Finding divinity in the bush

filed21 Oct 2010 from Carmen Jenner CategoriesCultural, New Norcia

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New Norcia Sept 2009 162

Upon entering the elaborately decorated St Ildephonsus’s chapel, Bach’s Toccata and Fuge in D minor pipes out of the magnificent organ. This heart-stopping scenario doesn’t occur in rural Italy, but in the dusty Western Australian bush. As I settle onto the antique pew to admire the heavenly fresco the juxtaposition of a time-honoured civilisation plonked into the youthful Australian way of life isn’t lost on me. The head-turning town causes no end of intrigue as patrons fly along the Great Northern Highway wondering what New Norcia is all about. Behind the impressive architecture is a treasure trove of art, artefacts and antiquities making it Western Australia’s oldest and finest living museum.

Established in 1846 and named after the town in the region of Perugia in Italy and the birthplace of St Benedict, New Norcia was originally established as a mission for the Aboriginal community. When a chapel was built in 1847 no-one imagined it could have evolved into the settlement that it is today, even though it has never been gazetted as an official town. New Norcia was modelled on a European monastic town and is spread over both sides of the Great Northern Highway, which was built by the mission to serve the town and beyond. At one point the town included a boarding house and an orphanage for Aboriginal girls. Over time the monks of New Norcia have been farmers, horse breeders, kept sheep, farmed silk worms, grown tobacco, and established the grounds to include an orchard and to grow enough vegetables to support the community. Their talents are wide and varied including being linguists, artists, musicians, archivists, makers of olive oil, and purveyors of wine. New Norcia has received national acclaim for its flourmill which produces biscotti, nut cake and an assortment of wood-fired breads. These products are available from the town but a wider range is available from the Mt Hawthorn New Norcia bakery and there are many other metropolitan outlets selling the famous bread.

The art gallery includes the largest collection of religious art in Australia by the European Old Masters, some as early as the 15th century, plus many works by the monks hang beside contemporary pieces. The museum collection includes gifts from the queen of Spain, an array of artefacts telling the story of New Norcia as an Aboriginal mission, as well as its farming history. A plaque in the museum advocates Pax, a Latin word meaning peace, with the message, “the fruit of their irregular, prayerful and stable life together and the gift they offer all who visit the town.” Judging from the activities of the monks over the past 160 years, peace has been achieved through hard work, perserverance and extraordinary talent. Their efforts are evident from the Gothic and Byzanthine architectural features on many of the buildings, which include the Monastery, Spanish style abbey church, and chapels spread in amongst quaint cottages, stark 1970’s buildings and rusty sheds. New Norcia Chapel

Joining one of the guided walking tours leaving from the museum will give access to many areas not normally open to the public, as well as fascinating stories. One such story is the Grand Theft of 1986, where thieves gagged the female attendant in the art gallery as they hastily slashed paintings from their frames. Of the twenty-six 17th and 18th century paintings all but one, The Annunciation, were recovered and restored. Now 20 years later nearly all of the works hang in a special exhibit called Robbed and Restored. There is also the story of when the painting of Our Lady of Good Counsel was held up against the flames of a bush fire and at that moment the wind changed direction causing the fire to die out. Many believe it was a miracle and the reverred painting hangs in the Abbey Church.

The Benedictines hold much value in learning, staying current and reading, and correspondence from one of the town’s founders Bishop Salvado states, “My intention is to establish, little by little, a library in this desert of Australia, as large as possible. A monastic community without books is like an army without arms.” In 1846 he brought books to the community, many religious with an emphasis on Roman Catholic theology. The collection grew to include a succinct collection of Aboriginal history, works on Australiana, biographies, history and art, and many of the books are in Latin and Spanish, including some rare imprints between 1507 and 1800. The extensive archive collection includes correspondence, records, maps and photographs on the town since its settlement making the New Norcia library the custodian of some of the best examples of Western Australian history. Much of the data is still to be translated from diaries dating from as far back as 1901, most of which was hand-written. Continued sponsorship will ensure an all-inclusive history spoken in a European voice; truly a unique treasure.

The monks run the township in between breaking for prayer seven times a day, which the public are welcomed to join in with. Visitors can also meet a monk at specified times in the monastery parlour for some Benedictine hospitality and an opportunity to ask all those burning questions. One question that springs to mind is why are monk numbers are dwindling? Due to a high turn-over there are only seven monks left in New Norcia today.

New Norcia Sept 2009 037

Although self-sufficient, the township relies on mostly on fund-raising and tourism to continue with its preservation. The community of New Norcia is dedicated to its longevity and although many of its buildings are classified by the National Trust, no funding is received from the government or the church. The ongoing restoration is reliant upon an organisation called the Friends of New Norcia and volunteers. Merely expressing an interest will result in an invitation to stay and learn in exchange for serving a monastic community that was originally established to serve the public.

There are several accommodation options including dormitories in the Old Convent, St Ildephonsus and St Gertrudes colleges offering a range of catering and recreational facilities ideal for large groups attending conferences, camps, weddings, cultural workshops and spiritual programmes. The New Norcia Hotel offers reasonably priced rooms with shared facilities and the Monastery Guesthouse has modern facilities and caters to those seeking solitude.

Being just 130 kilometres north of Perth, the town is in easy access of the Chittering, Avon and Swan Valleys including the towns of the Gingin, York, and Toodyay. Just south of New Norcia is the deep space station boasting The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Deep Space Satellite Dish. The dish isn’t open to the public but the interpretive space room in the Education Centre in New Norcia offers education about the ESA missions.

New Norcia Sept 2009 173 Picking up a copy of the town brochure I find a quote on the back by the famous travel writer Pico Iyer, “In thirty years of almost constantly travelling around the world, I have seldom met a place so clarifying and calm as New Norcia. It makes you think again about what matters: it returns you to a sense of stillness and community that’s hard to find in the modern world; it refreshes the soul better than any holiday. The only hardship of coming here is leaving.” Looking out from the hotel’s columned terrace over the town is a tribute to serenity, community spirit and European culture. I’ve visited during the wildflower season in Spring and the drive home offers vistas of green rolling hills and fields of wildflowers, and I couldn’t agree with Iyer more.

 

Stay:

New Norcia Hotel, $75.00 for a single and $95.00 for a double and the restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine

Monastery Guesthouse, a donation $75.00 per night is appreciated

Old Convent, St. Ildephonsus and St. Gertrudes Colleges, contact for accommodation packages

St Ildephonsus’ Cottage, self-contained and a donation of $40.00 per night is appreciated

Activities:

Walking Tour: leaves from the museum daily at 11.00 a.m. and 1.30 p.m. (2 hours) $14.50 or $23.00 for inclusive museum and art gallery entry

Museum and Art Gallery: open daily 9.00 a.m. – 4.30 p.m. $10 entry

Meet a Monk: Monastery Parlour for half hour sessions 10.30 a.m. weekdays and 4.30 p.m. Saturdays

Prayer sessions: the public are welcome anytime but the most convenient times are 12.00 p.m. and 2.30 p.m.

Heritage Trail: enjoy the town at your leisure and independently with a self-guided tour using a heritage map from the museum and follow the signs.

Contribute:

An organisation called the Friends of New Norcia was established in 1991 to assist with the restoration of the architecture. Past and present projects of the group include the ongoing refurbishing many of the buildings and restoration of the art works. An annual subscription of $33.00 entitles members to free entry to the museum and art gallery, regular publications and personal invitations to functions.

Contact details:

For more information go to http://www.newnorcia.wa.edu.au/


Published in Malaysian Airlines In-flight magazine Going Places November 2009