Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days: Volume 1, 1927-1931

New Norcia

Rev'd Bro. Bede Lazaro

Lazaro, Rev'd Bro. Bede 1928, 'New Norcia', Early Days, vol. 1, part 2: 38-48.

(Read before the Society, September 30, 1927—abridged)


Following the anti-religious revolution in Spain in 1835, two Benedictine monks, Dom Joseph Benedict Serra and Dom Rosendo Salvado, both possessed of a strong vocation for the missionary life, passed to Italy, and placed themselves at the disposal of the Holy Father. The first missionary expedition to Western Australia was then being organised by the Right Rev. John Brady, first Bishop of Perth, and the two Benedictines were added to their number. The party proceeded to London, where two other Benedictines, Dom Fonteinne and Dom Tuttell, joined them. They sailed from London, and after a long and trying voyage that lasted 113 days, arrived in Fremantle on January 8, 1846.

The four Benedictines and an Irish Catechist, John O’Gorman, were intended for what was then named the Central Mission, the site of which, however, Bishop Brady was at great pains to determine.

Captain Scully, an old Irish settler in the'Colony, and then a progressive farmer in the Bolgart district,; coming to Perth, informed Bishop Brady that there were several large camps of blacks in the Victoria Plains country, where the soil was rich. On hearing these good tidings, His Lordship abandoned all other projects, to follow Captain Scully, who also kindly offered to carry the Mission’s belongings to the spot where the missionaries would choose to settle.

At last, on February 16, the Benedictine missionaries wrere allowed to carry out the desire of their hearts. After a most touching farewell, extended to them at the Catholic Church by Bishop Brady and the good townsfolk, the missionaries, with the crucifix hanging on their breast, the breviary under their arms, and sticks in their hands, accompanied by two of Captain Scully's servants, left the city about midnight and faced towards the bush.

Their journey to Scully's lasted five days. Made always on foot and under a scorching sun, it was more than sufficient to furnish the missionaries with a fair idea of the kind of life that would be theirs. Three


days they stayed at Scully’s, at the end of which, accompanied by another two servants of that kindly-hearted gentleman, and led by two blacks, they resumed their journey to Victoria Plains.

Now they had to do real pioneering work. It was February 27, three days after they left Bolgart. The heat was unbearable, and they had been unable to secure a drop of water for the whole of that day. They had arrived at a place called by the natives Batgi-Batgi, not far from the site where New Norcia actually stands; and they all made tracks for the spring which (according to the .blacks) was to be found nearby. But what a bitter disappointment did they not receive on finding, instead of a refreshing spring, a dirty quagmire, whose muddy water, far from quenching their thirst, only added to their torture by its loathsome taste. Needless to say the following night was the worst the missionaries had ever had.

At day-break Dom Salvado, with Dom Tuttell and one of Captain Scully’s men, followed one of the blacks to the different creeks, where water was usually found. But all in vain. The sun had drunk it all; so the native said. Here Dom Salvado was left alone to follow the native in his anxious quest. His courage was soon rewarded. He had not walked one mile when he came upon a splendid pool of fresh water. The whole party were soon by the poolside, and next morning they were all ready to continue their search for a suitable place for a mission station. But Scully’s servants obstinately refused to drive the carts any farther. The missionaries decided to settle down, for the time being, in that same place by the pool.

Then, arranging as best they could an altar on the cart, both priests—Dom Serra and Dom Salvado—celebrated Holy Mass for the first time in the Western Australian bush. Thus they inaugurated their Mission for the Aborigines, It was Sunday, March 1, 1846.

The First Year

The trials the missionaries had to endure during this first year were without number. It was only their heroic courage and deep interest in the Christianisation of the poor aborigines that carried them through all their difficulties to final success. This is particularly true of Dom Salvado, who was, unquestionably, the


leader of the party. Endowed with a strong bodily constitution, and a firm, resolute character, he was not the man to shrink from any difficulties. He was, in fact, the soul of the Mission. “Dom Salvado alone,” Fr. Serra was wont to say, “is worth a dozen missionaries.” His sterling qualities, and the warm enthusiasm he always displayed in the work he had taken up (added to the fact that, shortly after the start, Fr. Serra left the missionary field, to occupy a more delicate position as Bishop of Perth) has made posterity justly look upon Dom Salvado as the sole founder of New Norcia. This title of his is the more justified because, had it not been for Dom Salvado, New Norcia would not be New Norcia to-day.

But to continue with our history. The missionaries were now anxious to meet the natives. These soon appeared on the scene. The sight of them, however, was anything but encouraging. The missionaries had seen with pitiful eyes numbers of blacks, loitering in the streets of Fremantle and Perth; but to gaze upon them now, holding each six or seven spears, aroused in the missionaries a very different feeling. The blacks, however, contented themselves with casting suspicious looks at their visitors and keeping at a reasonable distance from them. At nightfall they assembled and slept by the pool side, and at dawn they went to find their food. This they did during two days.

In the meanwhile the missionaries felled some trees and began to build a hut. They were engrossed in this work when, all unexpectedly, about mid-day of March 4, the blacks presented themselves in big numbers and well supplied with arms. To all appearances' they came not with the best of intentions. Yet the missionaries decided that they should not lose the opportunity. Carrying a good supply of bread and sugar, Dom Salvado and Dom Serra approached the blacks’ camp. Greatly startled at this, the natives quickly grasped their spears, ready to throw them at the intruders. But the latter, taking their lives in their hands, deliberately advanced towards them, making amicable signs and offering them, at the same time, some of the food they were themselves eating. At this, some of the blacks put their spears down, whereupon the missionaries went close and gave them of their bread and sugar. But the savages, suspecting it might


be poison, had no sooner taken a mouthful of sugar than they spat it out. However, on seeing that the missionaries ate the sugar they filled their mouths with it again, this time finding it most palatable, with the happy result that very soon the blacks were fighting for the last fragments of bread left, as if these were as many precious stones.

Thus the worthy missionaries soon won the complete confidence of the savages who also volunteered to help the missionaries in the construction of their hut. As a reward for their labour which (according to Dom Salvado) was very efficient, they shared the missionaries' food.

Hundreds of natives soon flocked to the missionaries, willing to help them in their labour, that they might receive a mouthful of bread and sugar. But as their provisions were quickly diminishing, the missionaries felt constrained to disappoint numbers of aborigines, who, in better circumstances, might have stayed with the missionaries and received their instructions.

It was decided that the missionaries should accompany the aborigines in their nomadic life, sharing the labours and fatigues of those they wished to benefit.

“We will join the savages we meet,” Dom Salvado wrote. “We will go with them and will share their nomadic life, until we are able to fix upon a likely place for a settlement; there we will teach them, by our example, to live by tilling the soil.”

Two months elapsed. Despite extreme frugality the missionaries’ victuals were at an end. On the other hand they had realised that they could not live long on the scanty and repugnant meals of the blacks. It was decided, therefore, that one of them should go to Perth, and place their precarious, situation before the Bishop. The lot fell to Dom Salvado.

What he suffered on that journey is not told in a few words. Hunger and thirst and sore feet were his constant companions. Fortunately, his sleep was the soundest; but, not infrequently, his sable fellow-traveller, on finding a piece of good game, would awake him and present him with some piece of meat he had taken half masticated from his own mouth. Poor Dom Salvado gave him many thanks for his delicacy, but that was not always enough, and in order not to displease the savage, he would swallow it. | No wonder that, referring to this journey, he could write later on:—


“At the end of a few days I could eat anything; and I must say that a grilled lizard, a boiled maggot or a steak of opossum, cooked on a handful of green leaves, with an earthworm or two, make not the most disagreeable of dishes, particularly when one has fasted the whole day.”

A Concert in Perth

Arrived in Perth, Dom Salvado received very little comfort. Bishop Brady was so pressed for money that he had none to give to the missionaries. He furthermore asked him to give up the mission and call all his confreres to Perth. But Dom Salvado, who had set his heart in his work, firmly withstood all entreaties; yet he must needs get help. A bright idea struck his mind—he would give a public piano concert in Perth. The Bishop warmly approved.

The concert was advertised, and then it seemed that all Perth was interested in the humble missionary. Governor Clarke granted the Court House for the occasion; a Protestant gentleman printed gratis the programme; the Anglican minister lent, unasked, the candlesticks of his church; and his sexton took charge of the lighting of the room. A Jew, Mr. Samson, volunteered to act as doorkeeper; and very many offered their pianos, but the one belonging to the Sisters of Mercy was used. On the evening of May 21 Dom Salvado appeared on the platform wearing his religious garb.

“But, oh,” he writes, “in what a singular apparel! My tunic, all in tatters, hardly reached to my knees; my once black trousers were now patched all over with cloth and thread of every sort and colour; my shoes had forgotten their soles in the bush, so that my toes touched the ground. Add to this a beard, which had been allowed to grow wild for three months; a face as black as that of a blackfellow, and hands like those of a blacksmith; and then, you will form an exact idea of my outward appearance, which, in fact, was so queer that it excited to laughter and pity at the same time.”

This, however, was not a hindrance to his fine performance. The concert was, in fact, pronounced by all a decided success; and the humble missionary quitted the platform bewildered by the prolonged applause of his listeners. With the proceeds Dom Salvado was able to buy all kinds of provisions, besides a pair of bullocks. To his complete joy, a good-hearted gentleman gave him a dray to carry his provisions to the Mission.

In the meantime, Fr. Serra, alarmed at Dom Salvador delay, set out for Perth accompanied by Dom


Tuttell, who, on account of ill health, was now going to leave the Colony. On arriving in Perth he was greatly surprised and delighted at Dom Salvado’s success. Two days later Dom Serra was returning to the Mission accompanied by two French gentlemen, who volunteered to drive the cart and help the missionaries for a while. The party had not proceeded very far when the sad news was brought to Dom Serra that Dom Fonteinne, whilst getting his gun ready to go on a hunt, had accidentally shot and killed the catechist, John O’Gorman. The news was quickly transmitted to Bishop Brady and Dom Salvado, who had remained in Perth. The latter, on hearing it, left all business he had in hand and hastened to join Dom Serra.

This sad event, combined with the unsuitability of the place for cultivation, moved the missionaries to shift to a better place where they might establish a central settlement whence they could go and evangelize the native tribes. With the help of the two Frenchmen they soon had another hut built and a piece of land cleared and ready for the plough. One of those charitable men wished now to return to Perth. Dom Salvado accompanied him.

On his return to the Mission shortly after, Dom Salvado had a most trying time. It was now July. Rain and wind ruled. Except for the first day, his journey was made on extremely wet ground. His pace must of necessity be very slow. On the other hand, it was no use looking for shelter anywhere. So the heroic monk, in order to keep himself warm, continued his journey in spite of heavy downpour and strong gale. But it was infinitely worse at night. If he lit up a fire, winch he obtained with great difficulty, it was soon quenched by the rain. In the impossibility of finding a yard square of dry ground on which to lie, he passed the whole night either standing or on his knees. Then his fears lest the bullocks should go astray kept him in continuous watch.

In this way he travelled 68 miles in five days, happy to arrive at last at Captain Scully’s, where he quickly regained his lost strength through the treatment bestowed on him by that good gentleman, who seemed destined by Divine Providence to nurse the New Norcia Mission in its infancy.


But Dom Salvado’s trials did not end here. On his way from Bolgart to the Mission his sufferings were still greater. As his only road he followed the ruts left by his dray on his journey to Perth a few days previously; but even these he failed very often to see, as the water was running freely everywhere. Now and again the dray sank in the mud down to the axle-trees; and the bullocks, after making one or two vain attempts tc drag it out, gave up all struggle. Not infrequently, the bullocks also sank so deep that they could not move. Referring to one of these occasions. Dom Salvado relates:—

“No amount of persuasion on my part could urge them forward, and I began to fear for the lives of the poor beasts. I thought that, in such extreme circumstances, I might be excused if I were to employ the most energetic means. I consequently gathered a few sticks and managed to light a fire which I placed close to the animals, now unyoked. The poor beasts, on feeling the flames on their skin, made the most desperate efforts to escape, and succeeded in doing so; but they became so infuriated that I thought it necessary to run to a safe place.”

Fortunately for Dom Salvado, this happened only four miles from the Mission; so that he could leave the cart in the mud and walk to the Mission.

A Check

About the middle of August the other Frenchman and Dom Fonteinne left for Perth. Poor Dom Fonteinne had been so deeply and disastrously affected by the accident that caused the death of O’Gorman that he lost his reason.

Thus the two Benedictine priests remained quite alone in the bush. Yet, far from losing heart, they devoted themselves with new courage to their agricultural labours. The Government had granted them 20 acres of land which they had soon ready to receive the various seeds Dom Salvado had lately brought from Perth. This was not an easy task by any means, for those who had never done such work. Dom Serra led the bullocks whilst Dom Salvado attended to the plough.

“But as we were quite inexperienced,” Dom Salvado wrote; “we had to use all our strength, not only our hands, but also of our bare feet torn by the scrubs, stones and sharp roots. I may in all truth state that we watered those few acres of land, not only with the sweat of our brow, but also with the blood of our lacerated feet.”

At the end of the year a neighbouring magistrate informed them that the 20 acres they had cultivated


were within the land leased shortly before to some shepherds. “Well, well!” exclaimed the disappointed though never down-hearted missionaries, “let us begin again in the name of the Lord.”

Quite close to that place was a valley by the river Moore, called by the savages Maura-Maura. Here the fathers started their work again.

“We could not celebrate,” Dom Salvado writes, “the anniversary day of our arrival in the bush in better guise than laying the foundation stone of a monastery.”

This was effected on March 1, 1847. The story of the missionaries’ heroic life had aroused feelings of deep sympathy in the capital. Thus it came about that 15 tradesmen—builders and otherwise—volunteered to help the missionaries to build a proper home. On April 28 the fathers took possession of their monastery and christened the place where they were now firmly established, “New Norcia,” in honour of St. Benedict’s birth place, the city of Norcia, in Italy.

Meanwhile the number of natives that flocked to the Mission was growing daily. This moved the missionaries to apply to the Government for 30 acres more. Mr. Irwin, the acting Governor, not only granted the application gratuitously, but also gave the Mission 1,000 acres on a pastoral lease. At the beginning of July they had 34 acres ploughed and sowed. On December 8, 1847, an orphanage and school for native boys was opened.

In 1848 Bishop Brady acquainted Dom Salvado with the fact that there was a favourable opportunity to buy 2,650 acres qf land at practically half price, adjoining the 50 acres owned already by the Mission. Dom Salvado did not hesitate to purchase the land—which he expected to pay for, as he did pay afterwards, with money collected in Spain for the Mission by Dom Serra, who had gone for that purpose.

Now Dom Salvado could essay his cherished project. He parcelled out the land amongst the native male adults who had helped the missionaries and had acquired by that time some knowledge of farming.

“It was really interesting and amusing,” Dom Salvado remarks, “to watch the new farmers exerting so keen a vigilance on their piece of ground as not to allow the smallest bird to stop on it. And these natives were the very same men that shortly before had laughed at the missionaries’ agricultural labours.”


Having found out that not only did the natives delight in ownership but also worked more or less diligently in proportion to their reward, Dom Salvado began to give them wages in coins. At the beginning, this method proved useless because the blacks either gave their money to those who had not worked for it, or lost it in the bush. Little by little, Dom Salvado brought them to understand that, if they kept all the coins they received for their wages, they would soon be able to buy something useful, such as clothes, fowls a sheep or a horse.

The Mission was now in a very promising state. On the material side it had made wonderful progress. The primitive flock of 710 sheep had reached 1,200; the cattle, the pigs, the fowls, etc., had increased marvellously, whilst the land under the plough and the numerous fruit-trees promised an exceedingly abundant crop. On the other hand, the savages became milder and more tractable every day. They received and by degrees carried into practice the moral and religious instructions, and, in fine, grew so attached to the Mission and the missionaries that many asked Dom Salvado to provide them with separate houses to live in with their families. This was a long cherished project of Dom Salvado, yet he could only promise the blacks that when Dom Serra came back they would not only have their houses built, but also that they would be taught to do many useful things.

Dom Salvado had become so engrossed in his work, that, in order to be more useful to his blacks, he applied for naturalisation as a British subject, and declared that, if he were not granted that favour, he would ask the Western Australian Government to recognise him as one of the savages, so that, becoming weak with the weak, he would more effectively look after them and plead for them. But there was. no need of such an heroic expedient, because Governor Fitzgerald, witness of so great devotion, declared him an English citizen, despite the fact that Dom Salvado had not been in Australia the period of time prescribed by the regulations. His first act as a British subject was to plead and win the cause of a native prisoner charged with sheepstealing, but whom the good monk knew to be innocent.


Farm or Mission?

Dom Serra was eventually appointed Bishop of Perth, but earlier events caused Dom Salvado to visit Europe to further the cause of the Mission. Himself elevated to a bishopric, Dom Salvado returned to New Norcia in October, 1853. He had reached Fremantle with 43 new missionaries and £7,000. He was bitterly disappointed, however, to find that in his absence the Mission’s religious and educational work among the natives had been allowed to lapse and only the farm maintained. Undaunted, though, he started anew his civilising of the natives. This' work was not freed from repressive influences, however, until the complete separation of the Mission from the Diocese of Perth was decreed on April 1, 1859, a Superior given to each and the property divided. Bishop Salvado was appointed Administrator of New Norcia under immediate obedience to the Holy See. All the monks, priests and lay brothers were left free to choose pastor and place— Bishop Serra and Perth, or Bishop Salvado and New Norcia. Then Bishop Salvado was free to return for good to his beloved Mission. “At last,” he remarks, “after ten long years, the clouds were lifted, the storm was gone.”

Now New Norcia entered an epoch of speedy progress that has extended to this day.

“I have been accused, “Dom Salvado wrote at a later date, “of making New Norcia a sheep and cattle mission. Well, let anyone come here and work for these natives without means of supporting them at the same time. It might be feasible elsewhere; it, is not so with our Australian aborigines. When I came to Australia I had no idea of working the fields, mustering the sheep, carting the goods, etc. My ideal was to teach the savages the Christian religion; my good Bishop would provide for my bodily wants. This ideal, however, was soon smashed to pieces by crude reality. Hard experience has taught me how to work my mission.”

Larger tracts of land were needed as years went by for pastoral and agricultural purposes. For the former Bishop Salvado obtained from the Government leases of many thousands of acres at the usual rental cost. For the latter, he purchased numerous blocks of land of which the largest and most fertile were Wyening and Marah. The Mission’s flocks increased year by year until they amounted to 21,000. These and the wheat were the main sources of the Mission’s revenues.


Matters were, at last, settled definitely at New Norcia at the end of 1866, when Bishop Salvado was appointed Abbot of New Norcia for life. He extended and consolidated his work and paid several visits to his native land and to Rome to enlist support and missionaries. He died in Rome on December 29, 1900. He was 86 years old. His work had been successful. He and his confreres had achieved the Christianisation of at least 700 aborigines, and left his institution on the way to further triumphs. Some two years later, during the regime of his worthy successor, Dom Torres, Bishop Salvado’s remains were buried in the choir portion of the New Norcia Cathedral, behind the high altar, in a tomb of white Carrara marble.

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