It was finally time to start heading north from our base in York, our first stop will be New Norcia; Australia’s only Monastic town and a place that has fascinated me from the first time I happened upon this little piece of Spain, rising above the West Australian Wheatbelt. That time back in the 1990s I stayed with the Benedictine Monks, well I got a room in the Monastery Guest House; this is still an option today and well worth it for the unique experience what ever your religious persuasion, and for the sumptuous home cooked meals that I still remember. No such luxuries for us this time, though our Motorhome is not too shabby either.
We arrived in New Norcia just after a heavy deluge; the start of the much anticipated winter rains to much of the Western Australian Wheatbelt, which signals the start of planting (seeding) of this wonderful gluten rich grain, which has sustained much of the World before Biblical times, and beyond; depending whether you are a Creationist or Scientist, and still plays an important role in this Monastic community of New Norcia today. You don’t appreciate the scale of the Wheat Industry in Western Australia until you drive through small towns, some by name only that have massive Wheat “Bins” or CBH as they are commercially known, with huge silos, and stockpiles of grain. The network of rail and road that moves the wheat day and night to hubs such as the Ports of Esperance or Geraldton that we have visited recently, and witness the large Bulk Carriers being loaded, and often several other ships in the bay waiting their turn to move this commodity to many parts of the globe.
The only options for camping within New Norcia are near the old football oval, or at the back of the Road House, which for $10 offers several powered sites, a toilet and for an extra $5, access to hot showers, as it was wet and cold we went for this option. The powered sites were on a bit of gradient in the shadow of the grand New Norcia Hotel further up that same gradient, but that would do us for the night. This was our first night in the van for about 6 weeks having recently visited Melbourne for 3 weeks and stayed York, while we had a few repairs attempted, so it was a shock to the system to step out onto the red dirt that had become red mud and make a dash for the toilets. Like all the other businesses and buildings in the town, the Road House is owned by the Monastery, they sell some of their products including wonderful breads from the New Norcia bakery, baked in century old wood-fired ovens. After paying for our site at almost closing time the lady behind the counter told me to take some bread as they don’t sell it over a day old! Laid out before me was a glorious selection of sour doughs and other artisan breads, I thought I could really go to town here, but maybe it was because of the Christian surroundings I displayed restraint, well not quite I selected the largest, most expensive offering; a plump fruit filled Boston Bun that was generously iced, it was one of the best things we have tasted and was enjoyed by all.
New Norcia is the legacy of Benedictine Monks Rosendo Salvado and Joseph Serra, who travelled from Spain to establish an Aboriginal mission in 1846 under the umbrella of the new Bishop of Perth, and settled upon this site on the banks of the Moore River in 1847 to establish the Monastery. They named it after the birth place of St Benedictine in Italy, and doing what many an explorer and property developer did around this time; slapped the word “New” in front of it. Over time with the help of up to 70 Lay Brothers (cheap labour) mostly from Spain Salvado developed the site into a self sufficient community based on agriculture. They constructed large wells, a weir on the Moore River, a piggery, an apiary, planted olive groves, large gardens and orchards, and built a Blacksmith Workshop and a Bakery, not to mention the Monastery, Abbey and all the other buildings. Much of these achievements remain and can be seen from the Heritage Trail which we took down to the swollen Moore River and over the bridge past the gnarled old olive trees planted in 1886, to the restored apiary and back towards the Monastery and finishing at the Mediterranean influenced Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity.
From reading the information (spin) as you wander around the town, these Benedictine Monks seemed to practice a more peaceful and sympathetic form of conversion, the emblem for the New Norcia Monastery includes the word PAX – Latin for peace. They established a mission and schools for the Indigenous children from the surrounding areas and eventually the State, because “European” diseases and desimated the local population! They also built a number small basic cottages for their families to live close by. Although they were attempting to “civilise and evangelise” the Indigenous population they allowed them continue to practice some of their traditional customs, ceremonies and language. None of this really sits comfortably in today’s times and New Norcia’s reign included the period of the Stolen Generation, and the St Benedictines played a big part in this and have since apologised for their role. They built grand colleges and orphanages with names that role off the tongue like St Gertrudes and St Ildephonsus (operated by the Marist Brothers), and took different forms and names over the years, with the last; New Norcia Catholic College closing in 1991. Another scar on this “peaceful” community is the scale of sexual abuse that went on behind the walls of these magnificent buildings during the 1940s,50s and 60s and which was amongst the worst (by percentage of offenders) of any of the Catholic Institutions in Australia a recent Royal Commission found.
Today’s New Norcia strives to remain relevant in today’s society as well as economically viable to support the only 10 or so Monks that remain in the Monastery and the huge ageing infrastructure that surrounds them. There is a Christian Education centre the holds frequent courses and seminars, they help to promote local Indigenous culture, the old colleges are used to house visiting student groups, visitors can also stay at the Monastery Guest House or Hotel. There is Museum and Art Gallery housed in what was St Joseph’s Orphanage which has an impressive art collection including Raphaelite paintings and religious relics, but we decided to give this a miss; after Emily’s recent performances at the Point Cook RAAF Museum and the Bilya Koort Boodja centre in Northam made us conclude a 2 ½ year old is not a big fan of spending too much time in a Museums yet. The Benedictine community sells some of their wares including award winning Olive Oil, New Norcia Bakery Artisan Bread and rich Nut Cake which has recently been bought back into the fold to the original bakery and ovens after it was made under licence for many years. In true Monk stereotype you can also purchase New Norcia Wine and Ale which is made locally.
New Norcia, like many religious schools and orphanages that operated during this era in Australia, has a chequered history to say the least and may be a place avoided by those who’s lives have been changed by its past. Not forgetting what happened here, I think it is still worth spending a day in New Norcia for the architecture, the artwork, the produce, the history, the religious experience if that’s your thing, and apart from all of that you wont find another place in Australia like it.