I’m calling this one an experience rather than a straightforward tour as I felt New Norcia offered a weird and uncomfortable experience. I’m writing a piece for publication later on quite what I mean by this, but New Norcia has a history it appears to be proud of, that masks a problematic way of working with Aboriginal communities and the sheer scale of child abuse that went on at this location when it housed a number of schools and which I had had no idea about until very late in my visit here. As I say, I will address this in a separate piece, so here are some images and notes about the place to give a sense of its scale and what it looks like.
This building (above and below) was the boy’s school – closed since 1991 and which had been run by the Marist Order on behalf of the Benedictines. We were not permitted to enter this building, more recently used as a camp / dormitory for visiting school kids.
The tour was run by Sue, an affable local lady who had been both the librarian and a teacher at the school in the past. I recall she had been there in one capacity or another for 45 years. Sue was also doing more than a bit of a marketing job, in my view.
Our group had about 8 of us total. Everyone else was Australian, coming from as far away as Sydney and as close as Geraldton WA (comparatively close).
It was a pretty hot, very still and about 30 degrees Celsius. That’s Sue, sensibly wearing a large sun hat (future purchasing opportunity for me!).
The building with the tower is part of the Benedictine monastery. If you’re thinking some of these practically-abandoned buildings look like they are the perfect set for the start of a creepy horror movie, that’s what it felt to be there. There was nobody else around on this huge campus that we could see. I was staying in this part of the complex 🙁
This section housed the private quarters of the remaining monks – there were 10 in total and 2 recent recruits.
Below is the oratory currently in use as the main chapel by the monks and where guests were welcome to join them for daily prayers (which happen at regular intervals throughout the day, starting around 5am).
The oratory above replaced an older oratory which had been used by the monastery priests only. When the order had a larger number of inhabitants, ordained priests stayed separate from Benedictine brothers who prayed elsewhere.
The old formal part of the monastery – we weren’t allowed anywhere near this part of the building.
The tour took in the original Abbey Church, which is used only on Sundays. The fun fact about this part is that it’s very narrow because out here in the bush, the trees used for building grow to a smaller height than European trees (often oaks) used in church buildings and so could only support a narrower roof.
The ceiling is made out of pressed tin, which is then painted – a contrast to the fresco or mosaic ceilings in European or American churches.
New Norcia is known for its bread and – when it had schools open, a thriving monastery and a support staff – it had its own mill, which featured on the tour. Although prepared elsewhere on-site, bread is still sold in the monastery shop and served to guests (it was quite nice, like a white bloomer loaf).
Final stop was the girl’s school oratory. Everyone had their own chapel for daily prayers and mass. This one felt more European (at least in the tradition with which I’m familiar), particularly the ceiling artwork. This is not used very often.
On the tour, we briefly skirted over the issue of how the monastery worked with Aboriginal peoples in the area and Sue was very clear that the original abbot who had founded New Norcia in 1846, Abbot Salvado, had reached out to Aboriginal people for education in a way that few others did at the time. That may be true, but failed to account for New Norcia’s involvement in the Stolen Generation and the aboriginal children who were emotionally, sexually and physically abused by religious people living in this ‘monastic town’.
When I asked Sue about whether New Norcia had been the site of abuse towards the children who lived, boarded or studied there, I was told “every place where there is power, there is the abuse of power”, an answer that sounded practiced and as far as anyone else would press. Reader, you know me too well by now to think that was the end of my questions.
I’ll let you know when I’ve written a slightly deeper piece on this part of New Norcia and the very creepy feeling I encountered that I have skirted over in this quick run-through the tour through the town.