Monkey Business

Currently I’m laid up at home recovering from shoulder surgery and consequently I haven’t been able to get out and about so I thought I would dig deep into the archives and post material that I wrote and photographed a while ago for a book project that got canned by the publishers because of the GFC (and I don’t mean Geelong Football Club).

The monastic town of New Norcia is 132 Km north of Perth and as you drive into it you could be convinced that you had driven into a little bit of Spain. The monastery was founded by the Spanish Benedictine Monk Dom José Benito Serra in 1847. His vision was to create an evangelical Christian self-sufficient agricultural community for the local indigenous people. By 1860 the Nyoongar population had been decimated by disease and the emphasis of the mission changed to one of educating Aboriginal children from all over the state. New Norcia was unique for its time because although like other Nineteenth Century missions had the goal of “civilizing” and evangelizing the Aboriginals, Dom José Serra chose to do it in such a way that sympathetic to their culture. At its height the monastery had eighty members, most of whom were Spanish lay brothers. Presently there are now just eight monks, none of whom are Spanish, and there are seventy staff who work on the farm and in the other related businesses that support the monastery.

The best way to see the town is to take the two-hour town tour (11 am and 1:30 pm daily) and tickets can be purchased at the Visitor Centre. On the tour you visit the various buildings that make up the monastic complex, visit the monk’s own chapel, the Abbey Church and get to see the amazing Baroque style interiors of the college chapels which are not otherwise open to the public. While on the tour you will hear about the history of New Norcia, the life of Dom José Serra and learn something about the life of a Benedictine monk. There is also a self guided walk around the New Norcia Heritage Trail. This is a 2km walk suitable for people of all abilities that takes you around the buildings but not in them as the walk has been structured so as to have minimal impact upon the life of the monks. The walk starts at the Museum and Art Gallery and follows a marked trail with information boards around the town. Thee is an optional side trail, The River Trail, which adds an extra 1.7km to the walk that takes you out to the Bishop’s Well and onto Bishop Torres Beehouse. The River Walk is not suitable for prams or wheelchairs. Allow a leisurely 2-3 hours to do the whole walk.

The Museum and Art Gallery has one of the largest collections of moveable religious art in Australia. There are many fine religious painting here that range from pre-Renaissance pieces by European masters to contemporary Australian art. In the museum there are fascinating artefacts that tell of the founding of the monastery and what life was like for the monks and the Nyoongar population. There is also a gift shop selling a variety of souvenirs and religious paraphernalia. Some of the goods on sale have been produced at New Norcia and these include olive oil, bread, biscotti, nut cake, wines, religious art and music. The monastery runs a program of retreats where you can stay in the Guesthouse with the aim of regaining and renewing a sense of balance and spiritual peace. There are a range of spiritual and cultural events that members of the public can participate in as well. The details for these can be found on the website.

The New Norcia Hotel was built in 1927 to provide accommodation for an anticipated visit from the then Queen of Spain, who later had to cancel her trip. The hotel offers old world European hospitality with accommodation, coffee on the terrazzo, the chance to sample some of the monastery’s wine or beer in the bar and enjoy fine food in the restaurant.

Commemorative statue of Dom José Serra the founder of New Norcia.

In the early days of New Norcia the only way to get there from Perth was by walking and Dom José Serra and the other monks did this regularly. The Camino Salvado is a project to turn that walk into a modern-day pilgrimage. The trail starts at St Joseph’s Church in Salvado Road Subiaco and traverses the 160 Km out to New Norcia over seven days. If you fancy the idea of becoming a modern-day pilgrim see for more details.