AUBERT, Mother Mary Joseph
Founder of nursing order.
A new biography of Aubert, Mary Joseph appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Mary Joseph Aubert was born near Lyons on 19 June 1835 and christened Marie Henriette Suzanne. Her father was a lawyer, and her ancestors were of the old nobility. Her formal education was with the Benedictine Nuns at La Rochette. Suzanne was a disappointment to her devout but conventional mother. She had no liking for society or for the young man who wished to marry her. From 16 she was quite set on becoming a nursing nun. She was short and sturdy and had a lively personality, was full of fun, and remained so all her life. On her eighteenth birthday her father refused to allow her to become a Daughter of Charity but permitted her to go to Paris to train as a nurse. Florence Nightingale was a fellow student for a few weeks and never forgot her. She nursed in French Army hospitals during the Crimean War; an uncle of hers was a surgeon-general. She made three trips to the Crimea on the transports.
In her early twenties she accumulated many accomplishments from languages to cookery, and even had a course of lessons from Franz Liszt. She was able to follow some university courses at Lyons with the medical students though women were then debarred from obtaining a degree. At 20 she had told her father she would definitely become a nun at 25. She realised it would mean becoming a missionary in a foreign land if he still opposed her. For eight years she went at times to confession at Ars where St. John Vianney encouraged her in her aims and actually foretold to her later happenings. When an old acquaintance of her family, Bishop Pompallier of Auckland, visited France, she had her opportunity. Unknown to her parents, she joined his 26 missionary-recruits who left Havre for the Antipodes on 4 September 1860.
At Ponsonby Mary Aubert was one of the three French women who with two Maoris began the Congregation of the Holy Family to care for the Maori Girls' School. Suzanne now became Sister Mary Joseph though she was known among the Maoris simply as “Meri”. She learnt thoroughly the Maori tongue and much tribal lore, and made some journeys to the north and to the Waikato. After 10 years, Bishop Pompallier having resigned and the Holy Family Order being reduced to “Meri” and one Maori sister, Bishop Croke urged her to return home. “I came here for the Maoris,” she replied, “and I will die in the midst of them.”
In February 1871 she sailed for Napier to become a lay helper to Father E. Reignier, S.M., and the two brothers of the Hawke's Bay Mission. Their territory stretched from Waikaremoana to Woodville. For 12 years she was a “jill-of-all-trades”–catechist, seamstress, organist, and especially district nurse to Pakeha as well as to Maori. In 1873 she dealt with 1,353 sick persons. Among the remedies she prepared at her Meeanee dispensary were some of her own concoction in which she used herbs culled from the bush. She worked closely with the local doctors. For some years the Central Government, through her friend the Native Minister, Donald McLean, made her an annual grant of £40 for medicines “for poor, sick natives”. Another charity was devoted to the immigrants in the Napier Barracks for whom she begged literally “dray-loads” of bedding, clothing, and groceries. Her chief concern was the spiritual welfare of the Maoris. She taught them their religion and she baptised those “in extremis”. In 1879 she edited a Maori Prayer Book of 476 pages. In the following year she had a Maori church built at Pakipaki.
In 1883 the then Bishop Redwood asked her to help re-establish the Wanganui River Mission. At Jerusalem (Hiruharama) her order began when she gathered around her some young helpers. In poverty and backblocks hardship, they ran two schools and a dispensary, and took in the chronic sick and foundlings. To support the work, they tilled the land and made medicines to be sold in Wanganui and beyond. In these crowded years “Meri” published A Manual of Maori Conversation (1885). In 1892 Archbishop Redwood formally set up the community as an order under the title, “Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion”. In 1899, in response to requests from medical men, Mother Aubert brought three sisters to Wellington to undertake sick visiting in the slums. By support from many quarters they were able to feed the needy by gifts, mostly in kind, for Wellington took them immediately to its heart. In 1900 they began to take in the most neglected, bedridden cases. Like all her works, this was gratuitous and undenominational. From this time, however, she relied only on benefactions inspired by Providence. “It is my bank and it has never failed me yet.” she said later. (Previously she and her helpers had had some Government aid or had sold produce or medicines.) A soup kitchen for unemployed men was opened, and in 1902 a day nursery, the first in Wellington. In 1907, with about 14 children from Jerusalem, she began at Island Bay a children's home and a residential nursery. In 1910 she opened a foundling home in Auckland.
In August 1913 Mother Aubert left for Rome to obtain Papal approval for her order, its spirit, and its methods. The decree was granted in 1917 but because of the war she was unable to return until January 1920. She had spent much time nursing the war wounded and composing the spiritual works afterwards collected in The Directory (1922). Back at Island Bay she laid the foundations of a system of professional nursing training for her sisters and of a general hospital for those in straitened circumstances. She died on 1 October 1926.
As her life unfolds it becomes clear that her mission was to offer a haven to sufferers of every age, race, and creed, and especially to society's unwanted. Christ's words were her inspiration: “As often as you did it to one of these my least brethren you did it to me.” Gifted with a distinctive personality, a sound constitution, a strong will, and refusing to be fettered by convention, by family pride, or by a love of comfort, she used her talents to serve Our Saviour in all she met.
She was not a good business woman; at times persons she trusted failed her; sometimes she enthused about schemes for well-doing that turned out to be ill advised or before their time; but the afflicted who blessed her are countless, and her order endures and now extends her works of mercy to Australia and to Fiji.
by Maurice Warwick Mulcahy, S.M., D.D., Archivist to the Marist Order in New Zealand, Wellington.
- Ko te Ako te Karakia o te Hahi Katorika Romana, Aubert, M. J., 1879
- Ko etahi Ako me etahi Karakia o te Hahi Katorika Romana, Aubert M. J. (1880)
- Directory of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, Aubert, M. J. (1922)
- New Zealand's Greatest Woman, Kavanagh, P. (1927)
- Unto These Least, Harper, Barbara (1962).