Request to find children’s graves in New Norcia, where the city cemetery contains unmarked graves

The waves of history continue to wash up at the door of the last remaining monks in a small, historic town in Western Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of deceased people.

In recent years, Benedictine monks in New Norcia, 130 kilometers north of Perth, have been shaken by shocking allegations of historical sexual abuse of children by a number of their predecessors involved in running the city’s schools for Aboriginal children.

Now new questions emerge from Noongar elders and surviving members of the stolen generation, asking what became of the “children who never came back” and where they are buried.

St Mary's Orphanage
St Mary’s Orphanage for Boys on the New Norcia Mission was established by Spanish Benedictine monks in the nineteenth century.(Wikimedia Commons)

It is estimated that more than 2,000 native children went through New Norcia mission schools from the 1860s to the early 1970s.

This week, the New Norcia convent ABC told 275 aboriginal children under the age of 18 who were on its grave register, dating back to 1851.

It is not known what they died of, but diseases including measles and bronchitis are reported to have decimated the mission population in the late 1800s.

Unmarked graves could be children

Ballardong-Noongar woman Dallas Phillips, who went to St. Joseph’s Girl Institution, urges community leaders to identify who is buried in a series of unmarked graves in the city’s cemetery.

A white wooden cross in the cemetery
Simple white crosses mark many of the graves in New Norcia Cemetery. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

Ms Phillips believes they could be children’s graves and wants the monks to publish the records they have.

“My mother’s mother used to say that there are many children who never came back from [the] mission, “said Mrs. Phillips.

“I would like to see the graves maintained with proper signs.

“Find out what they died of, how they died, when they died.

“Let us help them, they deserve the respect and recognition.”

the gates of an old cemetery with tombstones in the background
There are over 300 graves at New Norcia Cemetery. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

The small cemetery is located in the heart of New Norcia, Australia’s only monastery town and one of WA’s oldest tourist attractions.

In the midst of dozens of tombstones from monks, there are some simple white crosses scattered across the cemetery and a large area of ​​uneven terrain that appears to house an unknown number of unmarked graves.

Prayer to Pope Francis

Ms Phillips has written to WA Premier Mark McGowan, the Benedictine community and Pope Francis about her concerns and demanded that the children’s graves be examined.

She is backed by Jim Morrison of the West Australian Chair Generations Aboriginal Corporation.

Co-convener of the Bringing them Home Committee Jim Morrison.
Jim Morrison says identifying unmarked graves in New Norcia would help survivors and families heal.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

Sir. Morrison said according to oral history that there were other possible burial sites in the city to be investigated, perhaps using technology similar to that used to uncover the remains of children at indigenous schools in Canada.

“If there is a suspicion of corpses there, well why not as part of the repatriation / reimbursement, we get scientific evidence to identify where the corpses are and how many,” Mr Morrison said.

Morrison said given that many of the First Nations children of the 20th century had been removed from their families under government policies, there was a potential role for the WA government to play in funding the research.

A group of girls and a nun in New Norcia
During its history, between 600 and 1,000 Aboriginal girls attended St Josephs in New Norcia. Picture around 1950. (Delivered: State Library of Western Australia)

There are only seven Benedictine monks left in New Norcia.

None of them are implicated in the allegations of historical abuse, and none were involved in their predecessors’ operation of Aboriginal schools.

Monks are planning cemetery upgrades

The abbot, Fr. John Herbert, declined to be interviewed about the graves, but agreed to answer questions via email.

Asked if society would object to the proposed research of the unmarked graves, Fr. Herbert said:

“We have no objection to any reasonable steps that can help recognize deceased persons, provided they respect the various cultural sensitivities and practical issues involved in an appropriate manner.”

P. Herbert said the monks had conducted “extensive research” on the cemetery over the past decade and were preparing to install maps and lists (of the deceased) at its entrance, hopefully before the end of this year.

He shared a list of 328 burial sites in the cemetery and identified most of them, but only a few appear to belong to children.

About fifty are marked as “unknown”.

Asked where he thought the 275 children on New York’s grave register were buried, he replied: “Some are buried in New Norcia, some are buried at the Moore River Native settlement (70 miles away), and some are unknown. “

A cherub tombstone with flowers
There are over 300 graves in New Norcia Cemetery, about 50 of them unidentified.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

P. Herbert said the second phase of the cemetery project would involve the installation of “interpretive material concerning the unmarked graves,” which in many cases were unmarked because it was the custom of the original community at the time of the burials.

He said he thought they belonged to adults because of the appearance of the tombs.

Former detective believes that graves are children’s

But Peter Fox, a retired chief inspector in New South Wales who helped encourage the Royal Commission to provide institutional responses to child sexual abuse, disagrees.

He visited New Norcia along with Dallas Phillips and others in late 2019 and estimates there could be as many as 50 unmarked graves in the cemetery that could contain the remains of children.

Peter Fox
Retired detective Peter Fox believes there are children’s graves in New Norcia Cemetery.

(Delivered by: Peter Fox)

“One could still see, over a quarter of the cemetery, the graves of what appeared to be short graves, in all probability children, but none of them had marks,” said Mr. Fox.

“There was no cross, no tombstone, no formality of any kind, except that one could distinguish through the different surface of the earth where burials had taken place.

“And I just felt it was terribly sad.”

man sitting with front facing camera and holding his book
Perth historian Neville Green’s book on the Aborigines of New Norcia traces the history of the mission for the first 50 years. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

Historical records made by Perth historians Neville Green and Lois Tilbrook for their book ‘Aborigines of New Norcia 1845-1914’ show the population of New Norway during this period, along with the entire southwestern part of WA. was destroyed by measles outbreaks.

But very little seems to have been written about the next chapter of the mission from 1914 onwards.

Exterior of old building on the street
For most of its history, St. Joseph’s “orphanage” for girls run by the Benedictine Oblate sisters from New Norcia. (ABC News: Claire Moodie )

P. Herbert said the only other burial site known to the monks was under the choir area of ​​the town’s Abbey Church.

According to monastery records, the burial site was discovered during construction work in 1871, when workers found the empty coffin of an 11-year-old boy who died in 1855.

Noongar woman Dallas Phillips holds a photograph of herself as a baby in the arms of her sister standing in front of bushes.
Dallas Phillips has a photo of herself as a baby with her sister on the family farm in Goomalling before she went to New Norcia.

His remains were later reburied along with his father.

‘It’s been on for too long’

Ms Phillips would like to see as many remains discovered and identified as possible.

She also demands full disclosure of New Norway’s records of native children buried in the city, including whether their parents and other authorities were notified of their deaths.

Ms Phillips has called for the remains to be repatriated back to their traditional lands if families so request.

Woman standing at gates to cemetery
Dallas Phillips has written to the pope calling for the graves to be identified and recognized. (ABC News: Claire Moodie)

“We have to get them home to their own country at the expense of the Benedictine [WA] The government, “she said.

“We are tired of talk, we need action now, it has been going on for far too long.”

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