The mission legacy of Suzanne Aubert

Columban missionary Fr Michael Gormly gave this talk to the Sisters of Compassion last month in tribute to their founder.

Michael Gormly

Suzanne Aubert certainly left her mark on New Zealand history and on our Catholic consciousness. She is remembered as a religious sister, a nurse, a herbalist, a teacher, a social worker and a writer. But let us not forget that a tremendous sense of mission pervaded her life. A significant dimension of her contribution to the New Zealand church and society was in terms of mission.

The church in Lyons, France, where Suzanne grew, carried remarkable networks of interest, awareness and support for overseas missions. It was not surprising that in 1860, at the age of 25, she was recruited by Bishop Pompallier for a demanding mission in Oceania. She volunteered to journey to the South Pacific on a whaling ship.

Over the next sixty years in Aotearoa New Zealand, a strong sense of mission was the source of Suzanne Aubert’s motivation, dedication, energy, confidence, and spirituality. A mission call kept her in touch with the real situations and deep needs.

Suzanne Aubert’s idea of mission work, following the example of Bishop Pompallier, was to acknowledge the signs of God’s presence among people, especially within the Māori heritage and culture. Her task was not simply to bring Catholicism to the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand. Her way was characterised by a respectful partnership with Māori and those among whom she ministered.

This energetic woman crossed many boundaries and faced many challenges. She learned languages, appreciated heritage and respected culture. She coped with difficult situations, initiated projects, overcame antagonisms and inspired others. And she reflected and prayed. She carried this deep sense of mission all her days, and it continues in the ministry of the congregation she established.

Suzanne’s gracious, inclusive and practical approach makes her an enduring model for our New Zealand mission context today. The transitions from Lyons to Auckland in 1860, to Hawkes Bay in 1871, to Jerusalem (Hiruharama) in 1883, and to Wellington in 1899, were decisive missionary journeys for the sake of the Gospel, and for people in need.

The key component of her ongoing mission is summed up in one word – compassion. Her understanding of health, healing and social welfare inspired an ongoing compassion project which still fascinates us. We are drawn to her fine sensitivity to deep religious values and her creative readiness to influence the secular domain.

Were she alive today, Suzanne Aubert would call our generation into a deeper appreciation for mission, especially among those struggling to cope. She would challenge us to grasp issues of religion, church, human development, politics, economics, social transformation, health, welfare, culture and tikanga.

As Mother Mary Aubert, she would surely suggest a critical assessment of the past and fresh ways of showing compassion and aroha. And she would call us to a contemplative yet vibrant spirituality. She would challenge us to understand the meaning of our mission, the shape of mission and the future of mission.