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30 Jun, 2008

Lone Aussie Monastic Town Seeks Visitors, And Monks

About 135 kms northeast of Perth, a little village said to be Australia’s only Benedictine monastic township wants more visitors — and more monks.

In this dispatch:






About 135 kms northeast of Perth, a little village said to be Australia’s only Benedictine monastic township wants more visitors — and more monks. On 19 June, when this editor became one of only a handful of journalists to have ever visited New Norcia, two more elderly monks had just died, shrinking their numbers to seven. Of the survivors, five are Australians, one a Nigerian trainee and one a Spaniard. In its heyday, there used to be 80. According to Father Placid Spearritt, the Abbot, “Young people find it difficult to make a permanent commitment to monastic life, as they do these days to marriage.”

On a cold but sunny day, I joined a group of visitors, mostly middle-aged or elderly, in touring a large part of the 20,000 hectare estate, Our guide was the matriarch of one of the small group of farming families inhabiting the vast expanse of surrounding countryside. Like the monks, she is proud of this sole Benedictine town and is doing her bit to ensure its survival, much like a forest ranger seeking to save a nature preserve from the onslaught of materialism and modernisation.

The township was founded in 1846, just 17 years after Perth, by a small band of Spanish Benedictine monks who came to convert the local aboriginal people. The name comes from the Italian town of Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict. Amongst its 65 buildings, including 27 classified by the Australian National Trust, are museums, monasteries, chapels and residential areas. They house an outstanding heritage collection of art, vestments, furniture and books. What is now the hotel, with its stately staircase, was first built in the late 1800’s in preparation for a visit by Spain’s Queen Isabella. “We are still waiting for her,” says Claire Rankin, the Visitor Services and Retail Manager.

New Norcia gets 70,000-75,000 visitors every year, mostly during the March-November winter. In summer, the stifling heat dwindles the numbers. Music, art and missionary groups often come for retreats; the chapel’s excellent acoustics have seen it being used for music recordings. The township has also been used as a retreat for adult education camps.

The travel industry may refer blithely to passengers as ‘pax’, but New Norcia is a vivid reminder of its real meaning, the Latin word for ‘peace.’ In recent years, small corporate meetings are on the rise. The fresh air, peace and quiet and lack of distractions can be good for creative thinking. Monks are inspiring motivational speakers, especially in terms of helping time-starved corporate warriors see life a little more holistically. Families can also indulge in some volunteer work on the farms while children can be involved in educational activities.

Bolstering the peace and quiet is the absence of two important necessities of modern economic and political life – there is neither a bank nor a town hall. Capitalism and politics are of little use in a place where non-negotiable orders come, very literally, straight from the top.

What does disrupt the Pax, however, is the Great Eastern highway running right through the township. Massive trucks roar through, especially in these days of the mining boom to the north. The road is believed to have been the old pathway for the horse-and-buggy carriages. When talk of paving it over emerged, authorities of the regional shire originally wanted to build the road around the town but the monks objected, reportedly because it would make it more difficult for people to get there. Today, the highway is certainly helping generate one kind of ‘pax’ but affecting the other ‘Pax.’ With the historic buildings located on both sides of the highway, visitors have to be very careful indeed when crossing it.

After the tour, I tucked into some of the best nut-cake, freshly made from what is claimed to be the last wood-fired oven in the country. New Norcia bakery products are also sold at shops in Perth as well as in different parts of Australia. Ms Rankin says that they recently received an order for six containers of nut-cake, which they couldn’t meet. The oven was not designed for that kind of volume. The retail shop is alive with fabulous jams, wines and olive oil.

One new product is the “New Norcia Abbey Ale”, described as “a limited edition ale for the monks of New Norcia.” It is said to be “a traditional monastic ale, golden in colour, blessed with scents of fruit and spice, with a delicate champagne-like finish balanced with just a hint of bitterness.” The ale is “available exclusively on tap and in six packs and cartons from the New Norcia Hotel”. It can also be ordered online.

Although the entire area is expensive to maintain, making money clearly is not the priority. The New Norcia Hotel has 16 rooms with shared bathrooms/toilets. Each room has electric blankets, overhead fans, a refrigerator and tea/coffee facilities. The rates are A$70 single and A$85 double. The old Convent, originally the home of the Spanish Benedictine Sisters, can accommodate 30. The former dormitories for the aboriginal children have been reconfigured into cubicle-style units, 140 for girls and 100 for boys. Both have private facilities for accompanying school staff, catering and a range of meeting space, including, interior courtyards.

Stressed executives should try the monastery guesthouse. Hidden behind the walls of the southern cloister, it allows guests “to experience the peace, quiet and prayer of the monastic community, and relax away from the every-day pressures of life.” The fact that the guesthouse can only take 24 residents in six single rooms and eight twin-share rooms certainly aids that effort. Adds the website: “Spiritual direction is available on request.”

The rates are referred to as a “donation to cover our costs of providing Guesthouse accommodation and Monastery services.” They are low enough to be affordable by anyone. Indeed, for “those who are unemployed or in special need, there is no fixed donation. Any contribution within your means would be welcome,” the tariff sheet says. “We also hope that those who can afford more may subsidise others not so well off by donating more.”

Busy with prayer several times a day, and stressing moderation rather than austerity, the monks live by the centuries-old tradition of providing a place of shelter for wayfarers. The “Reception of Guests” philosophy is engraved in a sign behind the door. Written in the days when pilgrims comprised a large percentage of travellers, it conveys a strongly Christian message of compassion.

“All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ,” it says. It also includes a few tips that today’s hotel management schools might find useful; for example: “Proper honour must be shown to all.” “All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure.” And finally, “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims….; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special request.” That’s exactly the opposite of what happens in the real-world travel & tourism industry: the poorer you are, the worse you can expect to be treated.

Guests are welcome to join the monks for the daily prayers and Eucharist. On most Saturday afternoons a monk or sister will give a talk on “What we do and why we do it”, with optional discussion to follow. Spiritual retreats are organised around special occasions like Easter. A weekend Benedictine Experience is described as “an opportunity for men and women from all walks of life to spend some time apart, to enter into the Benedictine rhythm of prayer, work, liturgy, silence and community.” The monks also offer short talks “exploring the meaning and value of monastic spirituality for today’s world.”

Ms Rankin herself is a 28-year-old former backpacker from Manchester, UK, who first came because she ran out of money. She is still there two years later. After backpacking through Southeast Asia and Japan, she landed in Australia and went to a job-shop in Perth where she was given a choice of working on Rottnest Island or in New Norcia. She thought New Norcia would be something different. Her initial job was in the bar, but eventually she fell in love with the place and stayed, proving efficient enough to rise up the ranks. An application for a four-year residence permit is now pending. She describes it as a life-changing experience. Asked if she had met any Mr. Right during her stay, she said, “Not yet. But I have met a lot of Mr. Wrongs.”

Backpackers are always in demand. They make up to $18-$19 an hour serving tables, or working in the kitchen or behind the bar. Accommodation and all meals are provided. Staying an average of about six weeks, they hail from all nationalities, but Germans and Irish predominate. The website says there is a vacancy at the moment for an Office and Records Manager to handle operational tasks. The job pays A$50 000 – A$60 000 depending on skills and experience, and the selected candidate will have to “demonstrate an appreciation of the nature of the township, including its religious and heritage focus, supporting its purpose and ethos in their day-to-day work and relationships.”

On the day I visited, all the monks were attending the funeral of their departed brethren, and unavailable to provide more details about its operations and administration. Ms Rankin claims there is no funding from the Vatican. Visitors will continue to provide the backbone of the township’s survival. And with plenty of room to grow, carrying capacity is nowhere near being an issue.

What next? Father Placid writes that he understands the various pressures, but has no vision for the future, at least not in the traditional sense of a real estate developer who could turn the entire place into a commercial site that will certainly make one kind of ‘pax’ far more important than the other. Although the township, and the surrounding farmlands, have been hard hit by rising costs, Father Placid says God will take care of it, and prayer is the key. So, if this article results in a few more pax to New Norcia, without affecting the other more meaningful ‘Pax,’ part of the monks’ prayers will have been granted.

Read more: www.newnorcia.wa.edu.au



By Fr Placid Spearritt OSB, Abbot of New Norcia

The monks of New Norcia are under pressure. We are told that we must revive and develop connections with the Aboriginal community. We are also told that we must preserve the historical buildings, the art collection, the museum and library. We must preserve the archives and promote research and appropriate publication of their treasury of information on Aboriginal, colonial, local and church history, on the Colleges and the other religious communities who have worked in this town. We must protect and foster the ecological resources of the farm with its large tracts of uncleared bush supporting native plants and animals.

We must keep providing employment for the seventy or so people who work for us full-time or part-time. Many of them live locally and depend on off-farm employment to remain on their farming properties. If they can stay in the neighbourhood, we have a good chance of keeping the trading post open with its post office, and the roadhouse, and the hotel.

They tell us we must encourage more tourists and visitors, because without their spending the town cannot survive; and we must provide them with facilities, while at the same time controlling their numbers and their activities so that they do not destroy what they come to see, or spoil the distinctive monastic peacefulness of the town. We must bring more parties of school children to be educated by carefully devised programmes exploiting our diverse resources; and we must continue to house, in the former College buildings, residential school groups of all sorts.

We must continue to provide the highly-appreciated opportunities for adult groups and individuals to spend time in the monastery guesthouse, and in the other guest units that have sprung up across the road from the monastery as parts of other buildings become available.

These are some of the things people tell us we must do. I think that they are right; all of them.

The monastery can support all these projects, if it has its own house in order. For the house to be in order, our first priority has to be prayer, community and private prayer, the expression of our desire for union with God. Genuine love of God necessarily overflows into love of our neighbour, whom we take to be everybody in need. We must and we will do all that we can to provide for their needs, concentrating on the needs that can only or best be met by monks.

For that we need space for silence and reading, reverence for the traditions that we have received, for the holy scriptures and the sacred mysteries of the liturgy; we need intelligent, honest, and critical study of the ideas of the past and of the present, and openness to and deep respect for all the people with whom we come into contact.

And we need more monks. At present we are rather short of monks, and particularly young ones. Young people find it difficult to make a permanent commitment to monastic life, as they do these days to marriage. It is important for us not to panic in this situation, and certainty not to lower our standards of selection. The monastery can survive with a small number of monks if necessary; it is more likely to survive and flourish with a small number of good monks than with larger numbers of unstable characters. I like to hope that, as our community has had a multicultural history, its monks will reflect the multicultural composition of the church and world in which we live.

It is not quite true that the monastery can cope with all the needs I have mentioned. Good management of our resources in recent years has meant that we are able to provide for ourselves and for our religious work. But we cannot afford the outlay necessary for the conservation of the rest of the buildings apart from the monastery and the church, or for adequate provision for the art, museum, library and archive collections, or for the services and facilities that would normally be provided by a town or shire council.

We continue to apply to government and other funding bodies for assistance, and to receive much very welcome support from the Friends of New Norcia, about whom there is more information elsewhere on this web site.

We have received a great heritage from the past. We want to administer it well and contribute further to it in the present, and pass it on to the future as a living organism. The monks’ community is at the heart of it, but we have always wanted to share our inheritance with the people of Western Australia, and with students and visitors from further afield.

Some readers will be disappointed not to find here a grand vision for the future. You might have heard that the vision was the Aboriginal mission from 1846 to 1900; that it was the schools from 1908 to 1991; it was the mission in Kalumburu from 1908 to 1982; it was the Abbey Nullius from 1859 to 1982. That is what the romantic historians of New Norcia will tell you. I do not believe them.

The grand vision has always been a core community of monks who lived and prayed together and were open to the practical love of their neighbours in whatever ways were most needed at the time. This is my grand vision for the future too. A monastery that is defined in terms of some one definite work has got its priorities upside down. Besides, it is more exciting not to know too much in advance which way the Spirit of the Lord and the cries of the poor will direct us in the future.



The accessible tourism market incorporates people with disabilities and those who are ageing and who have access needs (mobility, vision, hearing and communication). Significant numbers of Australians and people from overseas have disabilities – 600 million worldwide. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 4 million Australians have a disability. Based on the National Visitor Survey 88% of these people travelled within Australia in the previous year, 7% travelled overseas and most travelled in independent groups with an average size of 4.1 people. The accessible tourism market has recently been valued at $4.8 billion to the Australian economy with significant latent demand.

Yet, finding accessible tourism experiences and day trips has been a major issue for people with disabilities and those with access requirements. Many disability organizations provide member created word of mouth lists, tips and stories to help others plan their day trips and holidays more easily. However, these information systems are incomplete and problematic.

A prototype accessible tourism Web “portal”, www.sydneyforall.com, aims to make it easier to find accessible destination experiences around Sydney for those with access needs. The portal reflects the findings of a research project and seeks to provide accessibility information about key tourism experiences that people can enjoy when they are in Sydney. The area covered by the portal includes The Rocks, Circular Quay, The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain. It also includes the Sydney Fish Markets, a ferry trip to Manly and a visit to North Head.

The research project was sponsored by the Sustainable Tourism Co-operative Research Centre, Tourism NSW, the Tourism and Transport Forum and the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change.

One key feature of the portal is its ability to provide information to people with vision impairment. The portal has been developed to meet international W3C Web Accessibility standards and was independently assessed by Vision Australia to verify compliance with those standards.

The information provided on the portal was gathered by people with disabilities actually experiencing the attraction and documenting that experience. Information was also provided by the attraction, many of which have implemented strategies to improve their access for people with access needs. For example, the Sydney Opera House has not only started to improve mobility access but also access for people with vision and hearing impairment.

The web portal offers information by icon, text, photographs and links to additional information. It embraces ‘wayfinding’ maps, transport, parking, toilets and most importantly the experience itself. The portal will also help providers within the tourism industry plan to market collaboratively, improve their services and encourage more tourists with disabilities to visit them.

As this is a test site and will be reviewed at the end of three months, feedback on the portal and suggestions are welcome. People can complete the independent survey that is linked to the portal, or you can contact either the researchers directly on accessibletourism@uts.edu.au or sydneyforall@tourism.nsw.gov.au

The long-term aim is to have a more expansive portal that will assist people to plan their holidays and will incorporate detailed transport, accommodation and disability support information.

Further Information: Dr Simon Darcy, UTS – 02 9514-5100 Simon.Darcy@uts.edu.au, Bruce Cameron, EAA – bruce_eaa@bigpond.com. Or click here http://www.sydneyforall.com/

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