Local focus: the first saint of Aotearoa in the making

The rich history of Jerusalem and its French nun Suzanne Aubert.

The history of the Sisters of Compassion and their relationship with the Whanganui River dates back over a century.

Established in Jerusalem / Hiruharama in Whanganui in 1892, it has grown into a highly respected religious order known for its nursing and charitable works throughout Oceania.

Its founder, Mother Mary Joseph Suzanne Aubert, also known by her Maori name Meri Hohepa, died in 1926 and is in the process of being canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

If Aubert is recognized as a saint, it is likely that the Whanganui River Path to Jerusalem, as the birthplace of the Sisters of Compassion, would become New Zealand’s premier pilgrimage route.

Aubert is recognized as a pioneer of New Zealand’s health and social protection system. Countless charities have grown from the very early beginnings in Jerusalem.

Although these were not technically miracles, Aubert’s ability to carry out big projects was enormous and his accomplishments numerous. As a pioneer of public welfare, she built hospitals and training centers.

Aubert also created the first crèche, soup kitchens, homes for disabled and sick people, as well as other social assistance companies.

The sisters are decreasing in number but continue their compassionate work with the help of the community.

Wellington-based Sue Sue Cosgrove first visited Jerusalem in 1968 and lived there permanently for 10 years from 2000.

“We Sisters of Compassion are an endangered species,” she said. “But what is not in danger is compassion and we have so many compassionate colleagues, friends, benefactors and volunteers especially at the soup kitchen.

“We are only as good as today thanks to all these colleagues and fellow travelers.”

In France as a young woman, Aubert trained as a nurse while pursuing private studies in health, chemistry and botany – skills she then used to care for the underprivileged. in New Zealand.

And it was a Frenchman, Mgr Pompallier, who was Bishop of New Zealand, who inspired Aubert to travel to the other side of the world. Pompallier spoke in the small French village where Aubert lived, in search of missionary recruits. Legend has it that from that moment on she knew she was going to the Antipodes.

“She went out without her parents knowing she was coming to New Zealand, on a whaling ship,” Cosgrove said.

Mother Mary Joseph Suzanne Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion in Jerusalem / Hiruharama de Whanganui in 1892.
Mother Mary Joseph Suzanne Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion in Jerusalem / Hiruharama de Whanganui in 1892.

“Her reason for coming was the education of Maori girls and Bishop Pompallier formed a small congregation of sisters and they had a boarding school for Maori girls.

“Bishop Pompallier finally returned to France, the New Zealand Catholic Church was in great debt and had to downsize.

“The small order was dismantled and Aubert went to Hawke’s Bay with the Marist priests as the third order.

Eventually, Aubert traveled to Whanganui with two Josephite sisters, to resuscitate a mission in the isolated colony of Jerusalem.

“She went by waka of course, going up the Whanganui River,” Cosgrove said. “It took three days to get there.

“I don’t know what happened, but these sisters only stayed for about 14 months. They helped restore the school, education was their goal, but they left.”

As a layman unable to socialize or dine with the sisters, Aubert had forged close ties with the local woman but encountered opposition from the Catholic Church who decided to suppress the Jerusalem mission.

Aubert therefore went to Wellington to appeal the decision to Bishop Redwood.

“She was heartbroken to have to go and he said, ‘No you won’t, you will be my sisters and you are destined for compassion for the souls of all people. You will be called Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion. ”So we have become a congregation.

Redwood appointed Aubert Mother Superior of the newly created Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion.

Aubert was fluent in Te reo Maori and learned rongoā, traditional Maori medicine. She combined this knowledge with her medical training to make remedies known for their healing power. The sale of medicines supported the mission in Hiruharama.

“People were sending infants in particular to take care of her,” Cosgrove said. “She just had a way with the kids and the healing, but some died and she didn’t have the medical resources. So she came to Wellington thinking she would build a children’s hospital.”

Aubert had hospitals built. She was also a pioneer in preventive health care. By the late 1800s, many men were out of work, starving and destitute.

“The men were seen as the breadwinners and of course they looked for work and came home hungry, unhappy and angry and their wives maybe hiding.

“So she thought that if the men had full bellies, at least they would come home with a happier state of mind. So the soup kitchen was established 120 years ago this year.”

Aubert continued to help working mothers and those who have children with absent fathers.

“They had to give up their children because they had no means of sustenance and so she set up the country’s first nursery,” Cosgrove said.

Aubert was very influential, arranging an audience with the Pope to organize funding for hospitals.

Sister historian Jo Gorman says Aubert had an incredible ability to be friends with everyone.

“She was friends with governors general, she was friends with politicians, she was friends with ordinary people. No matter who they were, she saw God in people.”

At this point Aubert was a force to be reckoned with.

“There was a woman who had tuberculosis at a time when we weren’t doing much, so she went to the health ministry and was told to wait.

“She had to wait and wait, so the secretary walked into the minister’s office and said ‘Suzanne Aubert is here and she’s getting angry’.

“Suzanne followed her into the office and she said ‘Suzanne isn’t getting mad, she’s angry. And if something isn’t done soon, I’ll report it. I’m going straight to the Dominion Post to do it. report in the next day’s edition “.

“So something was done. That’s when they opened the TB hospital at the back of Wellington Hospital,” Gorman said.

Wellington is now home to the religious order, headquartered in Island Bay, where Aubert is buried. A museum, cafe, and shop are open to the public daily, and there are conference rooms and accommodation, with extensive gardens.

In Jerusalem, the remains of the cherry orchard and the gardens planted by Aubert and the sisters remain.

Jerusalem is also famous for the poetry and art which arrived with James K Baxter in 1969, when Cosgrove was a young sister in the mission.

“I found it very exciting at the time,” she said. “I loved Baxter’s poetry on Jerusalem that he wrote. I can relate to it so well.”

Another part of Jerusalem’s rich history is the commune that developed around Baxter.

The Whanganui mission in Hiruharama remains a retreat, managed by the Sisters of Compassion in partnership with tangata whenua.


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