“New Norcia is Australia’s only monastic town, a historical and spiritual treasure in the West Australian bush.” (westernaustralia.com) We stayed the night at New Norcia on our way north-west to Karijini National Park. I spent the morning available to me making sure that I had a good look at the town as I had heard from friends who had visited here over the years and had been very impressed by the architecture and art of the town. It was founded in 1846 as a Mission to the local indigenous people by two Benedictine monks. The drawing below from the mid 19th century is a curious image showing a Benedictine monk casually chatting to a couple of local first Australians who have set up their camp beside the fenced off fields and they were no doubt surprised by the level of European industry that was going on in this area of their homeland, renamed after the birthplace of St Benedict, Norcia in Italy. St Benedict was a 6th century saint who is considered the father of Western monasticism and was declared Patron Saint of Europe in 1964. The drawing, if accurate, indicates a lot of work has been done in the first 16 years in changing the landscape of the area; no doubt to the confusion of the visiting native people.
We had found a place for our motorhome just behind the Roadhouse as we entered the town area the previous night and were very grateful for the powered site. The next morning I decided to go for a walk at first light and found that we were parked not far from a somewhat grandiose building that seemed slightly out of place in a monastic town. It certainly didn’t look like part of a monastery and later found out from the map of the town that it was the New Norcia Hotel and had functioned for 90 years in that role being built in 1927. Sometime in 2020 the hotel was closed and the following statement was issued…”We regret to inform you that after long consideration, the Board of the Benedictine Community has reached a decision to permanently close the New Norcia Hotel… As a Community we understand the New Norcia Hotel has been of significance to generations of locals and the decision to close it has not been taken lightly.”
The guided tours of this monastic town occur at 11am and 1.30pm and so I didn’t get to enter any of the buildings. My own tour of New Norcia was simply to get a good idea of the layout of the place so that I would be a step ahead when I returned another time for an-in depth look.
The first major building that can be seen on the left when driving along New Norcia Road is today’s Museum and Art Gallery. It was the original the ‘Old Convent’ whose entrance today is at the rear of the building.
At the back of the Old Nunnery there is a magnificent building that was originally called St Gertrudes’s College for Girls. It was built between 1906-7 and opened in 1908. It was run by the Sisters of St Joseph who finished their time here in 1977. It became part of the co-educational school for the next 17 years before the College ceased operating in 1992. The photo of the music class on the left below must have been a promotional photo as it was taken in 1908 and I am suspicious the unhappy looking girls hadn’t learnt how to play their violins as yet. The image on the right shows the beautiful chapel in St Gertrude’s.
Further along the New Norcia road up the back of today’s Education Centre is St Ildephonsus College, built for the Marist Brothers to start a school for Boys in 1913. The College was working for 51 years and the plaque beside the front door sets out a few of the issues facing the school. “New Norcia presented many challenges to the Brothers and students, including isolation and poor transport networks, plus a general lack of water, electricity and refrigeration. Despite these challenges, the following half century saw some 1500 students benefit from a Marist Education with a number of past students moving on to hold leading roles within the clergy, Public, Law, Education, Agriculture and many other fields of endeavour…”
Another grand old building in New Norcia, the College was built from stone quarried from the north of the town as well as from locally made bricks.
The last major building on the left hand side of the road in the main street of New Norcia is simply called the Education Centre, seen below with St Ildephonsus in the background. This building houses a Seminar room, Abbey press and the European Space Agency Interpretive Room. There is a Ground Station for the European Space Agency located 8 Km south of the town.
The designers of the layout of the town must have made decisions to keep the different sections of the community in different areas of town. The left hand side of the road housed all the Education facilities, the area on the right-hand side of New Norcia Road was presumably the ecclesiastical section of the town, containing the Abbey Church.
The original part of the church was built in 1861. Its building materials are a combination of stones, mud- plaster, local timber and wooden shingles.
As I walked around the Abbey Church, I encountered a large metal cross laid out on the ground, enclosing a large boulder. It was called the Rock of Remembrance.
The plaque reads in part…
“The ‘Rock of Remembrance’ is a memorial to people who have experienced neglect and abuse.
Unearthed from this ancient land, it represents the steadfast love of God who created all things and holds them in being… The Benedictine Community of New Norcia has installed this memorial in acknowledgement of and sincere apology for the physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered in this place…”
As an ageing Catholic educated in Josephite Primary schools and a Marist Brother Secondary school, the crisis in Australian Catholic Education that culminated in the report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2017) was a long shadow cast over my visit to New Norcia. The report on the quality of care of both the Indigenous and Caucasian young people in the care of the monks at New Norcia over a long period was scathing. The most stunning statistic was the finding that one in five Benedictine priests between 1950 and 2010 were alleged child abusers – triple the national average for Catholic institutions. The undermining of the well-intentioned work of the other four fifths of the monks at New Norcia is a legacy that the Church struggles to recover from.
After inspecting the Rock of Remembrance, I then moved on to check out the externals of the monastery building and its associated guest house where visitors can and participate in retreats run by the monks.
Back down the New Norcia Road towards the Roadhouse is the turn off to the left to the River Walk. The sign explains… “From here – the River Walk traces the development of the early settlement, crosses the Moore River and gives you the opportunity to see a variety of native fauna, farm animals, bird life and wildflowers.”
My time for touring New Norcia was over as we had a long drive ahead of us that day. However my morning walk convinced me that there were many aspects of this conflicted town that would repay a longer return visit.