THE MARK OF SPAIN
It’s one of the more startling sights encountered while driving in Western Australia.
Sweeping seascapes are to be expected along coastal highways. Turn a corner and there are the beaches, the sky-blue ocean melting into an ocean-blue sky.
Deep inland are the multihued crumbling cliffs of the parched Pilbara known as breakaways. The arid zone reveals itself slowly like a strip tease; the trees shrink, thin out and eventually disappear - a gradual revelation while entering the naked desert.
But there’s little to prepare the traveller for the sudden and dramatic appearance of towers, domes, arches and battlements in broadacre farmland where buildings are rare.
It looks as though a Spanish settlement has been lifted from the Iberian peninsula and another age by a giant hand and dropped into the bush 16,000 kilometers and a hemisphere away – and that’s just about right.
New Norcia, Australia’s only monastic town, is just over a two-hour drive north of Perth on a quality highway so easily reached.
However that wasn’t the situation when Dom Rosendo Salvado Rotea (right) and his fellow monks trudged behind their ox cart through the tick-infested undergrowth of the Victoria Plains. Their quest was to find Aborigines that they knew, with the certainty of zealots, were in need of the Bible.
The sun scorched black-robed Europeans eventually found their potential flock on the banks of the Moore River, known to the Aborigines as Garban; this sounds like a grand waterway but is little more than a narrow stream prone to flooding, nothing like the wide watercourses found further north.
However in 1846 the British settlers, who had only been in the new colony since its founding 17 years earlier, had yet to clear-fell the timber, sow wheat and free their merino flocks to turn the native vegetation into fine wool; the ring of axe striking hardwood was drawing close but when Salvado trekked north much was virgin.
The Noongars, the tribe that had occupied the State’s Southwest for probably 50,000 years, maybe double that timeline, were using the river as a bottomless larder of fish and waterfowl. In the hinterland were kangaroos, emus, wild turkeys, edible nuts, roots and berries – protein aplenty.
Dom Salvado, then a 32-year old Benedictine Order missionary, was a big-picture visionary. He must have kept the sceptics chuckling as he battled huge obstacles to bring Christ to those considered heathen though they had their own complex and ancient spiritual beliefs.
The few surviving portraits show a formidable black-bearded figure, a crucifix stuffed into his backpack harness like a sword, iron determination in his stare. The statues, and there are plenty, have him challenging the elements.
At Moore River the Spaniard recognized a Garden of Eden only lacking the word of God, a situation not to be tolerated. With his European mindset a settlement had to be established though the Aborigines were nomadic.
The Central Mission was founded with a few wooden huts to the bemusement of the mobile Noongars who camped in small temporary leaf and bark shelters - and the discomfort of Salvado’s fellow Catholics who needed more substantial dwellings. They’d already been through a searing summer – now they faced a wet and chilling winter.
It was a test of faith and many failed. Only Salvado and his mate Joseph Serra had the Right Stuff needed to plant the cross in the wilderness. But that needed funds, so Salvado walked back to Perth where he held piano recitals to raise cash.
The donations were welcome but insufficient to match the man’s ambition so he sailed back to Europe, returning in 1853 with tougher monks and harder currency.
Although appointed to run the Diocese of Perth he convinced the Vatican that his real place was with the Noongars. In 1867 he became Lord Abbot of New Norcia, named after the fifth century Saint Benedict who was born in the Italian town of Norcia.
The cemetery (left) includes the graves of 130 monks and nuns who gave their lives to the mission. The tangible legacies of Dom Salvado, who died in 1900, are the assertively European buildings making no concessions to the local environment. These include the Georgian-Italian style Mission Church where he’s buried, a monastery, two colleges that educated more than 3,500 Aboriginal students, and two orphanages.
When these closed in the early 1970s it looked as though New Norcia would collapse back into the ochre soil from which it rose. The huge brick and stone buildings needed substantial maintenance and no longer suited the times. Institutions were considered unsuitable for parentless kids; State schools were opening and support for the established religions was dwindling. As the pews emptied so did the collection plates.
The Aborigines, whose presence was the reason for the establishment of New Norcia, have shifted. A few embraced Catholicism and settled round the mission. However most moved to the towns as white settlers evicted the original occupiers from their traditional lands and turned the native bush into wheatlands.
Yet New Norcia [population 318] hasn’t crumbled – instead it’s starting to thrive as a multi-purpose destination, supported by tourism. A museum and art gallery have been opened. Arts and crafts are being developed; its textile collection is claimed to be the largest and most significant in Australia.
Visitors can wander the complex freely except for private quarters. It’s only a 130 kilometer drive from Perth, though 40 plus tonne road trains heading north to the iron mines compete for space.
The foundations of buildings that flank the highway are being shaken by these juggernauts so the federal government will fund an AUD $30 million [Rp 300 billion] by-pass. Work starts next year
For the faithful, whatever their denomination, there are live-in spiritual retreats held throughout the year. They are presented by the monks and visiting religious leaders, men and women.
The monks maintain their 1,500 year old traditions and invite visitors to join them in the six daily prayers. Salvado and his followers planted olives and these continue to yield oil that’s pressed and bottled for sale. A flour mill ground wheat to make bread.
An education center has been built recording the history of the Noongars and their reliance on the land and river which has turned saline following massive clearing. Some wildlife, like white cockatoos and kangaroos have adapted to the invasion of alien farming practices – other species have vanished.
The buildings of New Norcia aren’t the only curiosity. Close to the past is the future; eight kilometers south a 35 meter wide satellite dish rises above the greenery like a giant saucer sitting on the treetops.
Deep Space Antenna 1 is a tracking station owned by the European Space Agency. The dish follows the Rosetta robotic space probe and is expected to be involved in the 2017 BepiColombo project to study Mercury.
The art of extinguishment
The monks followed the European tradition of planting crops but the terror of Western Australia was about to strike. What anthropologists label ‘firestick farming’ was the Noongars practice of burning the bush so kangaroos came to nibble the regrowth, then fall to spearmen hidden among the trees.
Fire and wheat are incompatible and in 1847 what old timers call the Red Steer was raging and roaring towards the mission. What to do? No hoses, little stored water.
Instead the ever resourceful Salvado turned to faith; he grabbed a painting brought from Rome called Our Lady of Good Counsel and thrust it into the path of the flames.
The wind suddenly stopped and turned, saving buildings and crops – or so the story goes. The Noongars saw what the monks called a miracle – an event that is said to have boosted conversions.
The painting survives, like the mission. But Christianity in Australia is not doing so well, with all major denominations slowly losing support.
(First published in the J Plus supplement to The Jakarta Post, 9 August 2015