A bush idyll of Spanish art

In the red dusty west David Whitley picks up some good habits at the monastic town of New Norcia.

The artwork inside the chapel is astonishing. The murals fill every available part of the walls, climbing towards the patterned roof. The scene is a riot of angels - in contrast to the puritan wooden pews lined up in front. It would be an eye-opener in a fine, old European city but to find it on a patch of red dirt in the Australian bush is a little unusual. What's more, the standards of architecture and decoration are maintained across the town in prayer rooms, old schools and the Abbey church. As a result, 27 of the 65 buildings in New Norcia, Western Australia, are listed by the National Trust.

New Norcia is a spectacular oddity. It is Australia's only monastic town; every building is owned by a small community of Benedictine monks, including the surprisingly lively pub.

The town was founded in 1846 by a group of Spanish monks fleeing persecution in their homeland. The key figure in the early years was Dom Rosendo Salvado, who established the town as a farm and educational centre. He died in 1900, after writing extensive diaries in Spanish, English and the seven Aboriginal languages he learned. These are now being translated and may be considered one of the most comprehensive versions of Aboriginal history ever committed to paper.

The town got its Spain-in-the-bush look under Salvado's successor as abbot, Fulgentius Torres. The new leader was something of an architect and he persuaded the Vatican to send artisans to decorate his handiworks. The murals splashed over the interiors of most of those listed buildings are by Father Lesmes Lopez and they're considered to be among Australia's finest works of art.

Under Salvado, New Norcia was a mission, but in the 20th century, education was the town's major industry. Those schooled included Aboriginal children removed from their parents' custody at the behest of the governments of the day. New Norcia tour guides tend to gloss over the links with the Stolen Generations, however. If you don't ask, you'll not be told.

The two boarding schools - St Gertrude's College for Girls and St Ildephonsus College for Boys - created a relative population boom. At one point, about 250 people - both monks and staff - lived at New Norcia. When the schools were closed abruptly for economic reasons in 1991, the community was left without a purpose or an income. The population dropped to about 50 almost overnight.

Dom Chris, the prior, procurator and tourist glad-hander-in-chief at New Norcia, says: "It was a great crisis. It wasn't an easy thing for us to reinvent ourselves.

"These lovely buildings cost a huge amount in upkeep and insurance, so we couldn't just sit on our hands."

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In accordance with St Benedict's rules, the town is self-sufficient. It gets no state or federal government funding. And with the school gone, the monks decided to return to other traditional industries making olive oil, bread and wine. Now, New Norcia's bread is regarded among the best in WA while the nutcake is sold in David Jones and Harrods.

The monks also decided to develop tourism, or "hospitality" as Dom Chris prefers to call it. The museum and art gallery were improved, guided tours set up and those that book in advance can "meet a monk". In practice, this is usually Dom Chris again. He seems genuinely keen to enlighten his curious audience, responding with verve to questions he must have heard a thousand times before. Yes, they do have lighter-weight habits in summer. Yes, they are allowed to drink and, no, they haven't taken a vow of silence - that's the Trappists.

Dom Chris explains the daily routine (highly structured, 5am starts, prayers seven times a day, plenty of silence and a surprising amount of wine) and the process of becoming both a monk and a member of the community. It's a drawn-out affair that involves, among other things, a vow to stay as part of the community for life and a year spent doing all the crappy jobs while a novice.

Dom Chris has been at New Norcia for 27 years, a stretch he describes as "creditable but nothing to brag about". He says he became a monk after training as a priest and deciding that it wasn't quite right for him. Another member of the monastery comes from Nigeria and others have been bankers and jackaroos.

But despite healthy visitor numbers - about 75,000 people a year - New Norcia faces a tremendous struggle to survive. It's estimated that $15 million is needed just to repair the decay in the heritage-listed buildings and the community has dwindled to just 12 monks. Four - including the abbot - have died in the past year, while 98-year-old Dom Paulino is the last remaining Spanish monk. He's had to give up his passion for riding quad bikes at full speed while overseeing the olive harvest.

New Norcia belongs in a different time and place, one seemingly doomed to extinction.

But, for now, the monks battle gamely on, by force of habit, trying to keep afloat a community and a unique artistic treasure trove.

The writer was a guest of Tourism WA and Country Escapes in Western Australia Tours.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

It's a two-hour drive from Perth to New Norcia via the Great Northern Highway. Phone (08) 9654 8018. A combined ticket for the art gallery, museum and two-hour guided tour costs $23. Day tours are also available from Perth with Country Escapes in Western Australia. Tours from $150. Phone (08) 9385 6422, see countryescapes.com.au.

Staying there

It is possible to stay overnight, either at the hotel ($85) or the monastery guest house (suggested donation, $75). The latter is in keeping with St Benedict's principles of hospitality but is generally used for those wanting a contemplative retreat.

Note

Visitors wanting to meet a monk must arrange it in advance. Phone (08) 9654 8018.

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