Our Lady’s Home of Compassion at Island Bay, Wellington, entered a new era on October 14 as the final resting place for the Venerable Suzanne Aubert — Meri Hōhepa was blessed in the presence of friends and whanau.

People had come to join the Sisters of Compassion in commemorating the 125th anniversary of the founding of their order by the woman likely to be Aotearoa New Zealand’s first official saint.

Dawn at Our Lady’s Home of Compassion. (Photo: Compassion te pūaroha)

A rededication of Our Lady’s Home of Compassion on the day included blessing revitalised visitor and pilgrim facilities which feature in new buildings.

A dawn ceremony and karakia opened proceedings on the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Daughters of our Lady of Compassion.

Since 1907, the premises have functioned as a hospital, rest home, orphanage and children’s home, and now a retreat and conference centre.

Visitor experience manager Deidre Hanlon said it is becoming a place of pilgrimage as the cause for Venerable Suzanne Aubert to be made a saint advances.

More people are coming to learn about her life and visit the site where she is buried.

Up until this year, Suzanne Aubert’s grave had been outside and up a hill. Now her final resting place is in a special side-chapel off the main chapel.

Designed by Tennent Brown architects, it provides simplicity and tranquility. “So much of the story is in that space and then people can come to the Heritage Centre to fill out the story,” said Mrs Hanlon.

The renovations include a welcoming entrance to the whole complex; a multi-purpose space for videos, talks and group activities; an exhibition space; and a refreshment space designed “for pilgrims and visitors to have something simple to eat”.

Hēnare Walmsley of Te Arawa descent has been cultural and architectural advisor as part of a Māori advisory team to the sisters; He led the people through the opening and blessing ceremonies. He said the existing architecture was of different generations, and the challenge was to integrate it into one unit, incorporating Māori design elements and principles, such as the waharoa or gateway that brings people in from the main drive and car-parking area.

Through the waharoa and after blessing oneself with trickling water, people then enter the “cloister” — an open space at the centre of the buildings.

Congregational leader Sr Margaret Anne Mills said they wanted to create an “urban monastery”, a place of seclusion and quiet in the midst of the city.

The cloister represents the break, the pause, from the busy lives from which people have come. From there, they can enter the chapel and Suzanne Aubert’s final resting place, the refreshment centre, or the main reception area and Heritage Centre.

Cardinal John Dew, in an 11am Mass concelebrated with Bishop Emeritus of Palmerston North Bishop Peter Cullinane and Dunedin Bishop Colin Campbell, said though waiting for Suzanne Aubert to be formally beatified, for those gathered today she is already Blessed — “In fact, I think we canonised her here this morning,” he quipped, before saying the whole place had already been blessed through the person of Suzanne Aubert, the sisters who followed her, and others who recognised her holiness.

At the end of the Mass, Cardinal Dew blessed the Drawbridge Resurrection window, in memory of artist John Drawbridge (1930-2005) who had designed the stations of the cross in the main chapel.

Gifted by his family, the Resurrection window itself is based on a painting by the artist himself, which his family only discovered this year. It was a fitting conclusion to formal ceremonies as the Resurrection was so much part of Suzanne’s life.

The resting place has a number of features and special windows, including the morning window showing Matariki (the Pleiades constellation), a cross and the Whanganui River; and the series of tupuna windows featuring Suzanne Aubert and people significant to her life.

These ancestral windows, made and designed by Michael Pervan of the Studio of John the Baptist, also depict rongoā (medicinal plants) — knowledge gifted to Suzanne Aubert by Whanganui River iwi — and a kōwhaiwhai pattern from the church at Hiruhārama (Jerusalem). Through a large clear glass window to the south, a Pieta statue which Suzanne ordered from Italy stands outside.

How Aubert’s order began

Before their renewal of vows during Mass, Sr Margaret Anne Mills shared the startling origins of the order in 1892. Suzanne Aubert was working as part of the Third Order of Mary community at Hiruhārama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River. When her request to formally join the Marist family was turned down, because the busy mission at Hiruhārama did not meet principles of “good order and management” in the eyes of the Marist visitor, Suzanne felt like giving up.

She went to Wellington to speak to Archbishop Redwood. He responded by saying, “Well, we must be a diocesan congregation”, told Suzanne to go and pray about it and come back tomorrow.

As they continued the conversation the next day, Archbishop Redwood said to Suzanne, “Since you are called to [be] compassionate [to] every form of human misery, your title must be ‘Daughters of our Lady of Compassion’.” Suzanne was speechless — she recognised the choice of the name as God’s and considered Archbishop Redwood as the founder. Suzanne was appointed the first superior on October 14, 1892.

In support of their vows, the sisters sang their song, taken from Suzanne Aubert’s words, apt for the continuing unfolding work of their founder’s legacy in Aotearoa New Zealand: “Thanks be to God for all he has done and is doing through us.”