydney. (One source states there are only two Moser organs in the world but I was unable to substantiate this.)
The second organ was built by Bellsham Pipe Organs (Australia). It was built in 1983, has 13 ranks and is much more modern in design. It is located in the Oratory Chapel.
From 1916 to 1950, Dom Anselm Catalan added his mark with the building of the Hostel (the present-day hotel). The Hotel was constructed in 1927 in honour of Queen Isabella of Spain. Dom Catalan also encouraged the talent of Dom Stephen Moreno, who composed much religious music while at New Norcia. From 1933, Moreno began publishing music himself, preparing each page for publication by hand and often having to improvise the tools he needed.
The motto of the Benedictine monks of New Norcia is 'Pax', a Latin word meaning peace. It is the gift the monks offer to all who visit their town.