by JUDITH DOYLE
A slim spire across the river surrounded by bush and a sparse scatter of buildings. This is our first glimpse of Jerusalem (Hiruharama) on the Whanganui River — the tiniest of hamlets
with the biggest of histories.
Our Tranzit-Tours bus takes the Jerusalem turnoff and follows the sign to St Joseph’s Church and Convent. A Catholic mission started here in the 1850s but waned during the New Zealand
Wars in the 1860s. Thirty years later the mission was refounded by Fr Soulas and Frenchwoman Suzanne Aubert.
The feisty spirit of Suzanne Aubert, Sister Mary Joseph, Mother Aubert (and maybe saint if present canonisation plans eventuate) lives on in Jerusalem.
This amazing woman studied medicine at university, nursed in the Crimean war, could speak four languages (Maori fluently) and had run away from her home in France to sail with Bishop
Jean Baptiste Pompallier for the missions of New Zealand.
After working in Auckland, then Hawke’s Bay, she came to Jerusalem, where she founded the Sisters of Compassion in 1892.
On the sunny day we visited, the serenity and beauty of the place could be felt. Only two nuns live there now, but it is cherished because tangata whenua — the local people — respect
and help care for it.
One local was busy mowing the lawns when we were there.
We gather in the church that was completed in 1892, replacing the original building that had been destroyed by fire four years earlier.
Its interior is Catholic enriched by Maori symbols. This is fitting for a church associated with Mother Aubert, whose work focused on nursing among the Maori; developing medicine from
Maori herbal knowledge and day-to-day care and education of Maori and pakeha pupils.
The order later cared for a small number of chronically ill and disabled old people at
To the Maori she was known as Meri.
The first impression on entering the church is of light. Cream walls are outlined in
white. A rich red carpet echoes the red in the kowhaiwhai border along the top of the
walls and in the vertical panels near the altar, with its delicate white carvings.
In front of the altar is the superb carving, lit up by piercing blue paua. Much of this
carving is see-through filagree work.
We wander along the Rosary Way (where we later have lunch on a shady bench) towards the convent itself. It’s a large two-storey building where independent and selfcatering
travellers can stay — I still remember the experience of staying there more than a
Although it’s dormitory accommodation, each bed has a curtain that can be pulled around it for privacy. It’s a peaceful retreat and can be booked online (www.compassion.org.nz/jerusalem/book-a-stay).
Jerusalem became known as the “James Baxter Commune” in the early 1970s. The noted New Zealand poet converted to Catholicism and was attracted to Jerusalem by the combination
of Maoridom and Catholicism.
He established an alternative lifestyle community for Maori and pakeha after he arrived in 1969. He died only three years later.
Hemi, as he became known, wanted a community centre based on “spiritual aspects of Maori communal life” to “try to live without money or books”. Although he died in Auckland on a visit, he is buried in Jerusalem, on tribal land.
Nothing concrete remains to remind the visitor of this commune, but perhaps Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets (1970) are the best reminders anyway.
by JUDITH DOYLE