Suzanne Aubert was born in France in 1835. On leaving school she felt called by God to become a missionary. In preparation for this calling Suzanne worked alongside the Sisters of Charity nursing patients who had cholera and casualties of the Crimean War. Suzanne also studied healthcare, chemistry, botany and pharmacy. In Lyon, the Aubert family were friends of the Marist Fathers, a new missionary congregation founded in France by Father Claude Colin. Suzanne knew many of the Fathers and was inspired by them. One of the most important influences in her early life was St Jean Vianney, the Curé d’ Ars. He was Suzanne Aubert’s spiritual director and made some predictions that mirrored the course of her vocation.
On arrival in Auckland in 1860 with 23 missionaries including three other French women, Suzanne soon made friends with Hoki, known also as Peata. Peata taught Suzanne Māori knowledge and customs and helped her in the study of rongoa. Suzanne left Auckland in 1871after having taught Māori girls at the Nazareth Institute.
During the next eleven years Suzanne lived and worked with the Marist Fathers as a lay missionary at the Marist Māori mission station in Meanee, Hawkes Bay. It was in Meanee that Suzanne started in earnest to make her herbal remedies. There were only two doctors in the Napier area and the need for medical care was great. The Māori called her the ‘Doctors of Doctors.’ In the year 1873 Suzanne treated 1,353 sick people.
In 1883 Suzanne Aubert moved to Hiruhārama – Jerusalem. It was here in 1892 that she founded the Sisters of Compassion. During the late 1890’s the clergy and doctors invited Suzanne and the Sisters of Compassion to move to Wellington. Suzanne accepted the challenge in 1899, and in no time they were caring for permanently disabled people, operating a Soup Kitchen, a crèche and visiting people in need. In 1907 Suzanne opened a home for children at Island Bay a section of this building was later converted into a General Hospital.
In 1913, Suzanne Aubert travelled to Rome to seek papal approval for the Congregation she founded. World War I intervened and she was unable to return to New Zealand until 1920. While in Rome Suzanne gained papal recognition for her work, wrote the Directory for her sisters and helped to nurse the victims of the Avezzano earthquake and World War One casualties.
The last six years of her life were spent in establishing the training hospital for her Sisters and consolidating the works of the Sisters of Compassion. Suzanne Aubert died in Wellington at the age of ninety-one, and was accorded the largest funeral ever given to a woman in New Zealand.
Today, the Sisters of Compassion continue to work actively towards the relief of human suffering. They are engaged in social work, pastoral care, hospital chaplaincies, education, working with refugees and disadvantaged and migrant communities.
The case for her beatification and canonisation as a saint is being considered by Rome. If her cause is successful, Suzanne Aubert will be declared a saint.