User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active

Whenever I am in Perth, I always set aside a day to visit Toodyay and Northam, the homes of my ancestors. Along the way, I drop into New Norcia, which is a monastic town 130 kilometres north of Perth. It was founded in 1847 by five Spanish Benedictine monks led by Dom Rosendo Salvado, with the intention of converting the local aboriginal population to Catholicism. The main highway north has been diverted in order to miss the town, and an atmosphere of quiet solitude and peace prevails. However, the town has a dark past.


Salvado was born in Spain in 1814 to a wealthy family, and at an early age became an accomplished pianist and composer. He entered the Benedictine Order at the age of fifteen and was forced to flee to Italy in 1835 when Queen Isabella II ordered the closing of all monasteries and banned religious orders. He was ordained a priest in 1839, and in 1846 travelled to Perth in the company of a small number of fellow monks. They journeyed north of Perth in an ox-drawn cart that same year and claimed a large tract of farmland which was eventually named New Norcia after Norcia in Italy, which is the birthplace of St Benedict.

After suffering early hardship, hunger and deprivation, which included Salvado journeying to Perth to perform a piano concert for money, things turned around. Salvado developed a rapport with the aboriginal population and laboured with them in clearing, ploughing, sowing and planting. The land produced corn, wine and honey. Wine and honey are still sold in New Norcia today.


He made several trips to Europe in order to obtain money for the purchase of land, vestments, books, ritual objects and building materials, and was eventually made Lord Abbot of New Norcia for life.  With a total complement of up to seventy Spanish monks, building work started in earnest in the 1860s, which resulted in the construction of grandiose structures, including the monk’s abbey, the abbey church, orphanages for aboriginal children, and later a hostel. The education of the children was his priority.



Towards the end of the century, while still caring for the aboriginal population, the Abbey’s main emphasis shifted to attending to the needs of arriving white settlers. After a tenure of fifty-four years, Salvado died in Rome while on a visit in 1900. News of his death was received with sorrow and wailing by the aboriginal population.

Two orphanages (actually institutions for aboriginal removed from their families) were St Joseph’s for girls situated next to St Gertrude’s Ladies College, and St Mary’s for boys situated next to St Ildephonsus College. Up until Salvado’s death, the orphanages were run by monks and aboriginal women, as Salvado steadfastly refused to have any Benedictine nuns in the community, However, in 1901 following his death, an invitation was issued by the new Abbot Fulgentius Torresto Spanish Benedictine nuns arrived in 1904 to take over from the monks and the aboriginal women.


The nuns stayed until 1974, and are remembered variously as being both loving, tough, hard and unforgiving. The aboriginal girls in St Joseph’s, among other things, were required to do all the washing for the New Norcia community, and perform other menial tasks. Additionally, they were provided with schooling. Some girls even became nuns.

Abbot Torres set out upgrading the existing buildings, and in 1908 St Gertrude’s Ladies College was completed. The aboriginal children were excited, believing this was to be their new home. That was not to be. The college was a boarding school for non-aboriginal girls run by the Josephite nuns who lived in the building, while the aboriginal girls did all of the community’s washing. This caused great resentment. St Ildephonsus College boarding school for non-aboriginal boys opened in 1913 and was run by the Marist Brothers, who lived in the building, until 1965, and then by the Benedictine monks until 1971. Once again, aboriginal girls did all of the washing. Both colleges amalgamated in 1972, and both closed in 1991. Friends of mine attended both colleges. Being a difficult lad, I refused to attend St Ildephonsusto my father’s chagrin and completed my secondary schooling elsewhere.


It was not until the 2013 Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, that it became known that there was widespread sexual abuse by some of the monks against the non-aboriginal boys in the period from 1950. The abuse of any children prior to that, including aboriginal children, if any, is lost in the sands of time. In the immortal words of Rudyard Kipling The sin they do by two and two they must pay for one by one.

Help us cover our monthly costs

$ 375 $ 500
3 days left,  75% Completed


Dom Rosendo Salvado was a good man who gave his life endeavouring to educate, convert and assimilate aboriginals into the European society, which all came to nothing as the aboriginal children became in effect the servants of the white children. Actually, they were not orphans, but children separated from their parents as part of a failed racial social experiment. Some benefited, but many did not. Salvado’s good intentions were betrayed by some who came after him. In the words of the famous proverb The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Nevertheless, New Norcia has an air of quiet tranquility, which the not too-distant Bindoon Boys Town, which will be the subject of a further article, does not. At Bindoon the sense of evil is palpable, as in the Coliseum in Rome.

To conclude, below is a picture of my dear departed mother (on the right) with a friend at New Norcia during a visit in 1932.


That is why it always feels like home to me.


Clear filters