In the footsteps of a saint-in-the-making

By Sue Seconi -
1 comment
A young Suzanne Aubert with Jerusalem in the background in a portrait that was painted at iconographic art specialists The Studio of John the Baptist and unveiled in 2014.
A young Suzanne Aubert with Jerusalem in the background in a portrait that was painted at iconographic art specialists The Studio of John the Baptist and unveiled in 2014.

The work of New Zealand's saint-in-the-making, the venerable Suzanne Aubert, in Jerusalem - 62 kilometres inland along the windy, tar-sealed Whanganui river road - is not only well-documented, but visited as a destination by choice and not by chance.

Here in this isolated place called Hiruharama in 1883, this smart, energetic and faith-filled French woman set about breaking 50 acres into an orchard growing a variety of nuts, pipfruits and berries, developed medicines by combining Maori herbs with her own medical knowledge, established New Zealand's homegrown Catholic religious congregation called the Sisters of Compassion, took in babies and children of "little account" in her orphanage and wrote English to Maori texts and Maori to English texts.

What is not so well known is that she had much to do in early Whanganui which could also forge its own place in becoming a pilgrim's destination when Suzanne is finally named a Saint by the Catholic Church.

Last month, Whanganui mayor Hamish McDoull, councillor Josh Chandulal-Mackay and Palmerston North Diocese Bishop Charles Drennan joined 22 Associates of Suzanne Aubert - Te Hunga Whai i nga Akoranga a Suzanne - to participate in a first ever heritage trail visiting six significant places of interest and hearing why.

First location was the site of the original railway station between Ridgway Street and Maria Place where she arrived by train from Hawke's Bay on June 15, 1883. This 48-year-old stepped foot into a settlers town with a population of around 4000.

Jesse Munro, in her award-winning book The Story of Suzanne Aubert, sets the scene that awaited Suzanne.

"In spite of New Zealand's depression, Wanganui was a lively town supported by flourishing rural districts and a vigorous coastal export trade.

"There were the bustle, the crowds flocking in for the weekly livestock sale, the buggies, the horses, and the seven coasting steamers discharging and reloading at the wharf.

"The freezing industry was getting under way in Wellington and Wanganui was supplying it."

Although based in Jerusalem, she worked in this region for 16 years travelling often to town on business. She left for Wellington in 1899.

Majestic Square was next. Here once stood St Mary's Catholic Church, where Suzanne would have gone to mass, the presbytery and convent/school.

For the three weeks waiting to travel on to Jerusalem, it is most likely that she would have stayed with the Sisters of St Joseph, the Australian teaching order who had arrived in 1880.

Chavanne's Hotel was on the site of the old National Bank Building, and how wonderful it must have been for her to speak her own language with the French owners, Mr and Mrs Charles Chavanne, becoming good friends and having free accommodation.

This very upmarket and stylish hotel with its handsome entranceway, unique octagon designed bar, internal fountain, noble staircase leading upstairs onto a spacious landing of wide passages and 22 large bedrooms, was noted as second to none along this coast.

Pakaitore/Moutoa Gardens was the third significant place. It was here that Suzanne, in May 1884, stayed in solidarity with Ngati Hau who had camped there for many months during the Native Land Court hearings.

Hatrick's Wharf was next where Australian-born Alexander Hatrick established a successful paddle steamer business in 1892.

By 1911 this once mayor had 12 large and 7 smaller vessels travelling beyond Jerusalem to Pipiriki and on to Taumarunui.

The Sisters had free passage. They had use of his carrier pigeons to send messages in an emergency and provided essential communication given there were no roads or telephone links.

The story was told of how Captain Kenny, after unloading his boat at Jerusalem, found a parcel left behind. Opening this out he found a baby inside with a label reading: "For Mother Aubert, at Jerusalem".

Suzanne's concentrated medicines stored in demijohns were also transported to Whanganui and then onto KP's in Wellington for manufacture.

The hospital was the fifth location in the trail.

It was explained how in 1904 John McMahon, one of the orphans from Jerusalem, was at death's door from an infection that was poisoning his system.

Sister Mary Joseph Aubert.
Sister Mary Joseph Aubert.

The medical superintendent sought permission from Suzanne to amputate the whole arm from his shoulder to save his life.

Fearing that he would take advantage of young John for a medical-type experiment, Suzanne took him against the authorities advice, returned him to Wellington where he was nursed to full health.

After receiving a good education, John worked for the government. But he recalled how, before leaving the hospital that day, Suzanne told the medical superintendent to take his own medicine and she would take "her boy".

Upokongaro was the last stop on the itinerary.

On July 14, 1883, Werahiko, Poma, Keremeneta, Reone, Wi Pauro, Materoa and other men of importance had travelled down from Hiruharama to take back with them two young Sisters of Joseph to revive the Maori mission and school.

Suzanne was to act as their aid and interpreter. Bishop Redwood from Wellington organised his timetable to farewell them on their new missionary foundation.

In an article in the pages of the Wanganui Chronicle reference was made to the fine weather with southerly winds. It would be a cold, three-day mid-winter journey.

Pope Francis announced on Sunday, December 4, 2016, that Suzanne had been named venerable. This brings the cause to another stage in its lengthy and complex path to be finally canonised as a saint.

While we wait for a miracle which is essential now to move into the next phase of the canonisation process, we should all be kind and respectful to those we encounter - just as Suzanne did.

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