01.11.2006

In a Monastery Garden

Alittle touch of Spain in the Australian bush restoresbody, mind and soul, as Margaret Evans discovers.

When devout Catholics, orthodoxJews, the odd gay couple or two, assorted non-believersand others on a Buddhist path gather together to breakbread and talk of God, something wonderful has to begoing on. And when the food is fresh from a monasterygarden and the bread so good it's the sourdough of choicein every trendy city cafe, this can only be one veryspecial place- the monastic community of New Norcia,a scenic 90 minute drive north of Perth.

New Norcia is that rare thing - a place that has stayedtrue to the vision and principles of its founders, theBenedictine monastic order and, in particular, its extraordinarilyfarsighted first abbot, (later Bishop) Dom Rosendo Salvado.One hundred and sixty years after Salvado and his smallgroup of Spanish followers staked out their community'sboundaries among stately gums on the deep loamy banksof the Moore River, 132 km north of Perth, it's thatvery authenticity that still resonates so powerfully.

Dom Salvado came with the intention of working withthe localAboriginal people of the area known generally as theVictoria Plains.The community flourished under his compassionate andhardworkingexample and, at its peak in the 1870s, the monasterywas home to 78monks and the town itself numbered five to six thousandpeople. Nowonly eight monks remain and the oldest, Spanish-bornDom Paulino, is96. Yet, while their numbers have dwindled and the totallyselfsufficient agricultural community of Salvado's day islong gone, NewNorcia seems to have discovered a new identity withthe promise offuture prosperity.

With its Moorish-inspired deep red brick walls thatseem to reflectback the intensity of summer heat, the town arises outof the WestAustralian bush like a shimmering mirage, surely a fantasyfrom somesunbaked far-off land. For many travellers in a hurryto get wherethey have to go along this Great Northern Highway itmust seem justthat - but for those who stop to savour what it hasto offer, NewNorcia is a richly textured experience.

My own impressions of this exotic "red and white"town had alwaysbeen of the fleeting variety, until, browsing throughthat field ofsecret gems, NOVA's Classifieds, one day recently, somethingabout asmall entry caught my imagination. It promised peace,serenity, niceunaffected people, the beauty of the bush and, havingsavoured NewNorcia's famous sourdough and its distinctive oliveoil, the prospectof great food! With a suggested donation of just $60.00per head tocover full board, we were hooked!

Accommodation options vary from the caravan and campingvariety"behind the roadhouse" (given the number ofinterstate 4WDs withcaravans in tow, the town is now firmly on the nomadroute aroundAustralia so maybe it's time they had something a bitgrander) to, atthe other end of the scale, the New Norcia Hotel. Legendhas it thatthis impressive building was meant to entice Queen Isabella11 ofSpain to visit this most far flung of her monastic communities.Shenever did come, and maybe she was never going to, butthe massivecentral staircase is certainly fit for a queen.

The advertisement, though, was for a room in the monasteryguesthouse, hidden behind the whitewashed walls of thecloister -and given that New Norcia is Australia's only monastictown, this hadto be the only way to go. While the room itself hassomething of thespartan monk's cell quality about it - no TV, no radio,and ratherlumpish single beds a healthy distance apart - anythingelse in thissetting would have been a letdown. With only enoughrooms to caterfor 16 to 20 people, the atmosphere is both peacefuland convivialwith an enclosed courtyard garden to draw you out ofyour room tosoak up some sun. It's one of those magical places wherethe onlysound at dawn is birdsong, a welcome distraction fromthe chiming ofthe church bell on the quarter hour! Truth be said though,both myhusband andI came to love the bell and found it comforting,like afaithful guardian watching over us. There's no needfor a (nonexistent) clock either - you can always tell the time!

But it's the Benedictine tradition of hospitalityshown towards alltravellers, regardless of religious creed or socialstatus, thatreally defines this weekend for us- and many thousandsof othervisitors each year. It shows in the food, the traditionof a fullflask of wine for every table (a rather zesty littlerose that provesvery popular), the gentle smiling welcome of the remainingmonks andtheir open invitation to join with them in their dailyservices, fromVespers to Mass. If anything, you feel you're lettingthem down ifyou don't take up the offer to sit in on just a littleof theirformal religious observance - and afterwards, we'revery happy thatwe do.

Full board includes a three course meal at lunch,following thehealthier tradition of a more leisurely age - alwayssoup and a wideselection of vegetables fresh picked from the monasterygarden. It'sat 12.15 precisely, followed by our lighter eveningmeal at 7pm. (Ifin doubt, just listen for the telltale chime). Whiletardiness isfrowned upon and too much dallying between courses notencouraged,our fellow guests seem to enjoy it as much as us. Perhapsitrepresents for us all a rare opportunity to reach beyondour normalsocial circles to share food prepared with love withothers alsoseeking enrichment of the spirit. We all know we'restaying in aCatholic monastery and, in fact, the Benedictine orderis the oldestin Christianity (with some Anglican expression as well!)Butreligious intransigence just doesn't come into it -and that seems tohave been the way St Benedict wanted it. That word currentlygainingconverts - "Interfaith" - seems to fit perfectly.

Yet there's no doubt that taking part in the monks'daily religiousobservance adds an extra layer to a New Norcia monasterystay.Vespers, that evening service presented here as psalmssung inEnglish and Latin with all eight remaining monks takingtheir turn,has an added poignancy. Every evening, from 8pm throughto 8am, theymaintain the Benedictine tradition of the Great Silencewith onlythat beguiling bell for "conversation". Whilethis service and othersheld at regular intervals throughout the day now takeplace in thenew chapel, an impressive wood panelled room completewith organ, NewNorcia's monks learnt their stoicism on the hard jarrahseats of theold chapel. This imposing room is included in the twicedaily guidedtour (a must to get a real sense of the settlement'shistory) and welearn that the hardest and straightest seats at thefront werereserved for the novices. After years of "backstraight and feet onthe floor", they could look forward to a gradualprogression,backward, to the comfy seats in the back row. Dom Salvado,it seems,wasn't one for indulgences! A measure of the man wasthat he thoughtnothing of walking back to Perth on the odd occasionto hold aconcert (he was also an accomplished musician) to raisefunds for hischerished mission.

The tour also takes in several other remarkable buildings,27 ofwhich have been classified by the National Trust. Mostprominentamong them are the Church just outside the monasterycloister builtin three stages from the 1850s to 1923 when its organwas shippedfrom Munich (true to form, the monks made their ownbricks to extendthe church roofline when it was discovered that theorgan was too bigto fit); St Ildephonsus College for boys (members ofthe MaristBrothers, a teaching order, were brought out from Spainfor thisrole) and St Gertrude's College for girls whose educationwasentrusted to the Sacred Heart Sisters. The chapels withtheirwonderful painted ceilings, the handball courts builton a grandscale for the Marist Brothers to practise their traditionalsport,the imposing vestibule of St Gertrude's with its twosalons for musicpractice leading off it all hint at a grander age. Attheir peak inthe 1970s, the two educational colleges catered for240 boys and 110girls - today soaring costs and, one suspects, isolationhave madethis function a thing of the past, but St Gertrude'shas evolved intoa popular venue for music camps.

The deep red brick building that first greets visitorson the roadfrom Perth is the town's Museum and Art Gallery. Ourvisit was timedwith the greatest serendipity just a week or so afterthe galleryreopened to the public with its full collection of valuablereligiousart, much of which had been ripped from frames and stolenin anaudacious robbery 20 years ago. While the act traumatisedthe monksand plunged the small unworldly community into unwelcomespotlight,maybe two decades later there is a plus side. The paintingsbySpanish and Italian masters have been painstakinglyrestored and arenow housed and presented in a manner befitting theirquality. It'suplifting to see how once darkened and insect stainedcanvases havebeen brought back to their original state, giving thecommunity a newreason to rejoice. The episode is part of the folkloreof New Norciaand there's particular relish when we're told the thieveswere almostimmediately arrested thanks to leaving their hire carin full view inthe main street. In those quiet days, every visitorattractedattention.

There's so much on offer in New Norcia and the museumitself is awindow into the struggle and enterprise that have characterisedthiscolourful town. There's much to suggest the interactionof the monkswith the local Aborigines was, very largely, compassionateandmutually respectful - in the early days the monks werealmosttotally dependent on Aboriginal support and knowledgeof their landas they attempted to establish a settlement in the harshnessof aWestern Australian bush summer. But learn and work theydid - and atits zenith, the community farmed about 1000 acres, (400hectares) ran11000 sheep, tendered an orchard and market garden thatran all theway from the monastery to the river bank, produced honeyfrom abeehive brought all the way from Spain (sharing spacein the ship'shold for four interesting months!), farmed pigs in apiggery that'sremarkable for its sense of compassionate and effectivehusbandry 100years later and produced virtually everything they neededin assortedworkshops. There literally was a butcher, a baker anda candlestickmaker!

It seems fitting that the partnership between theBenedictine monksand local Aboriginals is being furthered cemented thisyear in theAboriginal Mission Cottages Project. The work, beingoverseen by theFriends of New Norcia, acknowledges a collection of20 cottages thatstood mostly to the south side of the Church for over100 years andwere home to generations of families. The project witha target of$150,000, incorporates the restoration of the last remainingcottageon the site, a memorial and an interpretive centre.One senses NewNorcia, a time capsule of a slower age where harmonywith nature andothers was essential for its very survival, still hasmuch to teachus in the future.

Further information at www.newnorcia.wa.edu.au

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