Among the list of decrees whose promulgation was authorized yesterday by Pope Francis is the name of Mother Mary Joseph (Suzanne) Aubert, the French-born foundress of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion. She may now be honoured with the title “Venerable”.
Suzanne Aubert served most of her life here in Aotearoa/New Zealand, arriving at the age of just 25 as one of the missionaries who accompanied Bishop Pompallier to this country.
Her life was extraordinary, and many-faceted. She was a pioneer in many ways because of the gifts and abilities she brought and developed in over 60 years of service in New Zealand. She had nursing and pharmaceutical skills with a particular interest in botany and herbal remedies. She was a linguist, and even on her sea voyage to New Zealand, began learning the local language, Te reo Maori, which was essential at the time when it was the predominant language among the people she came to serve.
With the exception of a period spent in Rome between 1913 and 1919, Suzanne Aubert remained in New Zealand until the end of her life. During this time her work fell into three distinct phases. The first, shortest and least successful was spent in Auckland between 1860 and 1869, teaching young Maori girls.
This was followed by a period of missionary work among the Maori, first at Meeanee in Hawke’s Bay, and from 1883 at Hiruharama (Jerusalem) on the Wanganui River.
She worked as a teacher, catechist and nurse and became interested in Maori herbal remedies. In 1879 she published a Maori-language prayerbook and catechism, Ko te ako me te karakia o te hahi Katorika Romana (1879). Later she was to publish her New and complete manual of Maori conversation (1885) which included general rules of grammar and an extensive vocabulary.
While at Jerusalem she began caring for unwanted Pakeha children, an activity which led her into a third stage of endeavour: social work among the urban poor. She achieved most in the period between 1899 when she moved to Wellington and 1913, when she travelled to Rome to gain pontifical approval of the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion which she had founded. Her activities at this time laid the basis of work still undertaken by the Order.
Mother Aubert firmly refused to restrict her activities to Catholics, telling benefactors who wanted to place such a condition on donations that her work was the ‘salvation of souls, not the sanctification of Catholics’. She was a member of the St John Ambulance Association and the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, had links with the Plunket Society, and enjoyed the strong support of the Wellington division of the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association.
Towards the end of her life, although she was less active, Mother Aubert was a national figure much admired for her pioneering work. When she died on 1 October 1926 at Our Lady’s Home of Compassion, Wellington, aged 91, tribute was paid to her work and to her extraordinarily vivid personality. Her funeral, attended by politicians and church leaders of many denominations, was said to be the largest ever held for a woman in New Zealand.