David Whitley discovers a bizarre slice of Spain in the West Australian bush, and finds that the monastic community looking after it is struggling to survive.
The artwork inside the chapel is astonishing. The murals fill every available bit of wall space, climbing towards the patterned roof. The scene is a riot of angels, and in contrast to the puritan wooden pews lined up in front.
It would be an eye-opener in a fine old European city, but to find it on a patch of red dirt in the Australian bush is a little unusual. What’s more, the standards of architecture and decoration are maintained across the town in prayer rooms, old schools and the Abbey church. As a result, 27 of the 65 buildings in New Norcia, Westernare listed by the National Trust.
New Norcia is a spectacular oddity. It is Australia’s only monastic town, and every building in it is owned by a small community of Benedictine monks. This includes the surprisingly lively pub.
A couple of hours’ drive north-east of Perth, the town was founded in 1846 by a group of four Spanish monks fleeing persecution in their homeland.
The key man in the early years was Dom Rosendo Salvado, who managed to set up the town as a farm and educational centre. He finally died in 1900, after writing extensive diaries in Spanish, English and the seven Aboriginal languages he learned. These are currently being translated in Melbourne, and are thought to be the most complete Aboriginal history ever committed to paper.
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The town got its-in-the-bush look under Salvado’s successor as abbot, Fulgentius Torres. The new head honcho was something of an architect, and he persuaded the Vatican to send over artisans in order to decorate his handiworks. The mural paintings that are splashed over the interiors of most of those listed buildings are by Father Lesmes Lopez, and they’re amongst Australia’s finest works of art.
Under Salvado, New Norcia was a mission, but in the 20th century, education was the town’s major industry. Those schooled included Aboriginal children removed from their parents’ custody (at the behest of the government rather than the monks). The tour guides tend to gloss over the links with the Stolen Generations, however. If you don’t ask, you’ll not be told.
The two boarding schools – St Gertrude’s College for Girls and St Ildephonsus College for Boys – created a relative population boom. At one point, around 250 people – both monks and staff – lived at New Norcia. But when the schools were abruptly closed for economic reasons in 1991, the community was left without a purpose or an income. The population dropped to around 50 almost overnight.
Dom Chris, the prior, procurator and tourist glad-hander in chief at New Norcia, says: “It was a great crisis. It wasn’t an easy thing for us to reinvent ourselves.
“These lovely buildings cost a huge amount in upkeep and insurance, so we couldn’t just sit on our hands.”
In accordance with St Benedict’s rules, the town is self-sufficient. It gets no State or Federal Government funding. And with the school gone, the monks decided to return to the traditional industries; making olive oil, bread and wine.
It went part of the way. New Norcia’s bread is generally regarded as the best in WA while the nutcake is sold in both Aussie department store David Jones and Harrod’s.
The monks also decided to develop tourism, or “hospitality” as Dom Chris prefers to call it. The museum and art gallery were improved, guided tours of the buildings were set up, and those that book in advance can “meet a monk”.
In practice, this is usually Dom Chris again. He has the bearded look and jolly demeanour of an affable-but-bumbling country vicar in an old fashioned British sitcom. But he seems genuinely keen to enlighten his curious audience, responding with admirable verve to questions he must have heard a thousand times before. Yes, they do have lighter weight habits in summer, yes, they are allowed to drink and no, they haven’t taken a vow of silence – that’s the Trappists.
He runs through both the daily routine (highly structured, prayers seven times a day, plenty of silence, 5am starts and a surprising amount of wine) and the process of becoming both a monk and a member of the community. It’s a drawn-out affair that involves a vow to stay as part of the community for life, a year doing all the crappy jobs as a novice and a potential black-balling from the other monks.
Dom Chris has been at New Norcia for 27 years, a stretch he describes as “creditable, but nothing to brag about.” He has a strong Catholic upbringing and became a monk after training as a priest and deciding that it wasn’t quite right for him. Others have far more intriguing backgrounds – one member of the monastery comes from Nigeria, and others have previously been bankers and jackaroos.
But despite healthy tourist numbers – around 75,000 visitors a year – New Norcia faces a tremendous struggle to survive. It’s estimated that $15m is needed just to repair decay in the heritage-listed buildings, and the community is down to just twelve monks. Four – including the abbot – have died in the last year, while 98-year-old Dom Paulino is the last remaining Spanish monk. He’s now too frail to join the others on their occasional outings to the seaside, and has had to give up his passion for overseeing the olive harvest. This does save the community a small fortune on quad bikes – apparently Dom Paulino has managed to write off four of them by refusing to go at anything other than full pace – but is symbolically sad nonetheless.
It seems as though the appeal of the monastic life has waned dramatically in the modern era. Most novices these days come from Africa and Asia – and very few from developed nations. New Norcia’s shrinking, ageing population is a symptom of a wider trend.
It’s a town that belongs in a different time and a different place, seemingly doomed to eventual extinction. But for now, the monks battle gamely onwards, trying to keep afloat a community and artistic treasure trove that is entirely unique within Australia. New Norcia is surviving – just – and it’s all down to force of habit.
This story was originally written for the Sun-Herald in Australia.
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