I'm a freelance writer living in Perth. Having 2 young kids with endless energy, we are always on the lookout for new outdoor activities.
Published November 6th 2014
(Other than the obvious)
Three Special Things to do in New Norcia
When people mention New Norcia, the main images that come to mind is the monastic town, complete with its old heritage buildings, its museum/ visitor centre, and its famous bread. So people come on a day trip from Perth, take photographs of the red/ cream-coloured grand buildings, visited the museum/ visitor centre, and bought some bread. Fair enough. When we visited New Norcia, we did all those things too.
However, there are more activities to do, which are far more eye-opening, or intimate, or both, than just those things all tourists do. And I hope next time you visit New Norcia you'd consider doing some or all of these activities.
New Norcia might look like an old ghost town with plenty of empty old buildings which are kept just for tourism purposes, but it's actually a very much living and dynamic community, with about ten Benedictine monks in residence in the Monastery plus many more staff employed to run the working farms as well as tourism business.
Despite appearances, it is not a dead town
The community's main income is from farming and not tourism. How do I know this? Straight from the mouth of a New Norcia monk. Every Saturday afternoon at 4.30pm, one of the doors of the Monastery building which are usually closed will be open, and a monk will be ready in the parlour to talk to anyone who is interested in knowing a bit more about New Norcia.
Garden in front of Monastery. The parlour opens up through one of the brown doors along the white wall of the Monastery in the background.
When I went there, the monk in attendance was the Abbot himself. Unlike my expectation of meeting a Dumbledore or Gandalf-type person, this monk was actually youngish although he did wear a long robe (which he admitted to be inconvenient at times).
Abbot John started with a standard storyline about the community, and then the guests (there were seven of us at that time) were free to ask any questions. We were naturally curious: What do monks do day-to-day? They have a schedule to follow, and each monk is assigned work, e.g. in farm operation, giving spiritual guidance in retreats, etc. Do they use modern conveniences such as TV or internet? Yes. How do monks have fun/ celebration? A tot of whiskey here and there when occasions allow. Monks also go on holidays, usually in summer when it's low season of tourism in New Norcia. One gentleman was brave enough to bring up the question of evolution vs Christianity. I however am not brave enough to tackle it in this article.
Anything else you're curious about? Then go visit New Norcia on a Saturday afternoon and ask a monk yourself.
Prayers with a Monk
One of the questions that came up when we were having a chat with the monk of New Norcia was: Are monks on their knees praying all day long? The answer to this is "not exactly", although they do pray together as a group an impressive number of six times a day (plus a daily Mass), the first one at 5.15 in the morning and the last one at 8.15 in the evening. In between the six community praying sessions, they have to fit in their other activities including eating, working, studying, resting, and more praying (individually).
All sessions of their group prayers are open to the public. No, you don't have to be a Benedictine or even a Christian to sit in. The only thing you're not allowed to do if you haven't been baptised as a Catholic is to receive communion at Mass. During day time, the doors are always open (or at least closed but unlocked) to both worship venues: the Abbey Church and the Chapel, and anyone is welcome to come in at any time. When there's no formal prayers, you can walk around and take photos of the interior. However when worship is in progress, no photography is allowed.
When I asked about the prayer sessions, I was given a tip by a visitor centre staff to go to Vesper (6.30pm prayer) at the Chapel. Trying to find the Chapel proved to be quite hard. Firstly, the Chapel was not anywhere in the town map, apparently it's called the Monastery Oratory there. Secondly, even after I know it's located within the Monastery building, it's still difficult to locate where exactly in the huge building. The main gate to the Monastery is not open to the public. After enquiring at the guest house, I was finally told to go in through a side door that says "Exit" (I wonder why I didn't think of that). Once inside, there were clear signs pointing to where the Chapel was.
The Chapel (Monastery Oratory) with its centre-facing pews.
The Vesper turned out to be mainly singing of the psalms. The attending monks were divided into two groups which sat facing each other and took turn singing the psalms (no music). Guests were given small booklets so we know the words, but most of us just sat and listened to the chanting and singing.
The next day was a Sunday and I attended Mass at the Abbey Church at 9am. There were more people this time around as locals from the surrounding properties also come to this weekly event. The procession was quite impressive with all the monks in residence participating.
The Abbey Church
But the most special component of the Mass to me was the music. With such a small community and a rural community to boot, I didn't expect much in terms of musical prowess, but boy, how wrong I was.
Apparently one of the monks has a PhD in music and this gentleman single-handedly produces the ethereal music that accompanied some parts of the Mass, both on the organ as well as the piano. At the end of Mass, the lady sitting in front of me told me confidentially that she'd been touched by angels and I could understand how she felt. We two perfect strangers stood looking at each other with moisture in our eyes before we finally said farewell. Definitely an experience not quickly forgotten.
Abbey Church (interior): The two monks at the altar were tidying up after Mass.
Abbey Church (interior): The area behind the altar is accessible through a side door
Staying the Night
Most Perthians visiting New Norcia would do it as a day trip, but actually I'd recommend staying the night for two reasons. First of all, the accommodations options in New Norcia are certainly unique. You either stay at their famed heritage hotel; or as a guest in their Monastery guesthouse; or if you're a family with kids looking for budget holiday, set up your tent on fringe of town (fee payable at roadhouse).
Camping at New Norcia
Camping at New Norcia is definitely different. The town itself is not illuminated at night, so it's quite dark which makes good condition for sky gazing, making a campfire (fire-ban permitting), and also for us to admire all the road trains passing through Great Northern Highway. I never knew they're so pretty at night, lit up with little lamps along their long bodies, almost like Christmas trees hurtling through the dark. My husband complained of traffic noise but it didn't bother me.
The other reason for staying overnight is the fact that you can join in more activities that way. If you stay over a weekend, for example, on the first day you might join the guided town tour, the Saturday talk in Monastery Parlour, and even try chanting in Vesper; and the next day you might sit in the Mass, visit the museum, and take a leisurely walk around town with plenty of photo opportunities, prior to heading back to Perth.
Walking is the best way around New Norcia
For more details about the town and community of New Norcia and all the activities you can do there, visit their website.
I stayed here in February 2014 at the monastery accommodation and we chatted at breakfast with Father Arkas (sorry about spelling). It was an amazing stay. So much history, the hotel is very grand and so are all the school buildings. Fabulous stay highly recommend and very humbling