by NZ CATHOLIC staff
JERUSALEM — St Joseph’s Convent in Jerusalem-Hiruharama may be upgraded to a category I historic place by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
The convent presently has a category II classification.
Together with St Joseph’s church, the site, 64km from Wanganui, is widely regarded for its idyllic setting in the landscape, as well as being a visitor destination with a rich social and religious history.
A category 1 classification on the Register of Historic Places means a site has “special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value”. Inclusion on the register can help in the conservation of a site’s heritage values.
The convent was built in 1892 as the base for the order of the Sisters of Compassion, which was founded at the site that same year by Mother Mary Joseph (Suzanne) Aubert (1835-1926) to care for Maori and the poor. The convent was built near St Joseph’s church (category I) to house the sisters and serve as a base for their missionary work.
Jerusalem is known for poet James K. Baxter’s time there between 1969-72, when he established an alternative community featuring a blend of Maoritanga and Catholicism. When Baxter died in 1972, he was buried at Jerusalem.
Today St Joseph’s Convent remains an integral part of the community. From its inception, the convent operated as the local school within the native school system, as well as housing the sisters and orphaned or destitute children. As a dispensary for Mother Aubert’s medicinal remedies, a Post Office agency, and holder of the local Births, Deaths and Marriages Register, the convent was a main focal point of social activity at Jerusalem and for the wider area over many decades.
In the 1970s the convent was adapted for use as a retreat or for weekend visits. Today, the village public library is there.
New Zealand Historic Places Trust researcher Vivienne Morrell said the social, cultural, historical and architectural significance of the convent and wider site were important factors as the trust reviewed its previous category II listing.
“In the early 1880s, partly due to the request of local hapu Ngati Hau to have their own priest, the site of Jerusalem was chosen by the Catholic Church as the spearhead of a rejuvenated Maori mission. The earlier mission had been established in the 1850s but was abandoned after the battle of Moutua in 1864.
“Generations of local Maori children went through the school, including Iriaka Te Rio who, later as Mrs Ratana, headed the Ratana movement for some years and was a member of parliament for 20 years.”
In the mid-2000s, both the church and convent were renovated following a conservation plan by conservation architect Chris Cochran.
A copy of the registration report is available at