Discovering the Spanish monastery at New Norcia
By Jocelyn Watts
If tourist brochures suggest staying at Margaret River you can bet hubby will want to book at Yallingup, a stone’s throw up the road.
Doing the tourist thing or mingling with crowds is not his idea of a relaxing holiday so when we visited the south-west corner of Western Australia recently, he went to great lengths to find out-of-the-way places to stay.
There was one he missed, however. New Norcia. When I discovered the ultimate retreat – a Spanish monastery – was just a mere 132km north-east of Perth, he couldn’t argue that it was the perfect place to stay … peaceful and charming with a fascinating history and unique architecture.
Just because Australia was leading in the fourth day’s play of the second Test with Sri Lanka and the monastery guesthouse was void of radio and television, it wasn’t reason enough (for me) to pass up the opportunity to spend our last night of holidays experiencing the lifestyle of Benedictine monks.
Besides, hubby could always slip outside to hear the latest scores on our hired car’s radio or hike up the hill to the New Norcia Hotel – a former palace built in 1927 for Queen Isabella of Spain, who never made the intended trip because it was too far.
Dom Christopher Power, head of Friends of New Norcia, said the tiny town was established in 1846 by Spanish monks who came to work with the Aboriginal people.
“With its large extravagant buildings, olive trees and church bells, the town is like a piece of old Spain in the middle of the Australian bush,” he said.
“In addition to 65 buildings, the town also houses a large art and artefact collection, a library of 75,000 books and a comprehensive archive dating back to the monastery’s foundation.
“The current community of 11 monks live a simple, prayerful life following the Rule of St Benedict and make hospitality their special care.”
After booking by phone, checking into the guesthouse was refreshingly easy. No swipe of our credit card, no request for photo identification or car registration details, just a warm welcome from a charming gentleman who showed us where to tick off our name in the register book and took us to our room.
According to hearsay, the rooms were supposed to be “sparse” but we found our twin-share room with ensuite (no doubles available) to be just as comfortable as any average motel room (minus television and radio) and akin to a bed and breakfast with a shared kitchen, dining room, lounge and reading room.
As for security, our host simply said: “This is a monastery and we’re in the country”.
Guests of all faiths were welcome and the $75 per person “donation” for the night included three home-style meals including an impressive banquet lunch the next day which unfortunately we had to pass up as our plans meant being back in Perth by 2 pm.
While under instructions not to speak to unless spoken to, the monks wandered freely through the dining room and kitchen as we soaked up the home-style atmosphere, clearing our tables and washing the dishes after dinner.
Among the 12 guests were a “contemporary Spanish artist” who was looking for inspiration and a university lecturer from Perth who was on her fifth stay.
Every second month the lecturer leaves her family behind to escape the “rat race” and indulge in the peace and tranquillity of New Norcia. On previous visits, she used the time to write her PhD. Without mobile phone coverage in the area, she could not be contacted except for emergencies.
Guests were invited to meet a monk at 10.30am but again our schedule didn’t allow it.
For a spiritual experience guests were also welcome to join the monks for the daily celebration of Mass in the Abbey Church and prayers in the Monastery Chapel.
Only men can eat with the monks but they shouldn’t expect any conversation, other than prayer reading. Hubby passed on that opportunity.
Checking out of the guesthouse was easier than our arrival. After making our beds with freshly supplied linen, we picked up an envelope from the reception desk to seal our cash donation and place in a box.
Dom Power said the Friends of New Norcia received no regular funding from the Catholic Chuch or state and federal governments but with the help of guesthouse donations, in 2003, the 19th Century reading room was restored and furnished for monastery guests.
In 2004 the town’s education centre was refurbished and the following year, the roofs and ceilings of the old St Ildephonsus classroom were replaced to provide space for the expanding library.
Last year, donations contributed to the Aboriginal Mission Cottages Project, which includes the restoration of the last remaining mission cottage on the site.
Our stay at the monastery in Australia’s only monastic town was a wonderfully unique experience … and the other half didn’t feel too disadvantaged by reading books instead of watching cricket on TV. Australia was as good as home and dry anyway.