History of New Norcia

Bishop Salvado

History of New Norcia, Western AustraliaNew Norcia , in Western Australia, was founded in 1848 by two Spanish Benedictine monks, Bishop Rosendo Salvado and Bishop Dom Joseph Serra who travelled to Australia to set up missions. They were granted 7,500 hectares of freehold land which they developed into the New Norcia Mission and a profitable farm. Eventually becoming one of the most successful missions in Australian history.

The town was named after Norcia, a town in the Umbria Province of Northern Italy in honour of the birthplace of the Order's founder, St Benedict.Salvado's original idea was to create a self-sufficient town based on Christian ideals and agriculture. In 1867 Bishop Salvado was appointed Abbot.

During the 1860's-70's the mission flourished with the monks building a series of wells, breeding horses, producing silk & olive oil and growing grapes,almonds, dates & carob.

Divide Between Aboriginals and Christianity

History of New Norcia, Western AustraliaSalvado and the monks worked closely with the Nyoongar people teaching them farming skills and supplying them with food. Salvado also wanted to find a common ground between the Aboriginals belief and his own Christian ones. He started by studying and recording the Aborigines language and customs which he kept in his diaries.

The divide between the aboriginals and the Christians would often seem too wide, but certain incidents would bring the community together. One which is told in the book "The Story of New Norcia" retells the time when a fire broke out and threatened the monks crops and the mission itself.

A high wind was fanning the fire and the monks tried in vain to put out the flames. Many received burns to their hands and faces and some even had their beards singed. With no options left the monks ran into the chapel and removed the picture of Our Lady (sacred image of Mary) and placed it in front of the raging fire. Within minutes the wind changed direction and the flames died down. Both the monks and the aboriginals were witness to the event . The event was seen by the monks as protection granted by the Holy Mother and the aborigines saw it as "the White Lady understands everything".

A mass the following the next day was attended by all the monks and aboriginals of the area. In reflection, Salvado's efforts were of mixed success, but one thing which was clear was the Aboriginal people admired this foreigner. When Salvado died in Rome in 1900, the local aboriginals were inconsolable. So strong was their anguish, it is said that they greatly influenced the decision to bring his body back from Italy.Today Salvado's body lies in a tomb in the Abbey Church.

Bishop Fulgentius Torres

After Salvado's death a new successor arrived from Spain, Bishop Fulgentius Torres. Bishop Torres became the new Abbot and was responsible for the design and supervision of new buildings. He also had a strong desire for education and it wasn't long before two colleges St Gertrude's College for Girls and St Ildephonsus for boys were built.

Surviving Hardships

New Norcia went through many hardships throughout the 20th century, including two world wars, great economic depression and several droughts. In 1986 the Monastery was robbed and twenty six paintings stolen. The robbery happened late on the afternoon of January 23rd whilst caretaker, Connie Mc Naughton, was locking up for the night. She was tied up, gagged and locked in the toilet, whilst the thieves slashed the 16th, 17th and 18th century paintings from their frames. Two weeks later, all but one painting 'The Annunciation', were recovered in Sydney as they were being prepared to be sent overseas. The missing painting valued at $500,000 (at the time)was believed to have been destroyed when the thieves were unable to fit it into the getaway car. In 1991 both the girls and boys school closed due to rising costs and decreasing enrolments.

New Norcia Today

However the forward moving Benedictine community have continued to grow strong through tourism and their various product lines including bread, wine and food. One of St Benedicts rules, when he founded the Benedictines in Italy over 1500 years ago, was that all monks should greet anyone who arrives at their monastery gates as "if it were God Himself who had knocked". So when you arrive at New Norcia the one thing you won't be denied is hospitality. Today New Norcia has over 700,000 people visiting the town each year.

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