New Norcia in Australia: An Example of Monastic Life
A community founded by two Benedictines in the 19th century
The sound of the chiming bells is interrupted only by the roar of trucks. Day and night they hurtle down the highway, dividing New Norcia in two, bound for the mines. In the State of Western Australia the mining boom is the driving force of the local economy, fostering dreams of making quick money which impel many workers to commute between Perth, the capital, and the distant localities of this vast and depopulated part of Australia, with a population of 2.3 million in a State almost nine times the size of Italy. When at last the enormous "road trains" disappear clattering in the distance, only the squawking of parrots can be heard in the sultry, still air. One is brought back to another dimension, rich in history and spirituality.
New Norcia, as it is commonly called in Australia, came into being as "Nuova Norcia" in 1847, when Joseph Serra and Rosendo Salvado, two Spanish Benedictines, established a permanent home for the mission they had begun a year earlier, on 1 March 1846, among the Indigenous inhabitants of the area, the Yuat-Noongar, close to the Moore River in the Victoria Plains, 132 kms north-east of Perth.
Salvado and Serra had previously made their monastic vows in the Benedictine Monastery of San Martin Pinario in Galicia and met again at the Abbey of the Blessed Trinity in Cava de' Tirreni, where they sought refuge from the anticlerical persecution in Spain in the 1830s. In Cava, while they were visiting the places associated with St Benedict's life, they came to experience a profound missionary vocation, which their meeting in Rome with Bishop John Brady, the recently ordained Bishop of the new Diocese of Perth, enabled them to fulfil.
Together with Bishop Brady and a large group of missionaries from various European countries, Salvado and Serra set sail in 1845 for Perth. Here, in the virgin forests of Western Australia, where the first European colonists set foot in 1829, they dreamed of imitating the first medieval Benedictine missionaries who had brought the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict to the peoples of Northern Europe.
After living nomadically for several months with some Aboriginal families, Salvado and Serra decided that the only way to carry out their mission would be to found a permanent mission, centred on a monastery. In the years following Serra's transferral elsewhere, Salvado's grand and original dream of creating a self-sufficient Christian community of monks and Aboriginal families came to only partial fulfilment. Among the causes of this failure were the epidemics that decimated the Indigenous in the 1860s and the changes in Government policies concerning them.
After Salvado's death in Rome in 1900, a new era opened in the history of New Norcia. With the new Abbot Fulgentius Torres, the monks began to give greater priority to the pastoral care of the immigrant families from Europe in the area and to the elementary and secondary schooling of the colonial children, enlisting the collaboration of other religious orders, such as Mary MacKillop's Sisters of St Joseph and the Marist Brothers.
It was while Torres was in charge that New Norcia was transformed into a monastic town adorned with elegant buildings in the European style. An ardent enthusiast of Art and architecture, Torres brought artists and artisans from Europe. They created many of the works that can still be seen today in the abbey church, built in 1861 and redecorated and added to by Torres in 1908, in the schools and in the surprising museum and art gallery. Here on display are Spanish and Italian works of the post-Renaissance period, as well as works with a religious theme by contemporary Australian artists. Today 21 of 65 buildings in New Norcia are protected by the State of Western Australia for their historical and architectural value.
We are also indebted to Torres for his project of building the imposing central building and entrance gate of the monastery and two splendid schools, St Gertrude's Ladies College for girls which opened in 1908, in the Neo-Gothic style and St Ildephonsus' College for boys which opened in 1913 in the Byzantine style. The more modest institutes run by the Benedictine monks and sisters for the children of the Aborigines stand beside them.
In the 1970s the changes in Government policy regarding the care of Aboriginal children and the decline in the rural population also affected New Norcia. Between 1974 and 1991, both the colleges and schools for Aborigines were obliged to close. About 200 people left the town leaving most of the school buildings in disuse. Today they offer hospitality to visiting students from schools in Perth or to other groups who go to New Norcia for extra-curricular activities and also to learn about its history and come into contact with the monastic experience.
However, New Norcia's connection with the Aborigines was never interrupted despite Salvado's death.
Today, in New Norcia, there is a cultural centre where many students come to learn from Aborigines aspects of their culture, history and language. The Benedictine monks are involved in studying and preserving the Nyoongar language which very few people speak today.
This is explained in Rooney's book, The Nyoongar Legacy: the Naming of the Land and the Language of its People (Batchelor, Northern Territory: Batchelor Press, 2011), which is the result of years of research and collaboration with elderly Aborigines and linguists.
Nevertheless, the foundations laid by Salvado in the mid-19th century have also borne other fruit. Like the Benedictine monasteries on the Old Continent, in New Norcia manual work — farming in particular — has always accompanied the prayer and liturgy of the community. Today the monastery also manages a large agricultural and livestock business. It is widely-known for its production of bread, olive oil, barley, grain and canola.
In 1870, the Benedictine community of New Norcia had a maximum of 70 monks. Today there are 10 monks, mostly elderly, although they are headed by one of the youngest, the 48 year-old Abbot John Herbert. It is still sometimes possible to see the monks pushing their wheelbarrows and tending gardens and orchard, but their work is now mostly non-manual, for work on the farm or in the bakery is carried out by lay people. There are no novices at present, but there are two monks in temporary vows, and one or two men who pay regular visits as observers while considering a possible monastic vocation. Of course it is undeniable that this fascinating community continues to attract many people: religious, and lay people, as well as non believers or members of other Christian denominations. Many people come on retreat or for spiritual meetings that are held at the monastery during much of the year. Very popular among the various initiatives is the "Camino Salvado", a pilgrimage on foot that starts from the Church of St Joseph in the Perth suburb of Subiaco and arrives at New Norcia a week later. The first pilgrimage took place in 2010 and these pilgrimages are now organized twice a year.
To find out more about New Norcia visit the New Norcia website at www. newnorcia.wa.edu. au/
* Honorary Fellow at the School of Theology (McAuley Campus) Australian Catholic University
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5 September 2012, page 11
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