A little house in Aramoho and three old ladies drinking tea - but the atmosphere is anything but ordinary.

It's fair crackling with a relaxed, alert, good-natured intelligence. The three are completely comfortable with each other, and themselves, and they are completely present.

Marie Skidmore, Marcienne Waite and Liz Hickey have known each other for 60 years as members of a Catholic Josephite order. They share their possessions in common.

Since the early 1970s they haven't worn a black and white habit, but what drives them is unchanged.

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"The Church and us exist for the world, not for ourselves," Marcienne says.

They used to be Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth. But in 2013 the group rejoined the order they had started with in Australia in 1866, and are again Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

The first four from their original order came to Whanganui in 1880, at the request of a parish priest. Their average age was 25.

The priest wanted their help to educate the children of the poor. The Whanganui community had built them a convent in Victoria Ave, to live in and to start a new school. It was luxury compared with living in tents as they had in the Australian gold mines.

The intrepid four were soon joined by others, who spread out to Hastings, Hawera and Feilding. Whanganui acted as their centre.

Some of the sisters got to Jerusalem on the Whanganui River before Suzanne Aubert arrived in 1883.

"Fully habited, in canoes, staying at marae - it was an adventurous life for young women," Skidmore said.

Their teacher training was by correspondence. They worked hard, usually with few resources. They taught full-time, prepared and marked lessons, and cleaned their own classrooms and the convent. They managed to earn a bit of money by teaching music to private pupils.

They also tended to their own spiritual lives, and that of the parish. It was a regimented and disciplined life, but they were encouraged to be creative, extend their talents and find time for hobbies and recreation.

Villa Maria, in Whanganui's Cameron Tce, housed Catholic boarders and primary school classrooms. Photo / Supplied
Villa Maria, in Whanganui's Cameron Tce, housed Catholic boarders and primary school classrooms. Photo / Supplied

There were a lot of changes as Whanganui grew and schools shifted out to the suburbs, moving, closing and amalgamating. Between 1880 and 1904 seven new schools were opened, giving Whanganui a comprehensive Catholic school system.

The schools provided a first-class education for every Catholic child in the district, regardless of wealth, race and social status. Those not able to afford the very modest fees were never turned away.

Sacred Heart Convent was opened on St John's Hill in 1912. Photo / Supplied
Sacred Heart Convent was opened on St John's Hill in 1912. Photo / Supplied

In 1912 the large and grand Sacred Heart Convent opened on St John's Hill, and eventually became a girls' secondary school. As many as 50 sisters lived there and commuted to teach elsewhere.

But change has been a constant in the life of the order, and things changed in education.

Catholic schools integrated with state schools, with the state paying teachers and the schools retaining ownership and responsibility for their buildings, and keeping their special character.

"It worked out well, because the state didn't have to build a whole lot of new schools, and Catholic schools got wages paid," Liz said.

The big Sacred Heart convent building was demolished in 1982. Whanganui's two Catholic secondary schools amalgamated to become Cullinane College in the early 2000s.

There are still three of the sisters' 10 Catholic primary schools functioning in Whanganui - St Marcellin, St Anne's and St Mary's. Their teachers are lay people rather than sisters.

By 1988 the sisters had stopped teaching and turned their talents in other directions. They took heed of one of the order's founders, Father Julian Tenison Woods, who said "Never see a need without doing something about it."

They moved from being under the control of the local bishop to being in charge of their own affairs, monitored by Rome. Peter Cullinane had been their bishop.

"I feel like a dad whose adolescent daughter has asked to go flatting," he said at the time.

The order's other founder, Mary MacKillop, was made a saint in 2010. She was a strong woman and the order always had a strong belief in women's abilities. When feminist theology came along in the 1980s, the sisters embraced it.

Their new focus was the welfare of women and families. They established an emergency house in Titoki St, and a Māori self development house in Glasgow St, for cultural exchanges. They learned about structural analysis.

"Tariana Turia cut her teeth there," Skidmore said.

They became counsellors and psychotherapists, prison chaplains, social workers, adult educators and environmentalists.

Waite spent four years doing mission work to empower Papua New Guinea women. Men still had a lot of power there.

In Papua New Guinea women were beaten up by men for any little thing. When that happened other women minded their own business and stayed inside. Waite suggested they come outside and bang a pot with a spoon while the beating took place.

"That was empowering the women to support each other. It did work. The men got a big shame, and that's a big thing in Papua New Guinea."

Returning to Whanganui she found an empty house in Guyton St. It had been set up for Vietnamese refugees but was unneeded. She turned it into the drop-in Josophia Craft Centre. Candles for ceremonies are made there, and it also sells crafts, especially her knitting. The proceeds are used to fund other work by the sisters.

In 2013, when the sisters fused with their original order, there were about 35 living in Whanganui and 70 others in New Zealand. They joined a group of 800, with sisters spread from Ireland and Scotland to East Timor, Peru, Brazil and New Zealand - but mainly in Australia.

The order's New Zealand centre became Auckland, and the Whanganui sisters were spread far and wide. Those still in Whanganui go to Auckland frequently, for meetings and celebrations.

"Air Chathams is well patronised. They know us by name."

Hickey became a resource teacher learning and behaviour (RTLB) with the Education Ministry. Skidmore became a counsellor and has also been on the sisters' regional leadership team. This region includes Queensland, New Zealand, Brazil and Peru, and she has visited the 12 sisters in Peru.

What struck her was how independent and resilient they are. They are teachers and principals at Jesuit schools, or work in women's craft co-operatives in remote locations.

"We are in places you can only get to by boat, with one or two in each. We have had a sister murdered in Peru. It happened in 1991. She was murdered by the Shining Path, because they felt she had too much influence on the poor."

In Sydney Margaret Ng is working on human trafficking, and in Wellington there's a refugee house for a family of Somalis.

These days there are only about 20 sisters in Whanganui. Nazareth Rest Home, one of their ministries, has closed. They've had a grand history here, and in 50 years' time there may only be graves left.

They see this as a transition, rather than an ending.

About four new women a year join the order these days, and they are in at least middle age.

"We came through and we were formed. Now people are coming in with their talents, that they can use for the betterment of the world. We turn people away if they're young. It's not fair to them. They've got to know themselves first," Hickey said.

There are new pathways for people to get involved, and not exactly join the sisters but be part of the Josephites.

The retreat centre at Mount St Joseph is one of the sisters' main remaining ministries in Whanganui, and two sisters live there. Decision-making is slower these days, because in the bigger order it takes place at national, regional and head office level.

The Whanganui sisters want to maintain the close connections of their original small group, as well as being enlivened by input from the bigger group.

They've experienced a lot of change, and loss.

"We have had to let go of a lot of things," as Waite puts it.

But change has given them an opportunity to practise detachment.

"When we were in training there was a thing called detachment. It's a collective unconscious thing really, not to be attached to things. Material things come and go. We have got that sense," Skidmore said.