In response to an invitation from local doctors to help provide social support to a growing community, Suzanne Aubert and the Sisters of Compassion came to Wellington in 1899.
The Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, the only New Zealand founded religious congregation, had been established by Suzanne Aubert in Hiruhārama/Jerusalem on the Whanganui River. In Hiruhārama, the Sisters worked with the Māori community providing care to children, running a school, and providing basic health care.
In Wellington, home nursing of the ‘sick poor’ was identified as a need in the community but on arrival in the capital the Sisters quickly became involved in many other areas of need including opening the country’s first crèche to support working mothers, providing a home for children and residential care for invalids. Before long the Sisters were providing support across a range of services and in 1907 opened the Home of Compassion hospital in Island Bay.
Amongst the works Suzanne and the Sisters began in the city was the serving of soup to around 80 men each day out of a sliding window in the kitchen of St Joseph’s Home for Incurables in Buckle St. Unemployment was rising as men came to the city in search of work. At this time New Zealand had far more men than women in the population, and the country was also experiencing significant growth in its over-65 population – a 50% increase in the number of men over the age of 65 between 1896 and 1901. With little work available for the transient and elderly, who had often lived a hard life and had no family or social support, the Sisters saw a need and responded. The Soup Kitchen continued on the Buckle Street site until the Sisters moved to premises on Sussex Street. The Soup Kitchen moved again in 1999 to the current site at 132 Tory Street, not much more than a stone’s throw from the original location.
The community supported the work of the Sisters, uniting to help with working bees, fundraising activities and donating food and goods. The Sisters with their iconic ‘begging pram’ were a regular sight on the cobbled streets of Wellington for many years. People were generous, even in those hard times, giving what they could spare to those less fortunate than themselves.
Suzanne Aubert was adept at working with all, rich and poor, and welcomed people of every religious and cultural background. The breadth of her work with marginalised people challenged and galvanised those around her, and had a remarkable influence on Wellington’s history.
We are fortunate to have Suzanne Aubert as an inspirational founder. As a 26 year old French woman Suzanne travelled to New Zealand in 1860 with Bishop Pompallier determined to work with Māori in the young country. She learnt Te Reo on the voyage over before learning English. Her Manual of Māori Conversation was published in 1885, and sold thousands of copies. Over the next nearly sixty years, with extraordinary energy, she set about providing care to the sick, the poor and the marginalised.
A woman truly ahead of her time, Suzanne’s vision, her innovative approaches and her can-do attitude still challenge us all to live lives of compassionate action. Today, Suzanne’s mission lives on at the Soup Kitchen, through the compassionate work of staff and volunteers. You too can get involved!