Noongar woman a trailblazer

Image: Sharyn Moodie 2020

The headstone of half-Aboriginal woman Mary Cuper stands tall and proud, set apart from the simple white crosses and the myriad unmarked graves belonging to other Noongar inhabitants of the New Norcia cemetery.

Intriguingly, the words “at her sorrowful husband’s expences (sic) are found at the bottom of a description of her achievements.

The town itself, Australia’s only monastery town, was established in 1847 as an Aboriginal mission by Spanish Benedectine monk Rosendo Salvado – and like many such places, has a controversial history.

Rosendo Salvado aimed to educate the First Nation’s people, and to save them – both through knowledge of their Lord and through work, which was considered a prayer by the Benedectines.

Mary was considered a success story in his social experiment.

She was born to a European father and an Aboriginal mother in Bunbury. After her father deserted the family, she was sent to be raised at New Norcia.

Weddings between the Aboriginal inhabitants seemed to be encouraged, and Mary,  aged 15,  married in 1862. However, her husband died shortly after and she married Benedict Cuper the next year.

He also had an English father and an Aboriginal mother and was lauded by the mission as one of their success stories, being a farmer and cricketer. Was it that success that enabled him to afford such a grand headstone? Had his exposure to the European way of life encouraged him to desire the memento of his wife’s life? Or did the church encourage the testament to one of its success stories?

 The couple had one short-lived child, and their 15 acres of farmed mission land was often shown off to important mission visitors.

Salvado trained Cuper as a telegraphist,  teaching her Morse code.

When the postmaster position in the newly opened line to Geraldton became available in May 1873, he put her forward for the job.

The superintendent of  telegraphs, James Fleming, feared Cuper would be an “inconstant worker” and thought “it will be necessary to appoint someone to whom the quarters and a small salary will suffice.”

However, with Salvado’s support, she was appointed to the role in August, becoming the first female in that position,  and was paid the same as a European employee – thirty pounds a year.

Her capabilities were described as exceeding “any apprentice the superintendent of telegraphs had ever seen.”[3] 

But it was not long before the ravages of tuberculosis affected her health. She had already trained another Aboriginal woman Sarah Caruingo Ninak, who took over as she became more ill.

Mary was inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame in 2021.

And while her sorrowing husband paid for her simple yet poignant headstone, Salvado, who died in Italy in 1900, is interred in a marble tomb in the New Norcia Abbey church.

The New Norcia Cemetery

In the cemetery itself are more than 300 graves, some elaborate, some unnamed, some unmarked.

In an ABC story, current Abbott Father John Herbert, said many Aboriginal graves were unmarked because “that was the Indigenous community’s custom at the time of the burials”.

Interpretive sign at the gates of the New Norcia cemetery.
An un-named Aboriginal grave, in front of the graves of some of the clergy who died in the the town. Image: Sharyn Moodie 2020
Image: Sharyn Moodie 2020

Another poignant headstone in the cemetery belongs to Lila, aged 10, who died of dysentery in 1909. She was a boarder at the town’s school St Gertrude’s opened the year before. It was considered too dangerous to send her body home to her parents at Beverley, 170 kilometres away, so she was buried at New Norcia.

New Norcia, Western Australia


Moodie, Claire, Plea to find children’s burial sites at New Norcia,

New Norcia Chimes, March 2021, viewed at

Pope, B, ‘Cuper, Mary Ellen (1847–1877)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 7 February 2022.

The Western Australian Times (Perth, WA : 1874 – 1879), Tuesday 4 September 1877 – Page 2

Mary Ellen Cuper – Wikipedia(opens in a new tab)

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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