In Mass each week, we are praying for the canonisation of Mother Aubert of the Sisters of Compassion.
Suzanne Aubert grew up in a French provincial family. Lyon’s missionary spirit brought her to live with Maori girls in war-anxious 1860s Auckland. She nursed Maori and Pakeha in Hawke’s Bay as the settler population swelled in the 1870s. In the 1880s and 1890s, up the Whanganui at Hiruharama/Jerusalem, she broke in a hill farm, published a Maori text, manufactured medicines, set up the only New Zealand home-grown Catholic congregation, and gathered babies and children through the family-fracturing years of economic depression. The turn of the century sent her windswept skirts through the streets of the capital. There she would be a constant sign of warm caring and tolerance until she died in 1926. [From the Sisters of Compassion website]
For a fuller history of her life, see the link above, or follow the dates in the Sisters’ timeline of Mother Aubert’s life. The Te Ara encyclopaedia also has an excellent article, which gives a good account of her conflicts with government policy, bishops, and others as she worked to provide practical help to those most in need. For example, her order started the nation’s first child care centre, took in foundlings without demanding to know their parentage, and helped anyone who needed help whether or not they were Catholic.
In The Story of Suzanne Aubert, Jessie Munro says:
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:
I thought she meant business straightaway. There was no nonsense about her. She didn’t say she’d be very pleased to have me or anything like that. I was coming solely to a life of dedication and Mother made no bones about it. But [she] was very simple and very lovable and very friendly when one got to know her.
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!”