New Norcia

It seemed odd enough seeing our surroundings get steadily greener. For more than a month, red had been the world’s primary color. But then to add to the oddness, we suddenly found ourselves in Europe—or so it seemed. In fact, we were in New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic town.

The story of New Norcia is actually anchored in Spanish history. In the 1830s, Spain experienced a civil war that pitted the new queen, Isabella II, and those who wanted greater democracy, modernization, and a constitution, against Isabella’s uncle, a reactionary who wanted to strengthen the monarchy and keep pretty much everything comfortably (for him) medieval. The Catholic Church sided with the uncle. However, Isabella won, and Spain got a constitution.

During this civil war, because the monasteries were supporting and aiding the forces fighting against the queen, a number of monasteries were closed. Two displaced Benedictine monks, Dom José Benito Serra and Dom Rosendo Salvado, decided to see what lay on the other side of the world. The two men founded New Norcia, 80 miles north of Perth, Australia, in 1846. Salvado would spend the rest of his life building it into a successful mission.

After Salvado died in 1900, New Norcia began to evolve into more of a traditional European-style monastic community. A new bishop, Bishop Fulgentius Torres, arrived in 1901 and began the transformation, building St Gertrude’s Ladies College in 1908 and St Ildephonsus College for boys in 1913, making improvements throughout the town, and bringing in painters and wood carvers to embellish the interiors.

The community maintained its European style until the 1950s, when residents realized that, to survive, New Norcia needed to adopt a lifestyle more suited to the region. Today, the focus is on hospitality. New Norcia’s traditional crafts of self-sufficiency, bread making and olive oil production have been revived. The town now boasts a Museum and Art Gallery, an Education Center, a Hotel, and a Monastery Guesthouse, and daily, guided tours of the town are offered.

We had an hour to wander, which meant we mostly just saw exteriors, but I don’t think any of us were ready for indoor activities, so that suited us. (Besides, we were still adjusting to being someplace green and with big buildings!) However, having seen photos of some of the splendid interiors at New Norcia, I wouldn’t mind a return visit, when I’m a little less in “outdoor mode.”

St. Ildephonsus' College, New Norcia

St. Ildephonsus' College, New Norcia

Abbey Church, New Norcia

Abbey Church, New Norcia

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Filed under Australia, Book, History, Travel

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