- Jessie Munro
This essay was first published in New Zealand in Chapter 9 of 'French-Two Centuries of Contact in 1990', and 'The French and the Maori' (Chapter 5) 1992.
It was edited by John Dunmore.
© the Fédération des Alliances Françaises de Nouvelle-Zélande.
Published by The Heritage Press Ltd, Waikanae.
Working bees have always been a strong expression of community life in New Zealand. And the year 1907 saw what was probably one of the most impressive and unusual working bees in New Zealand history. The site was the steep hill behind the Home of Compassion in Island Bay, Wellington. The job was carrying sand and cement up the hill to build a much-needed water reservoir. Nothing unusual so far. But the volunteers were many and varied: there was the Governor-General himself, Lord Plunket, and men from his staff at Government House; on another occasion there was the mayor, then workingmen’s clubs, sports clubs, young people’s groups, university students. There is a photo showing one such group taking an undoubtedly well-earned rest on the grass. Sitting centre front in the photo is Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, a dynamic and indomitable Frenchwoman who, through her enthusiasm and dedication, left an indelible mark on New Zealand’s developing social conscience.
Suzanne Aubert, or Mother Mary Joseph as she became known, lived her whole life with a dramatic sense of purpose. Intelligent and active, once she conceived of plans she was determined to carry them through. The plans would have arisen from her religious convictions but the practical application of them came as much from her strong personality as from her faith. This energetic character made her in later life such a well-known and respected figure that her funeral in Wellington was one of the biggest the city had ever known.
The very nature of her departure for New Zealand demonstrated this dramatic streak. In 1860, Suzanne Aubert lay in hiding in the port of Le Havre, hoping that the whaling ship, Le Général Teste, would leave port before her parents discovered where she was. Her family, although extremely devout, opposed her determination to become a missionary nun. Her solution was practical. She took matters into her own hands and quietly left home, telling no-one of her plans.
From a historian’s viewpoint, Suzanne Aubert’s life falls into two categories. The first, her childhood and early adulthood in France, her years in Auckland and even the time spent in Hawke's Bay, is tinted with legend; the second is well-documented overall. As an old woman she would recall incidents from her earlier life and recount them to the other nuns. These memories were later written down. Some can be verified, others cannot or have not yet been checked. It is important to keep this in mind when dealing with the account of her earlier years.
Suzanne Aubert was born in a small French village, St Symphorien-de-Lay, on 19 June 1835 and grew up in Lyon. As a small child she was reputedly high-spirited and active; her later pattern of life lends credibility to this. But a serious accident in early childhood left her crippled and nearly blind for several years, which undoubtedly helped her later to relate to people with disabilities. The ice broke on a frozen pond she and her brother were running across and both fell in. Her brother, Alphonse, clambered out and ran to the house for help, but Suzanne had struck rocks in the shallow pond and was badly injured. For years her mother took her to various rest and exercise cures in France, until finally she regained complete mobility and health. Suzanne’s mother and grandmother were very devout women and attributed her cure to their strong faith as well as the physical exercise. This combination of religious conviction and practical action would characterise Suzanne Aubert for the rest of her life. What she also inherited from these two women was a keen sense of social responsibility.
Growing up in comfortable family circumstances, studying music, languages and drawing like most other girls of her background, she nevertheless rejected the marriage her parents had planned for her. Her mother, who was hoping to effect a change of heart, took her to see Jean Vianney, the holy “Curé d’Ars”, revered at the time in France and subsequently canonised. But the visit had a dramatic outcome. Vianney, who was reputed to be able to read people’s hearts and see the future, is said to have told Suzanne Aubert that her own course was right for her, not that of her parents. It is essential to recognise the significance of the Curé d’Ars in the lives of devout Catholics in France at that time. Hundreds of pilgrims flocked daily to see him. Nothing he said would be taken lightly. Several times over the following years, Suzanne Aubert made pilgrimages to Ars, each one reinforcing her conviction, and one in particular, in 1858, equipping her, she said, with six key prophecies. To these she attached enormous significance and lived her life in the certainty of their eventual outcome.
With the interpretation she would give them, the prophecies were:
“You will go to the mission in two years with a relative of one who is now you at Ars. (Antoine Pompallier, nephew of Bishop Pompallier, was then with her at Ars.)
“You will begin a work there and it will fall down.” (She was convinced this referred to her work in Auckland, where her initial efforts were unsuccessful and where a later foundation also ran into difficulties after six years.)
‘Oh my child, how many difficult crosses and trials await you in life! You will be in conflict with the highest ecclesiastical authorities. You will travel to Rome when you are old because of these troubles, but whatever they do to you, whatever happens, whatever anyone will say to you, never, never give way, never let go, take courage, courage, courage.” (This remembered prophecy lies behind Mother Mary Joseph’s solitary journey, taken on her own initiative, to Rome in 1913.)
“I will help you more by my death than by my life.” (When Suzanne unexpectedly was absent from home in August 1860, her parents were not immediately suspicious. They thought she had gone to Ars for the first anniversary of the Curé’s death. This gave her time to get away to Le Havre to wait for the boat which would take her to New Zealand. Her early association with the Curé also lent support to her cause more than half a century later in Rome in the time leading up to his canonisation.)
“You will begin a work in a city and you will be helped by the Fathers of a teaching Order you now know in France.” (This would be the Marist Fathers.)
“You will have many troubles and these will continue all your life. Your work will not expand until after your death.” (Without a doubt, she would have believed firmly that the work of the Order of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, founded by her and formally recognised in her old age, would continue to expand after her death––as it has in fact done.)
This contribution by the Curé d’Ars to the career of Suzanne Aubert is documented only as reminiscences and in a letter to a Catholic magazine in Ars written by her in 1919, in which she recalls these prophecies. The question of their absolute historicity is almost irrelevant here: one is dealing with an item of faith. What is very relevant is the power these appear to have exercised in shaping the life of a person who was sufficiently determined and strong to try and bring into effect what would undoubtedly have deterred someone of less energy and endurance. Indirectly, perhaps, the “little Curé d’Ars” contributed to New Zealand’s social history.
Fortified by the encouragement of Jean Vianney and other figures in the church, Suzanne Aubert proceeded to prepare for her future vocation. She went to Paris where she said she studied nursing. It is recorded, but not confirmed, that she may have met Florence Nightingale there, that she helped with Crimean War soldiers, nursed victims of a cholera epidemic, and even followed medical courses at the Faculté at Lyon. Certainly she retained a keen interest in chemistry and herbal medicine and manufactured her own remedies wherever she went in New Zealand.
In 1859, Bishop Pompallier returned to Lyon from New Zealand to encourage more people to go out to New Zealand as missionaries. Lyon was the centre for the Society of Mary – the Marists – who were to play a great part in the growth of the Catholic Church in New Zealand. Suzanne decided to go. It is probable that a mission outside a French territory would have protected her from legal efforts on the part of her father to have her sent home. In August 1860, she left early one morning. Finally, on 1st September, she boarded the whaling ship Le Général Teste with three other French women, Lucie Pompallier (Pompallier’s niece), Octavie-Antoinette Deloncle, and Marthe-Péroline Droguet.
The 1860s were difficult times for Bishop Pompallier and his congregations. He was popular with Auckland parishioners and public but often short of money. The growing conflict between the Maori and the government disrupted the work of the missions. Suzanne Aubert arrived just at this time, full of zeal for working with the Maori people but finding over the following ten years that this would not be straightforward. The three Frenchwomen stayed initially with the Sisters of Mercy, but were then given charge of the orphanage school for Maori girls in Ponsonby, working there with an older woman who became the first Maori nun, Peata. In the time that followed, Suzanne Aubert became fluent in Maori and a deep mutual respect grew between her and Maori people.
By 1867 the diocese was very poor with church properties heavily mortgaged. Pompallier, old, ill and discouraged, soon returned to France. With him went his niece. The other two Frenchwomen had already left, one setting out to return to France because of illness, the other to go on to Wellington. Suzanne Aubert was determined to stay. She had the prophecies of Jean Vianney to sustain her. Nevertheless, it was a low point in her life. In a period of general controversy over the record of Pompallier’s episcopacy, she felt isolated among the English-speaking Catholic clergy and sisters, who quite logically in a British colony were gradually taking over from the earlier French. She was ill, disillusioned, exhausted and struggling to finance the orphanage school with sewing and lessons. In Ernest Simmons’s book Pompallier, Prince of Bishops, he writes of letters sent by Suzanne Aubert to Poupinel, the Marist father in charge of Marist mission affairs, making allegations (as did others also) against her fellow countryman, Pompallier. Simmons describes the atmosphere of that brief unhappy period in Suzanne Aubert’s life:
A way out of her dilemma came with a letter from Père Reignier, at the Marist Mission in Hawke’s Bay, inviting Sister Joseph, as Suzanne was now called, to help at the mission. On 15 February 1871, she left Auckland for Hawke’s Bay. So started the most tranquil period of her life in New Zealand. She concentrated on her nursing, travelling around the countryside on foot and looking after the sick in both Maori villages and European settlements. She became very familiar with Maori medicine and developed her own herbal remedies, also using the chemistry she had learned years before. In later years these would be patented and sold as part of the fund-raising for her work; descriptions of Suzanne staying up all night to brew her rongoa recur in several accounts. In travelling around, nursing the sick as she did, she became in effect New Zealand’s first district nurse. Another achievement while in Hawke’s Bay was the revision and expansion of the Catholic Maori prayer book and the initial work towards a significant Maori-English phrase book, published in 1885. This book was later adapted and enlarged by Sir Apirana Ngata.
Twelve years passed by in Hawke’s Bay. In 1883, however, when she was 48, she was asked by Bishop Redwood to help Father Soulas revive the mission at Hiruharama, or Jerusalem, which had almost been abandoned during the Hauhau troubles. With Father Soulas and three other Sisters, she travelled up the Whanganui River by canoe, the first of her many Whanganui boat trips. When she arrived, as the sun was sinking behind the hills, she recorded that she seemed to recognise a house that the Curé d’Ars had described to her many years before. This would have helped her set to with determination in this new venture. Again her time was busy with medicine, and with education. Life was very hard and the Sisters were poor. But a church was built, the school was open, and in two whares she looked after old people with incurable diseases. Her father back in France was now dead. With her inheritance she bought a farm and planted it with fruit trees, especially cherries, sent from France. Later, tourists on the riverboat would come to see the trees in blossom, and in the summer cherries were sold to them.
And then one of the major changes in her life occurred, opening the period when the record of her activities becomes well documented. The 1880s and into the 1890s were years of great depression in New Zealand. Before the establishment of a social welfare system, families suffered badly. Children were often ill and occasionally abandoned. The double standard of Victorian morality punished pregnant girls severely; there was little support for either them or their babies. The community at Jerusalem began to take these babies in. By 1897 there were forty-five children. One baby was found by the captain of the riverboat, with this label on its shawl: “To Mother Joseph.”
It is very significant that Mother Mary Joseph thought through the implications of many decisions that she had to make from now on. Increasingly she was corresponding with officialdom, even presenting petitions to the Prime Minister, as she tried to set up the welfare facilities so desperately needed, still following her own principles. In an age when illegitimate pregnancy forced notoriety on a woman, the authorities required the mother to keep and nurse the baby for a period before it was placed elsewhere with some government assistance. Mother Mary Joseph saw hypocrisy and danger in this: she firmly believed that secrecy as to parentage gave the woman a better chance to pick up her life and decreased the risks of infanticide or suicide with financially or emotionally desperate mothers. In Mother Mary Joseph’s home the mother had access to the child; her name was on a register, but this was not available to the authorities. In adhering to this decision, Suzanne had to take the difficult step of declining to register for government support under the Infant Life Protection Act. In 1898 she chose an alternative suggested by Grace Neill, who was Assistant Inspector, to remain unregistered and hence independent, but still work with the co-operation of the government department. This compromise arrangement is shown in this letter from Mother Mary Joseph to the Minister in Charge of Charitable Institutions, dated 23 October 1898:
Allow me first to offer you the expression of my deep gratitude for the kind consideration you have taken of our Foundling’s Home at Jerusalem.
After considering the three alternatives proposed to me on the 22nd instant, with regard to the Home, I choose the third alternative, which is to remain unregistered, and therefore unable legally to take money for babies placed with us. But if, in order to give the Government a legitimate satisfaction as to the way the children are treated, re the grant to enlarge the building, I am prepared to allow an officer of your Department to visit Jerusalem at uncertain intervals, in order to inspect the Home as to sanitation, food, clothing and general well-being of the children and to make report to you thereupon.
And also to send you a quarterly return in the same envelope with the numbers of children (corresponding with numbers of children entered in our private book) admitted during the quarter, and the number of those who have died during that quarter, or been sent away, giving the number of those remaining in the Home at date. This I hope should be a sufficient guarantee to the Government and would enable us to preserve a perfect secrecy as to the names and whereabouts of their unfortunate parents, which secrecy we consider to be a most powerful mean [sic] of rescue on one hand and a prevention of crime on the other.
I have the honour to be,
M. Mary Joseph Aubert.
Her life from these years right to her death was full of such dealings with government departments as she became increasingly involved in pioneering social welfare. The considerable respect most of these officials had for her is a measure of her intelligence, integrity and hard work.
Her reputation in nursing and social welfare was becoming known. She was coming under pressure from doctors and priests working in the poorer areas of Wellington to set up a centre for home visiting or district nursing there. This was a dilemma. As her work was becoming more and more with new-born babies, sick or disabledd children or adults, it seemed obvious that a centre in a city near medical care and other services was sensible, rather than the isolated community up the Whanganui River. On the other hand, a very large part of her life’s work up to then had been with the Maori, whose language she knew well, and with whom there was mutual respect and understanding. If she went to the largely Pakeha inner suburbs of Wellington, this would be a huge break for her. The answer was expansion. The work at Jerusalem continued but a whole new centre of activity opened in Wellington. She herself was largely based in Wellington from then on.
Early in 1899, she arrived in Wellington with three sisters and began work in Buckle Street. This area is still a centre for the work of the Sisters of Compassion today. Very quickly, Mother Mary Joseph became one of Wellington’s best-known figures. The narrative seems in fact to speed up here, yet each of the projects she embarked on at that time, almost simultaneously, merits a chapter in an account, not a paragraph or merely a clause in a sentence! She dealt with the bureaucracy, both lay and ecclesiastical; she established a home for people with incurable illnesses; a soup kitchen was open day and night for the unemployed or anyone in need; in November 1903 she opened the first crèche for the children of poor working mothers; she trained – and insisted that her Sisters also train – with the St John’s Ambulance Association; she was a foundation member of the Plunket Society and applied its system in the home for children at Island Bay. Whatever services she offered were available to anyone, regardless of religious affiliation. Priority was given to those in greatest need. For this reason she chose not to have a waiting list for the services available.
Mother Mary Joseph and her Sisters of Compassion became recognised throughout Wellington also because they chose to be very visible. In blue habits and white coifs they would tramp the streets in their noisy hobnail boots, trundling a large wicker basket on wheels, accepting clothing and food for people in their care.
All this activity needed organisation and finance. The organisation derived in great part from her sheer determination and positive approach. Her religious faith kept her assured that the means to carry out her projects would always materialise and she would not baulk at obstacles. John McMahon, who grew up under her and the other Sisters’ care first in Jerusalem and then in the Wellington Home, wrote this about her:
The financing came from what was given, as the Sisters of Compassion did not charge for their services. People of Wellington, of many different religions or none, contributed willingly. Not only was the work increasing, the community of women itself was growing. Officially established as a Diocesan Congregation in 1892, by 1905 the Congregation of Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion had twenty-three professed Sisters, eight novices, and two postulants. In 1905 it received a special blessing from Pope Pius X.
The construction of the large Home of Compassion in Island Bay in 1906 was an enormous undertaking. Structural faults and lack of water were complicating factors. The famous volunteer effort made by hundreds of Wellington people to build the reservoir up behind the Home solved that problem. Another instance of Mother Mary Joseph’s popularity came on the fiftieth anniversary of her arrival in New Zealand, when the city and the Governor General presented her in the Town Hall with a cheque for £2000.
She was now seventy-five years old, and yet she had more plans in mind: to spread her work to Auckland, to set up a true hospital with Sisters as trained nurses, and to obtain a Papal Decree for her Order. It was for this that in 1913, at the age of seventy-eight, she made the astonishing decision to travel alone to Rome to see the Pope. Feeling impeded by the bureaucracy of the Church, she did not tell her superiors of this plan. She left Wellington outwardly to visit the Children’s Home in Auckland, and there she boarded the Niagara. This echoes her dramatic departure from France fifty-three years earlier. But her motivation was not sentiment or nostalgia for Europe, it was forward planning and undeterred resolution. She wanted the vision she had for her Order and the work it would do to materialise. She was convinced that was what the Curé d’Ars had intended, and she would do everything in her power to bring this about. She went right to the top: the Pope.
Once in Italy, she had several audiences with Pope Pius X, who was interested in her work and her connection with Jean Vianney. Various reasons, however, were to keep her in Italy for nearly seven years: the outbreak of World War I, the death of Pius X which delayed the granting of her Decree, and finally difficulties getting a passport to return. In 1917, Pope Benedict conferred a Pontifical Decree on the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion. In 1920, Mother Mary Joseph returned to New Zealand as Mother General. She could have retired in France or even Italy, but at the age of eighty-four she had more plans in store in New Zealand. She wrote in her Re Novitiate: “Rivers do not turn back again to their own source.” She herself personified this; she constantly moved onwards.
Back in New Zealand she began to develop a training hospital for the nurses at Island Bay. Once more she was in correspondence with officialdom, once more she was organising and planning. Training classes began in March 1933. Ten Sisters passed the State Examination in nursing, although they were ineligible for the State Certificate as yet. This would come in 1932, when the hospital was registered as a Grade A training school. But equally now her attention was taken up with preparing spiritual guidance for the Congregation. In her whole concept of religious life, practical help to other people went hand in hand with spiritual dedication. While in Italy she had already been writing spiritual directions for her fellow nuns. In New Zealand she continued with this. The manuscripts of her writing, even in her late eighties, show a clear, firm handwriting and a simple and direct style. French sometimes slips into her writing: “Les âmes que le Christ call to Him will never see here below the object of their love.” Elsewhere, French is crossed out and the English written above.
Despite the wealth of spiritual writings, practicality always remained a keynote. Mother Melchior, a later Mother General, recorded in an interview her first impressions of Mother Mary Joseph when she first met her soon after her return from Rome:
In fact, this combination of attributes appears whenever people described her. Adjectives of strength and purpose: strong, courageous, thorough, dedicated, stubborn, single-minded, strong-willed, independent, combine with these: warm, affectionate, energetic, thoughtful, caring, simple, loving.
Mother Mary Joseph died on 1 October 1926 at the age of ninety-one. Thousands lined the streets for her funeral. Government offices were closed and even sittings of the Supreme Court were postponed by the Chief Justice. A Jewish Rabbi and a Moderator of the Presbyterian Church joined the Catholic clergy and the Maori people in the funeral procession. A workman, on seeing the huge crowds, is reported to have asked: “What religion is this woman being buried?” A quick reply came: “That’s a question she would never have asked you or me!”
Suzanne Aubert was one of the most important figures in New Zealand history, influencing developments in social welfare, education, health, the treatment of women and children, with input into Maori scholarship, and instrumental in fostering non-sectarian tolerance and co-operation. The historically well-documented later years of her life contain many examples of dramatic, even heroic, achievements, and of independent thought and action. Could many of the ‘legends’ of the earlier period also have their truth?