Cleansing the soul at New Norcia

Just 130 kilometres northeast of Perth, the capital of Western Australia, stands one of Australia’s most unusual towns.

Called New Norcia, it is a monastic town, in which the majority of inhabitants are Benedictine monks.

Established in 1846, New Norcia was originally set up as a mission for Aboriginal people by the Spanish Benedictine monk Bishop Rosendo Salvado and Dom Joseph Serra, and it has thrived there ever since.  Good relations were established with the aboriginal people of the Victoria Plains and foundation stone of the chapel was laid and the first primitive dwelling and chapel in 1847 were completed on the anniversary of their arrival. Under the stewardship of the monks, New Norcia was Aboriginal mission from 1846 to 1900 and schools from 1908 to 1991.

Today, 27 of the Spanish-style buildings are heritage-listed on the National Estate.

Apart from the monastery which, together with the church, is the focus of the monks lives, there is an excellent Museum and Art Gallery which is open each day between 11 am and 1.30 pm.  The interiors of the buildings are decorated with original hand-painted frescoes, and have pressed metal ceilings.

There are some incredibly beautiful works of art inside the gallery, where European religious art hangs side by side with contemporary Australian art.  Here you can see paintings that were given to the New Norcia Monastery by the Queen of Spain; and also many early artefacts; including a cartoon from the workshop of Raphael, entitled `Head of an Apostle’.  When Raphael drew his work, he would have had no conception that it would one day hang inside a monastery in a remote town in a country that had not been discovered when the cartoon was drawn.

One of the best ways to see the town is to join an organised tour of the various buildings.  There is usually a monk on duty in the Monastery parlour who is pleased to answer questions about the Benedictine Order, the town’s heritage and to offer some typical Benedictine hospitality.  If you are a religious person, you are welcome to join the monks in their private chapel for prayer, which occurs seven times each day.

If you are male, you are welcome to stay at the Monastery to live, for a short time, exactly as the monks do.     

There is a magnificent double storey hotel right next to the Monastery, which was originally built to house the parents of students who boarded at the school.  You can stay at the hotel, or enjoy a good meal, and try some of the monks fine Abbey Ale and New Norcia Abbey Wine.

Few people visit New Norcia without trying some of the daily offerings from the New Norcia Bakery, or their locally-pressed New Norcia Olive Oil.

Many people like to complete the New Norcia Heritage Trail which follows the development of the township, and begins at the New Norcia Museum and Art Gallery. Allow a leisurely three hours to complete the trail, which includes The New Norcia Museum, the New Norcia Art Gallery, St Gertrude College, the Statue of Rosendo Salvado, the historic cemetery, St Ildephonsus College, the historic Flour Mill and the Monastery among many other places of interest.

Ideally located, because it is near a Spanish town in Western Australia, is the European Space Agency Deep Space Satellite Dish. The dish will be an integral part of NASA’s Rosetta mission. The mission, which is currently underway, involves sending a spacecraft some 900 million kilometres , to rendezvous with Comet Wirtanen, in 2014.  When Rosetta finally swings into orbit around the comet in 2014, a special probe will be sent to land on the comet. Once the probe has landed, valuable data will be sent back to the New Norcia ground station.

New Norcia, home to a 1500 year-old religious order and a 21st century state-of-the-art tracking station that can control craft in deep space, just one of the anomalies that make it an interesting place to visit and to pontificate on the meaning of life.

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