Doing what she pleased, Jill Trevelyan

Letters on the Go: The Correspondence of Suzanne Aubert
Jessie Munro (ed)
Bridget Williams Books, $69.99,
ISBN 9781877242427

In 1922, 87-year-old Suzanne Aubert wrote to a Raetihi farmer:

Dear Mr Punch

Your valuable present of another truck-load of firewood arrived on Monday and was most gratefully received, it is such a boon in a place like ours. I hope that the heat you confer on us here will spare you the one of Purgatory!

 

Letters like this, full of zest and wit, enliven Jessie Munro’s 600-page volume of Aubert’s letters. Writing from Wellington to the sisters at Hiruharama in 1901, Aubert begins in a mock-admonishing tone:

I see that you thoroughly enjoy yourselves. We have no time for that sort of work here. However, I took the Sisters to the ‘flag station’ on boxing day. The wind was blowing a hurricane and it was the greatest fun. We went up in 55 minutes, set up there for about one hour, warmed our frozen teeth with bananas and came down in 35 minutes, the skirts of our habits acting as sails.

 

Munro’s award-winning biography The Story of Mother Aubert (1996) sold 8000 copies. It told the story of a remarkable woman: a passionate advocate for Maori, a gifted healer who experimented with herbal remedies, and a proto-feminist campaigner for the rights and welfare of women and children. Letters on the Go is a companion volume to the biography, but has been prepared with a general reader in mind and has enough introductory material, bridging text and explanatory notes to stand alone.

It is, however, a more demanding read – a book to be dipped into rather than read from cover to cover.

Some 825 letters survive in the Sisters of Compassion archives in Wellington. Of these, Munro has selected 323, dating from 1868 – when her subject had spent just nine years in New Zealand – to the last months of her life in 1926. Most are published in their entirety. Munro’s decision to include a selection of incoming correspondence and contemporary texts is unconventional yet sensible, allowing her to add valuable context and build up a picture of Aubert in her community. In a letter of 1881, for example, Christophe Soulas, the newly appointed priest in Hawke’s Bay, writes to the Marist Mission provisioner:

Thanks to [Aubert] and the love the Maoris have for her, I’ve been well received … the Sister is an extremely skilled doctor. She’s just cured two or three sick people who the doctors and minister had given up on, and this but consolidates her reputation … All the chiefs respect her and hold her in high esteem and through her I have entrée everywhere I go.

 

Aubert had tremendous energy and stamina, and she seems to have combined the practical and the spiritual with ease. She did not work, then pray; she worked and prayed, and her letters reflect the wide range of her activities and responsibilities. Within a few pages of this book, for instance, she negotiates the sale of a “good tempered young bull” for the farm at Hiruharama, petitions Parliament for assistance in enlarging the orphanage, and sends samples of her medicines to a surgeon in Paris. She also finds time to write a frank yet kindly letter to a prospective novice:

Now I cannot promise you lollies in Jerusalem. How will potatoes do instead? No lollies, no pudding, no tea. Will not that be dreadful? How can a vocation stand it? I leave you to ponder over such a question, and when you write to me again you will tell me what you think.

 

Many of Aubert’s letters were written in haste, hence the title of this volume. “Just a few words for I have no time to breathe,” she writes. “I am dazed with the amount of writing I have to do.” Correspondence served many purposes in her life. It was a means of keeping in touch when she was separated from her community, and some of her letters are rich and chatty, fuelled by the desire “to sit down and have a chat with you on the page”.

Others are not much more than lists of instructions, but these too have their fascination. “If no salicylic acid has been put in the quince wine, remind Father of it,” she writes. On another occasion: “The sheep’s heads are to be sawn. They can very well be sawn in doors and with a little care the fingers can be kept from the teeth of the saw.”

Usually warm and affectionate, Aubert could be curt when the occasion demanded it. “Poking, shaking, gagging the children will never do,” she wrote to the sisters in 1903. “It is the work of jailors, not of religious. You show more passion than the poor children whom you teach to despise you and religion by such a conduct. Pray correct yourselves …”

Even as a young woman, Aubert was determined, single-minded, and courageous in speaking her mind and standing up to her superiors. She had to be. After eight years in New Zealand she was stranded when Bishop Pompallier returned to France, leaving debts that necessitated the sale of her school and convent. She fought for the right to continue her work, but the new bishop ordered her to abandon it and return to France. Her reply – recorded in a letter to a sympathetic priest in Lyon – was unequivocal: “My Lord, I came here for the Maori people, I shall die here among them. No one can stop me. I’ll do what I please … .”

Letter-writing became a vital tool for Aubert, a means of lobbying those in power and building support for her work, and it is fascinating to follow her negotiations with church and secular authorities. It was all too easy for her to be seen as an uppity woman, stepping out of place, and she had to bring all her tact and skill to bear in her correspondence. Sometimes she masked her requests with a cloud of self-effacing apology. Lamenting the lack of a Catholic priest in the Wellington diocese, she wrote to an influential priest in Sydney:

Must it now be none but the rich who get to hear the Gospel preached? When I see the way things are going, I so regret not being a man, but what use are the regrets and prayers of a poor old maid going on and on repeating herself in her dotage? The regrets do nothing but choke up her heart, and the prayers fall useless from her lips.

 

Aubert was usually rewarded for her persistence, and it was only in her mid-seventies, as the mother superior at the Home of Compassion in Wellington, that she came up against the brick wall of Church authority. To her shock and dismay, she was instructed to confine her work to Catholics and abandon her work with “foundling” children, abandoned by their mothers at birth. Her response was to set sail for Rome to seek papal recognition of the order she had founded in 1892, the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion.

In April 1917 the necessary decree was passed, allowing her to decide the priorities of the congregation without interference from the New Zealand Catholic hierarchy.

Aubert’s faith is evident in every page of this book, but a long letter of instruction, written in the form of a dialogue between herself and a novice, offers a powerful distillation of her religious vision. Her tone is direct and often humorous as she discusses the challenges of a vocation – a life of humility, patience, and hard work in the service of God:

We need the greatest patience with ourselves because there is a constant warfare between our soul, our intellect, our reason, our poor human nature, our natural inclinations …. When our higher aspirations want to lift us up, our natural inclinations drag us down. It is most trying …

 

Headed simply “Mother M Joseph and her chicks”, this long letter ends: “May this poor scribbling help you a little on the way to heaven.” Thanks to Munro’s fine work, we may all appreciate the warmth and wisdom of Aubert’s “poor scribbling”.

 

Jill Trevelyan’s Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life won the Montana Medal for Non-fiction in last year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.  

 

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