Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert sense of a religious vocation was fostered by the Curé d’Ars, and her concern for the sick and disabled was shaped by a serious childhood accident she suffered. By age 16, she was convinced she had a vocation to serve God as a member of a religious nursing order. Her family was not sympathetic, but when she turned 18 she went to Paris to begin nursing training. She served as a nurse in the Crimean campaign, mainly at the base hospital in France and on the hospital ships.
After the war she attended medical lectures at the University of Lyons, in spite of the fact that women were not allowed to graduate. Like other young women of her social class, she was encouraged to keep up her languages and music, and for a while she studied piano under Franz Liszt. She persisted in her determination to become a nun, and when she was 25, Bishop Pompallier, who was known to her family, was back in France; he recruited her and others, they sailed from Le Havre for Auckland in September 1860.
Suzanne Aubert began her novitiate in June 1861 as Sister Marie-Joseph of the Congregation of the Holy Family. The French nuns along with 2 Maori sisters were attached to the Maori girls’ school in Ponsonby. Within a year her command of Maori was good enough for Bishop Pompallier to send her on mission work to both Northland and the Waikato. With the departure of Bishop Pompallier in 1868, the work of the mission was severely restricted and eventually ended. When Bishop Croke instructed her to return to France, she refused, saying, “I have come here for the Maori, I shall die in their midst. I will do what I like.”
In February 1871 she went to Napier, to work in a lay capacity with the Hawke’s Bay mission run by the Marist Order. She was there 12 years, acting as a district nurse to both pakeha and Maori, and ministering to the spiritual needs of the Maori. For some years she received a government grant of £40 per annum for medicine to supplement the drugs she prepared herself from native plants and herbs. At Meeanee. Dispensary records show that in 1873 alone Meri, as the Maori called her, saw over a 1000 patients.
As well as nursing, Mother Aubert found time for writing, and her great love for the Maori, resulted in the publication of a Maori Prayer Book in 1879.
A request she felt she could not deny came from Archbishop Redwood, who sought her help in the re-establishment of the Wanganui River mission. In July 1883, with 3 sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth and a priest, she left Wanganui for the settlement of Hiruharama (Jerusalem). There, in the midst of an impoverished community, they set up two schools and a dispensary and offered a refuge to orphans and the chronically ill. The work of the mission was supported by work on the land and the sale of medicines in Wanganui.
The Sisters of St Joseph withdrew in 1884, and it was decided that the work would be best supported by setting up a distinct order, with Mother Marie Joseph as its superior. So the Daughters of our Lady of Compassion was formed in 1892. While she was at Jerusalem she wrote a Manual of Maori Conversation. In addition, she compiled a collection of spiritual writings called "The Directory" for the use of her sisters.
Between 1891 and 1901 pakeha children were also taken in at Jerusalem. By 1899 it was apparent that this aspect of the work could best be done in Wellington. So they moved to Wellington, where Mother Aubert and several sisters arrived in 1899 to begin district nursing work with the poor and destitute. A year later she opened St Joseph’s Home for Incurables in Buckle Street. It was at this time that she gave up her reliance on government grants and the sale of produce and medicines, recognising that for her new venture she would “have to trust entirely on Divine Providence and the generosity of charitable souls”.
As well as work with the incurables, she opened a day nursery for children in 1902, and a children’s home was soon added to the Buckle Street complex. The needs of the unemployed were met by a soup kitchen in the city. In 1907 the doors of Our Lady’s Home of Compassion for handicapped and incurably ill children were opened.
It was not until 1917 that papal approval for her work was granted to her in person. She left New Zealand in 1913 to seek that approval, as a way of circumventing the opposition of the Catholic hierarchy in New Zealand. They would have preferred her to confine her work to Catholic circles. With papal approval of the order she could determine its priorities. She continued nursing in Europe during World War I and did not return to New Zealand till 1920.
In the final years of her life she concentrated on establishing nursing training at the Home of Compassion, but, unfortunately, final approval for this was not given until after her death. It is said that her funeral was the largest ever held for a woman in New Zealand.
BORN: 1835, Lyons, France.
DIED: 1926, Wellington, New Zealand.