Sunday, October 27, 2013

Just in Case

The jagged. serrated mountain tops swam in the clouds. Our bus wound around the numerous hairpin bends on the ten percent grade.  Although a good traveller, I had to force myself to look out of the window to offset the beginning waves of nausea.

The eery, gothic Benedictine monastery in the mountain peaks is home to a highly profitable commercial operation with restaurants, shops, funicular railways and audio-visuals. The sheer grandeur of the massive stone buildings and the opulence of the fittings reflects both the power and wealth of the Catholic Church.

Isolated and remote, Montserrat today houses eighty monks and fifty-five boys. The boys recieve a prestigious education and are trained to sing in Montserrat's famous choir. Our guide tells us that wealthy parents compete for entry into Montserrat. The educational standards are so prestigious that graduates can virtually walk into the high paid position of their choosing.

Through the doors of the main cathedral thirty of more fragile, twisted bodies in wheelchairs were guided into the courtyard. Many looked as though they would not last another week before leaving this earth. Their eyes told me Montserrat was their last chance, or at least their last voyage - seeking the indulgence of Montserrat's all powerful Black Madonna. To physically touch the Black Madonna would create an indulgence and  forgiveness for a  lifetime of wrongs. Perhaps I should have climbed the altar and touched her.

In the courtyard young men and women took turns to stand on a parquetry cross, gaze heavenwards  and spiral with eyes lifted towards heaven. Reminiscent of the sufi dancers in Turkey and Egypt, these young people were also attempting to get closer to God.

Through the distant cloud I caught a glimpse of a much smaller, less prestigious but still substantial building. This was the convent for the nuns. Our guide informed us that the convent was approximately two kilometres away, across deep ravines and hazardous breakaways. Our guide explained the location was strategic. She smiled 'Just in case' she said.

Pictures in my mind dissolved to the Benedictine Monastery at New Norcia in my home state of Western Australia. New Norcia is the only monastic town in Australia. It was also the home to St Ildephonsus Marist Brothers College and St Gertrude's staffed by Josephite Sisters. Both schools have now closed however I was fortunate to be privy to stories from the 1950s and 60s because I knew many of the students personally.

Ghost stories abound, with headless men seen cavorting with chains and crucifixes in the cemetery under a waxing moon. In 1961 there was the infamous school ball where the Head Monk ordered that boys and girls be kept on separate sides of the dance hall 'just in case'. At St Gertrude's the food was so sparse one girl stole altar breads and wine, topping up the bottle with water. She only avoided expulsion because her brother was a Marist Brother and her mother a wealthy widow.

Boys were required to shower in their underpants to reduce 'distractions'. And then, of course, the strategic placement of the haunted cemetery between St Ildephonsus and St Gertrude's 'just in case'

In 1962 I started at Graylands Teachers' College. At the first College Stomp at neighbouring Claremont Teachers College I noticed three quivering lambs, huddled anxiously in one dark corner. The trembling trio were girls from St Gertrude's. Six months later, two of the three lambs were pregnant. Even Claremont Teachers' College's 'castle ghost' couldn't prevent that. On reflection, perhaps the Josephite sisters should not have torn out the back thirty-six pages on Reproduction from the girls' Physiology and Hygeine textbook 'just in case'.


Dale Neill's next Wildheart tour is to Budapest, Croatia and the Dalmatian Coast in September 2014. Email Sandy Chaney  for itinerary.

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