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Anselm Mary Catalan (1878–1959)

by Clement Mulcahy

This article was published:

Anselm Mary Catalan (1878-1959), Benedictine abbot, was born on 16 November 1878 at Corella, Navarra, Spain, son of Michael Catalan. Educated at the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat, Anselm joined the Order in 1894 and was ordained priest in 1902. At St Bede's College, Manila, he served as professor (1903-05) and rector (1909-15); he was also procurator of the Benedictine missions in the Philippines. In 1914 Dom Anselm was appointed abbot visitor to the Cassinese Congregation in Spain. Next year he was elected superior of the monastery at New Norcia, Western Australia; Pope Benedict XV made him an ordinary of this abbey nullius, giving him quasi-episcopal responsibilities for New Norcia's contingent diocese which spanned 30,000 sq. miles (77,700 km²).

He was to see his community and rural diocese affected by the social and economic repercussions of two world wars and the Depression, and by drought, rabbit plagues and isolation. The experience increased his natural caution and frugality. Nevertheless, Catalan completed the transformation of New Norcia from an Aboriginal mission—pioneered by Abbot Salvado—to a monastic township wherein educational institutions, liturgy, cultural heritage and community work were fostered. He did not become embroiled in the conscription issue during World War I; while sympathetic to General Franco, he avoided partisanship at the time of the Spanish Civil War and directed his monks to follow suit. New Norcia remained relatively untouched by the centralizing policies of the chief protector of Aborigines A. O. Neville and his successor F. I. Bray.

Tutored by his wide experience, Catalan planned effectively for the training of Spanish and Australian novices, and for the management of the abbey's personnel, resources and missionary endeavours. In addition, he helped to establish diocesan churches, convents and schools in the developing townships in the wheat-belt of his diocese, and supported the inception of Boys' Town, Bindoon. Buildings were added to New Norcia's schools and boarding facilities were expanded for Aboriginal pupils. Catalan recruited in Spain for nuns and in 1935 reconstituted the Sisters as Benedictine Oblates Regular to care particularly for Aboriginal children at New Norcia and Kalumburu. Their hours of schooling gradually increased and the curriculum shifted from vocational training to conventional education.

Outdoor activities for the children included participation in organized sport and in the harvesting of fruit and olives: on such outings the Benedictine Sisters allowed them to search for bush tucker. The mission, however, made limited use of Aboriginal languages, except at Kalumburu (near King Edward River) where the monks recorded and used the Pela tongue. The Japanese bombed this mission in 1943.

Dom Anselm travelled regularly and extensively throughout his diocese, and met national and international obligations. He had visited the Drysdale River Mission (established 1908) which he transferred to Pago before settling it at Kalumburu in 1937. In some respects the demands of his diocese detracted from the overall management of the abbey, but he wryly held that parishes provided safety valves for the monastic community. Devotional organizations were provided for the laity and he instituted the Benedictine Secular Oblates in 1944. To ensure that his monks and clergy were well trained, he built a seminary and also directed students to St Patrick's College, Manly, Sydney, and to institutions in Rome. (Cardinal) James Knox was one of his protégés. Monks with artistic or musical skills were also encouraged to study interstate or overseas, and the choral and orchestral tradition of New Norcia strengthened significantly in his abbacy. In 1946, at New Norcia, Catalan hosted a national celebration of the centenary of missionary work in Western Australia.

The abbot's recreational activities ranged from music to reading, and from working in the monastery's orchards to keeping ferrets. He maintained a regular assault on the hundreds of birds that wreaked havoc in the orangery, olive groves and vineyards. The ferrets were Catalan's practical response to the rabbit-warrens on the abbey's farms and bemused unsuspecting visitors when they were shown as his pets. Well known in Perth's business circles and the Catholic community, Catalan had a reserved but hospitable manner, appreciated by many. After eight years retirement at the abbey, he died on 29 July 1959 at St John of God Hospital, Subiaco, and was buried at New Norcia.

Select Bibliography

  • Benedictine Community of New Norcia, The Story of New Norcia (New Norcia, WA, 1979), and Pax, 29 July 1959
  • D. F. Bourke, The History of the Catholic Church in Western Australia (Perth, 1979)
  • University Studies in History, 5, no 1, 1967
  • Record (Perth), 25 Sept 1915, 6 Aug 1959
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Oct 1937.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Clement Mulcahy, 'Catalan, Anselm Mary (1878–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 November, 1878
Corella, Navarra, Spain


29 July, 1959 (aged 80)
Subiaco, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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