top of page
  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

New Norcia - the guided town tour

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

After exploring the outside of the town on my own the day before, I was eagerly anticipating attending the two hour guided town tour. Our guide was a local lady, Tracy, and she did an excellent job. She was enthusiastic and passionate about New Norcia, as were all the people I met here. In fact, Tracy was originally from Scotland and has settled into a life here in the wheat belt. Most of the following information was learn on the town tour.

Dom Rosendo Salvado was born in Spain in 1814. Together with his fellow monk Dom Joseph Serra, they were the co-founders of the Benedictine Monastery of New Norcia in 1847. Seven Spanish Benedictine Monks travelled here to open a Monastery in Western Australia. Arriving sunburnt and thirsty after their exhausting 180km trek through the untamed Australian bush from Perth, they were helped by the local Aborigines, and spent the next three months living with these nomadic people and learning bush skills and survival techniques.

After this time the monks started to build more permanent buildings and commenced farming. 50 acres of land was granted to the monks originally and Abbot Salvado expanded on this, eventually purchasing over 400,000 hectares of land for farming and raising sheep. After Salvado died in 1900, the new Abbot Torres sold 80% of the land and extended the buildings with the profits.

Up to 22 cottages were built for the Aboriginal workers, a total of 81 people. There is an interpretation centre near where the cottages were situated, and an original footprint of a cottage, showing the size and position.

Of the 69 buildings still standing, 27 are heritage listed. The monastery contains one of the largest religious library in Australia.

The income has come from education and farming, and now tourism as well. Students can come for school camps from the city, and 240 students came here in the last month.


Inside the gates of the Monastery is a statue of St. Benedict. St Benedict was born around 480AD in Norcia, Umbria (hence the name of New Norcia), and is the patron saint of students and of Europe. He set up monasteries in Subiaco Italy. The suburb of Subiaco in Perth gets its name from the monastery that was set up in Perth by Benedictine monks in 1851. The named their monastery New Subiaco. There was a theme happening here.

Carved in white marble above the main gate of the Monastery is the Coat of Arms of the Abbey. It is also painted in colour on a wall in the church.

“The left section shows three mounds representing the virtues of faith, hope and charity, surmounted by a double cross and the Benedictine motto PAX (Peace). On the right, the upper second contains the emblem of the Trinity, a triangle containing the all-seeing eye of God, and the word FIDES (Faith), the motto of the Abbey. The swan in the lower section is the black swan of Western Australia. In the centre oval there is a lion from Spanish heraldry.” p.79 A Town Like No Other – The Living Tradition of New Norcia


The church was commenced about 1860 is still standing and used to this day. There have been several additions and renovations over the years.

The inside of the church is beautiful, from the hand carved altar, the pressed tin ceilings to the unusually painted walls in an Asturian scheme of friezes and pilasters. The Kingdom of Asturias is part of modern day Northern Spain. The stucco paintings of this style are usually ochre-yellow and crimson-red. They often contain symbols of Asturian culture, such as flowers circled by geometric designs.

Abbot Salvado died in Rome in 1900. His remains were moved to New Norcia and he is buried beneath the tomb in the Abbey Church. He had a great love for this land so far from his birthplace, and even became a British Citizen.

In 1923 a pipe organ came from Germany, destined for New Norcia, but was held up by the Fremantle Port Authority. They thought it was suspiciously like gun parts from a hostile country. Finally being cleared and arriving three months later, the church was extended to fit the pipe organ.

Music was a large part of life at New Norcia. When the new mill was built in 1879, the original mill was repurposed as a place for band practice. The boys even had their own brass band.


At the end of 1847 an Orphanage and School was opened at the northern end of town, named St Marys, for the education of the Aboriginal boys. Originally started with three boys, some of the Aborigines became offended that their boys had not been taken into the mission.

In 1860 they established St Joseph’s Orphanage and School for Aboriginal girls at the southern end of town. The girls’ parents who were working on the farm asked the monks if they would teach their girls. Previously girls were sent to Perth for their education. The school became a hostel when the parents were working away for 3 to 4 months at a time. The school was staffed by Teresian Sisters from the Society of St. Theresa of Jesus in Spain, and who spoke very little English.

St Josephs now houses the New Norcia Art Gallery and Museum.

However, in the 1950s, the time of the stolen generation, half the students ran away, and by 1974 the Orphanages was closed. Some Aboriginal children became pupils of the new colleges.

I was curious about the ribbons that had been tied on various places around the building. Tracy said that the ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission) Catholic Council had placed these here recently, at any spot where there was an emotional or spiritual connection.

St Gertrude’s girls boarding school opened in 1908. Originally intended to be integrated the aboriginal girls wanted to go back to their old school.

The entrance to St Gertrude’s College is imposing. The arched entry, the moulded ceiling in the entrance foyer. The front door is more spectacular when seen from inside. The leadlight inserts in the door are beautiful as the sunlight shines behind them.

The back of St Gertrude’s College is as beautiful as the front. I adored this building with its painted pressed tin ceilings, cast iron balustrades, the traditional heritage colours of reds and green, the decorative dormer windows.

The chapel at St Gertrudes is very different to that of the boys chapel. It seems softer and feminine.

St Gertrude’s Cottage and Cistern

This one bedroom cottage, with a cistern attached, was built with the main College building of St Gertrude’s under the direction of Abbot Torres in 1908. The cottage has had various uses as an outbuilding of the College and was the canteen/tuckshop in the 1980s, before the closure of the school in 1991. The cistern is currently part of the secondary water supply system delivering reservoir water and stormwater to gardens.

This lovely hungry fella added a gorgeous splash of colour against the red bricks of St Gertrude’s cottage.

St Ildephonsus boys boarding school

The boys boarding school opened in 1913. it was built in a similar archtectural style to St Gertrudes. The paintings in the boys chapel are beautiful. The photo of the rear of the chapel shows the balcony where boys who were too ill to sit in the main chapel would still attend church up here.

The Colleges became co-ed in 1973 and in 1974 St Gertrudes and St Benedicts merged as Salvado College, and then the New Norcia Catholic College, finally closing in 1992.

The buildings are now used as a school camp facility with commercial kitchen facilities.


When you walk the trail, you become the trail” Noongar Elder

A 180km (111 mile) walk from the Perth suburb of Subiaco to New Norcia is called The Pilgrim Trail, and the Camino Salvado is a pilgrimage that follows the trail. It can be undertaken by anyone, and usually takes about seven days to complete the whole journey. Secondary School children often complete parts of the trail each year, culminating in the final section arriving at New Norcia and being able to ring the church bells in celebration. There was a group of students who arrived the same day I did, they looked exhilarated with their achievement. They also stay for up to five days at the college, experiencing life as the students of bygone days did.


The original old flour mill was built in the 1850s and still stands.

It was replaced by a new and larger mill in 1879.

In 2009 this second three storey mill stopped producing wheat, and getting to look inside at the old machinery that is still in place, gives you a sense of how busy the mill would have been. Electricity was not connected until the 1970s, and the old boiler and steam engine still reside in the “new” mill.

Information boards with photos detail the workings of this once bustling business.

A stark reminder of how truly difficult it was to settle this land, is an original plow displayed in the mill.

The plaque on the plow paints a truly visual picture of the hardships these monks endured.

Another passage from the book A Town Like No Other quotes Abbot Salvado's own writings, "This was pretty awkward work for us, as we had no boots..." and "To make the furrows deeper one had to push on the plough-share with one's feet, and these were badly cut by rocks and roots. So we ploughed that land not only with sweat but with blood".

From the comfort of the twenty-first century it is difficult to image the hardships these early pioneer settlers endured. This is one of the reasons it is valuable to keep historical sites open to the public, so that we may try to understand those who came before us and be grateful that we do not have to suffer such as they did. Yet, without them, we would not have the civilisation and culture we enjoy today.

SHEILA HUMPHRIES - Noongar elder, artist, story teller and educator

Sheila was a student at New Norcia and her art is displayed in museums and galleries. She is recorded in the Guinness book of world records for the largest piece of Aboriginal artwork. On permanent outdoor display in the education centre are six large works of art by Sheila, showing the six Yuat Aboriginal Seasons. They are spectacular works of art and I was drawn to go back after the tour and spend more time absorbing all the delightful details.

lso in the education centre is a commemorative wall that recognises Aboriginal people who have lived at New Norcia. They receive a name plaque and can place it on the wall for themselves or family members.


New Norcia has recently restored their letterpress printing and have been conducting 1 day basic courses where you can learn about the different presses, rolling ink, and printing.


The hotel was built in 1927 as a hostel for the visiting parents of student boarders, and in 1955 a liquor license was issued. The monks had to tone down the previous 15% alcohol, to a saleable 7.4% to meet Government regulations! It is a grand building, with large interior rooms and wide verandahs on both storeys.

Closed to the public as a hotel, it can be hired as accommodation for groups of 20 or more.

The hotel has such a pleasant days-gone-by feeling to it.

After two hours of this delightful and inforrmative tour, it was time for lunch before heading off to enjoy the museum and art gallery. (which I will share with you in my final New Norcia article.

Happy Travels!

140 views0 comments


bottom of page