20 Dec 22 - Resident stories

The making of a saint

For most people, a project has a completion date within their lifetime, but for Father Maurice Carmody his project is built on one that others began nearly one hundred years ago. The Summerset at Aotea resident is helping the Wellington-based Sisters of Compassion convince the Vatican to recognise the social justice campaigner and their founder, Suzanne Aubert (also known as Sister Mary Joseph, Mother Aubert and Mother Mary Hohepa), as New Zealand’s first saint.

“Suzanne Aubert was a French missionary who came to New Zealand on a whaling boat in 1860. She was an intelligent and highly educated woman, who was ahead of her time in terms of the causes she championed,” says Father Maurice. “With a deep sense of social justice, Suzanne devoted her life and nursing skills to caring for the suffering and disadvantaged without discrimination.”

Aubert was introduced to kaupapa Māori culture by her friend Peata Hoki. Together, they established a small class for young Māori girls using traditional insights. “She was fluent in te reo Māori and published one of the first and most influential te reo phrasebooks in 1885. Peata helped her to understand and appreciate traditional Māori medicine, knowledge she later used to create her own herbal remedies.”

From Auckland, Aubert moved to Hawke’s Bay, then up the Whanganui River and finally to Wellington, helping the less fortunate along the way. Inspired by her example, other women joined her and together they became known as the Sisters of Compassion. “In Hiruhārama [Jerusalem] on the Whanganui River they responded to the challenges faced by single mothers caring for their babies and children. In Wellington, she founded a crèche, an orphanage and a hospice. She stood up for the dignity and privacy of women by refusing to give their names to the government,” says Father Maurice.

Eventually settling in Island Bay in Wellington, Aubert established a children’s home, a hospital and convent for the sisters, known as the Home of Compassion. She began a soup kitchen in the capital in 1901, which is still running to this day. Stranded in Rome during the First World War, she volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers, returning to New Zealand in 1920.

“When she died in 1926, it was the largest funeral ever recorded for a woman,” says Father Maurice. “The streets of Wellington were brought to a standstill. Just as she cared for people regardless of creed, people came from all creeds and walks of life to mourn her. She was a real embodiment of Christian values.

“After her death, the Sisters of Compassion were encouraged by Church authorities in Italy to seek sainthood for Suzanne. She was incredibly highly regarded there. The Sisters of Compassion began preparing the case for her canonisation in the 1930s, but it was not until 2004 that the current promotion began. In 2007 they invited me to join their team, and it has become an engrossing pleasure.”

Father Maurice grew up in Auckland, and after attending a summer camp as a child, he decided he wanted to become a Franciscan priest. “I was inspired by their youth team, as the camp I went to was run by such good sorts,” he says. “I went to Australia to train in 1963, and I studied in both Melbourne and Sydney. I was ordained as a priest in 1970.”

Father Maurice then spent 10 years in a youth ministry and university chaplaincy in Australia, during which time he earned his bachelor’s degree, majoring in education and history. Learning Italian as part of his bachelor’s proved a useful foundation for later studies towards his master’s degree in church history at the Gregorian University in Rome, and subsequently his doctorate. “I taught in Melbourne and Rome. Rome could be a crazy place. All in all, I spent about 20 years there. I enjoyed the food, and I made a lot of good international friends. I learned a lot about life and our common humanity.”

Alongside studying and teaching, Father Maurice found time to publish two books. One is a hefty tome on the history of the Franciscan order, while the other is an exhaustive account of the life and works of Suzanne Aubert. This is the positio, or collection of documents, used to present the case for her beatification.

“I didn’t want to lose touch with my roots, so I moved back to New Zealand and became the parish priest of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Wellington. It was there that the Sisters of Compassion approached me in 2007.” With his fluency in Italian and his connections to Rome, Father Maurice was the ideal choice as postulator, to work with the sisters in presenting the case for Aubert’s beatification.

“I began by translating letters for the cause. Although only the Pope can decree someone is a saint, he does so only after all the evidence has been scrutinised by a Vatican department: the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.”

In the Catholic Church sainthood is achieved via a four-step process, and none of the steps are simple or quick. It takes a long time to make a saint – the average time between death and canonisation is 181 years. Initially, the person’s life is examined and a decision is made about whether they are considered worthy of further study. If they are, then they become known as a Servant of God. The second step is to become Venerable, and for this an all-encompassing document is prepared – the positio, which delves into the candidate’s life and values in minute detail. Father Maurice’s positio for Aubert is about 1,800 pages long. “At times, I wondered if I’d ever finish it, but despite the time it’s taken, I’ve enjoyed it,” he says, smiling.

Due to illness, Father Maurice retired from being a parish priest two years ago and moved to one of the two apartments the Catholic Church owns at Summerset at Aotea. “I started out in the care centre here, and I can’t speak highly enough of the care I received. Once my strength returned, I moved into an apartment with a very pleasant view over the bowling green and towards the bush-clad hills beyond. I enjoy cooking, and in addition to eating tasty meals from the Summerset kitchen, I often cook for myself.”

Besides his role of postulator for Suzanne Aubert, Father Maurice leads Sunday Mass at Aotea, and provides pastoral care and support for anyone in the village or beyond that asks him. He also enjoys spending time socially with his fellow residents. “I’ve met some wonderful people here,” he says. “I play Scrabble with friends. I read widely and enjoy cryptic crosswords. I exercise every day, making good use of the pool and walking in the grounds.”

And what of Suzanne Aubert’s path to sainthood? In 2016, after Father’ Maurice’s positio was presented and reviewed in Rome, the Pope declared her Venerable, the second step on her journey. The third and fourth steps concern the official recognition of two miracles experienced by people of faith who have asked Aubert to be their patron. Father Maurice has compiled and presented evidence to Rome regarding the first professed miracle, which concerns the healing of a New Zealand woman.

“Hopefully,” Father Maurice says, “Rome will eventually recognise this. However, whatever the outcome from the perspective of the Catholic Church, Suzanne Aubert was a remarkable woman. She was a champion of social justice and a pioneer nurse in New Zealand’s history. Her story deserves to be more widely shared.”

This is an article from the Summer 2022 edition of Summerset Scene magazine

Click here to read the full issue