The hidden world of WA’s outback monastery


New Norcia creeps up, almost appearing out of nowhere in the Perth Hills. Picture credit: Kasper Johansen

Drive an hour and a half north-east from Perth and the road spirals through canola fields, passes Chittering, then Bindoon, until there is nothing but hills, cattle and road trains.

New Norcia creeps up, almost appearing out of nowhere.

A simple left turn and grand Spanish architecture replaces the dusty fields and yellow flowers. The style belongs to the Benedictine monks who reside there on the banks of the Moore River.

“It’s kind of a town, or a village, but it’s not really a regular town if you know what I mean, we’ve got a service station and the roadhouse and the gift shop, the museum and the old colleges,” Father Robert Nixon, a Benedictine monk of eight years explains.

St Benedictine monks follow a rigorous order, prayer and silence broken by work and recreation.

Their Italian robes suit the architecture rather than the place, where stubby shorts and singlets are more the norm in country Western Australia.

The town was built as a mission in 1846 to the local Indigenous people by Spanish monks. A year later it was moved and the beginning foundations of the monastery were laid. To this day it is the only one of its kind in WA.

“In my earlier life, firstly, I’d been a professional musician for a while,” Father Nixon says. “Then I was a music teacher also for a few years, I did that well into about my early thirties I suppose.”

It took Father Robert four years to earn his place in the monastery.


Monks begin as postulants, living in the monastery and following the strict timetable laid out by the Abbot.

They become a novice for up to a year and wear the habit – a loose black garment or robe – taking classes on different jobs and rules within the community.

After this they must make temporary vowels, a three-year promise to remain at the monastery, before declaring their commitment for life.

“I had a sense I had done, really, everything I wanted to do in the world for myself and I wanted to give the rest of my life to the service of God through the church,” Father Nixon said.

Each building in New Norcia is placed strategically to create the shape of a Roman cross, the cemetery at the top with a boarding school either side, followed downwards by the abbey church and sitting at the bottom, the monastery.

Not many leave this place once they are committed.It is a lengthy process to leave that involves dispensation from a person’s vowels and approval of from Rome.

“Obviously it’s not something anyone would do lightly, but it does happen sometimes,” Father Nixon says.

“There are always going to be times when you feel like leaving, but if you’re committed then you see through those difficult times and they become opportunities for spiritual growth.” Father Nixon said.

While once New Norcian monks used to make bread, pastries and wine, this is now tasked to the bakery and Father Nixon spends his time on Benedictine study retreats, school trips and archival translation; as well as his coordination of the music.


It’s a peaceful existence in a place still reeling from a sexual abuse scandal that went right to its core.

In 2016, a group of five boys who attended St Benedictines boys’ school more than 50 years ago told of sexual abuse during their time in New Norcia.

It was alleged that Bishop Max Davies had physically and sexually abused the boys, but the case was thrown out of court with a jury clearing all six allegations against the Bishop.

“It was a terrible time…and we are definitely suffering from the consequences of that,” Father Nixon says.

He says the consequences of the abuse are still there and it’s something the church has to deal with, and New Norcia is doing the best it can.

New Norcia has changed fluidly throughout history, first focusing on worship, then education and finally tourism, Centre for Western Australian History associate director says.

“In recent times it’s almost gone the full circle back to focusing, really quite inwardly, on religious practice,” he says.

New Norcia, like many monasteries today, centre on spreading the catholic gospel and accommodating those with an intrigue into spiritual living.

“I think it’s sort of inherent, at least in the Christian tradition, that they have an outreach component to them to bring parts of the community into their own religious practice,” Dr Baskerville said.

Monks typically don’t preach, however Father Nixon says: “It’s a way in which we can serve the church, you know, and help us spread the gospel, so it’s a good thing.”


The town’s age is a key part of its presence in Western Australia, and during its initial founding there were relaxed rules around land ownership.

Dr Baskerville says that to set up a monastery there are internal and external rules relating to permissions from the church, council and wider community.

There are only four Benedictine monasteries within Australia, each one part of the Subiaco Cassinese Congregation, an international union of Benedictine houses.

Contact between St Benedictine monastery’s is regular and there are over 100 globally, with most based in Europe.

“I think there’s a high degree of movement and contact within their own communities at a national, continental and global scale,” Dr Baskerville says.

Monastic practices are popular worldwide, Buddhism, Hinduism and Catholicism all incorporate the building of temples and monasteries into their religious exercises.

However, communication between differing religions and the general public is not as frequent, and most monastic towns stay true to their secluded nature.

“It’s sort of in the nature of monasticism, partly there is the idea of withdrawing from the world,” Dr Baskerville says.

Most monasteries are shrouded in some kind of mystery, this can lead to public weariness and caution.

“I think its fear or weariness, and a sort of melancholy that comes from things that have happened in those places,” Dr Baskerville says.