From a pilgrim’s perspective, Whanganui city will become a destination in its own right, and not merely a through-road to Jersualem (Hiruhama) along the Whanganui River, when the Venerable Suzanne Aubert is eventually canonised as a saint.
Although based in Hiruhama for 16 years, Mother Aubert came to Whanganui often.
On January 14 this year , during the first Suzanne Aubert heritage trail in the city, six locations in Whanganui were identified and visited as places of significance for Mother Aubert. (These were Whanganui’s original railway station; Majestic Square in the city; Pakaitore/Moutoa Gardens; Hatrick’s Wharf; Whanganui Hospital and Upokongaro.)
The event was organised by the Associates of Suzanne Aubert — Te Hunga Whai i nga Akoranga a Suzanne — and included invited guests Bishop Charles Drennan, Mayor Hamish McDouall and Cr Josh Chandulal-Mackay.
Mother Aubert was aged 48 when she arrived at Whanganui’s original railway station from Hawkes Bay on June 15, 1883. When she left the Bay, local Maori wept, such was their sadness at her departure.
In Whanganui, on the central city shopping block and fronting the main street Victoria Avenue, once stood St Mary’s Catholic church, presbytery, and convent/school. Mother Aubert would have gone to Mass in this St Mary’s, which was opened in 1877 and was
pulled down in 1973. When in town on business, she stayed at French friends Mr and Mrs Charles Chavanne’s very upmarket hotel just across the street from the church.
At Pakaitore/Moutoa Gardens, Mother Aubert showed unity with the River Maori by camping with them during the long Maori Land Court hearings in 1888.
Mother Aubert was friends with paddle-steamer owner and former Mayor Alexander Hatrick. The sisters in Jerusalem had use of his courier pigeons which provided a much needed emergency link since there were no roads or telegraph. Mother Aubert’s medicines in concentrated form stored in demijohns were transported down to Whanganui by paddle-steamers.
In Wellington, they were manufactured by Kempthorne Prosser & Co. In the first 3 months of distribution 10,000 bottles were sold! Then complaints came in that
they were ineffective and on investigation it was found that the company had been diluting the concentrate to keep up with demands. Mother Aubert took them to
court, and she won the case.
Once Captain Kenny, berthing his boat at Jerusalem and after everyone had disembarked, opened a box left behind to find a baby inside with a note:- “For Mother
Aubert at Jerusalem.” Mother Aubert had 45 babies/ children in the orphanage in Jerusalem who often arrived sickly, deformed or neglected. The well-respected Dr Connolly was also left with an abandoned baby and he gave the infant to Mother Aubert to look after.
In 1905, Mother Aubert burst into Whanganui Hospital to rescue young orphan John McMahon who was at death’s door with an infection.
She feared that the medical superintendent wanted to amputate the youngster’s arm at the shoulder in a medical experiment.
After a heated exchange of words with the authorities she took “her boy” home to Wellington immediately where young John regained full health and after a good education worked for many years for the Government.
Upokongaro — 10 kilometres north of Whanganui and on the Whanganui River — was the site where, in July, 1883, many Maori came to collect two Sisters of St Joseph to revive the Maori Mission in Jerusalem with Mother Aubert as their aid and interpreter.
Bishop Redwood of Wellington had adjusted his busy diary to farewell them on their three day journey along the river and to their new missionary endeavour.
Mother Aubert’s supporters continue to prayerfully wait for a miracle to nudge the canonisation cause to the next stage — to finally declare that New Zealand has
its first official saint in this faith-filled woman of God.