The Story of Suzanne Aubert
Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books, $49.95,
ISBN 1 86940 155 7
Penguin Books, $24.95,
ISBN 0 140 26034 X
Beyond The Veil
Penguin Books, $29.95,
ISBN O 140 26127 3
Even going by the raw facts of her life, it’s hard to talk about Suzanne Aubert without using superlatives. Fired with missionary zeal, the young French woman came to New Zealand in 1860 to convert the heathen but found herself stalled in the gentilities of colonial Auckland. Finally released for work in Hawke’s Bay, her selflessness in nursing became a byword. She tramped the South Island seeking funds to build the church at Hiruharama on the Whanganui. When the church burnt down she tramped the South Island again. She produced the first real Maori conversation-and-phrase-book (although the credit for it was later erroneously given to Apirana Ngata) and raised money for charitable work through a successful line of patent medicine. At the age of 78 she travelled to Rome to get the Pope’s “Decree of Praise” that would make her Sisters of Compassion the first truly indigenous New Zealand religious order.
Above all, she worked for others. Devoutly Catholic, she was nevertheless entirely free of the denominational prejudices of her age. Her homes — for foundlings, for orphans, for old men, for “the incurable” — were open to all comers. Protestants and freethinkers were among her chief benefactors and collaborators in building Wellington’s Home of Compassion. The head of Wellington’s Jewish community, Rabbi Van Staveren, presided at the 1910 celebration of her first 50 years in New Zealand. When Mother Mary Joseph Aubert (as she was known for most of her adult life) died in 1926 at the age of 91 her funeral took on the air of a state occasion.
What are some kneejerk reactions to such a life? In general, leftish intellectuals hate the idea of private charity and the proponents of private charity. A life like Aubert’s brings forth some such response as, “That’s all very well, but there should be a political solution to need”. (Whereupon we go back to loftily theorising, reading articles and doing nothing charitable ourselves). At its crudest level this response reminds me of the time when I went from door to door as a lad collecting for CORSO. Those householders who didn’t want to contribute anything would sometimes make themselves feel better by saying “the Guv’ment orda” do something about poverty. Which is all a left-wing critique could say to the likes of Aubert. “The Guv’ment orda.” But not me, thanks, mate.
Another possible response would be to turn Aubert into pious legend. From my convent school days I remember Mother Aubert being spoken of in the same breath as Bernadette Soubirous, Giovanni Bosco and other figures of nineteenth-century Catholic piety.
Jessie Munro shares the copyright of this work with the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion but these are 400 pages (generously illustrated) of formidable scholarship and of no damned nonsense. The piety is here but so are the squabbles and the narrowly-averted scandals. The private charity is here but so is a lively sense of the changing political and sociological realities of 1860 to 1926. This more rounded portrait only increases admiration for its subject.
Munro is particularly strong on historical context. To tell of Aubert’s lower-middle-class Lyonnais upbringing is to tell the story of the Catholic church in post-revolutionary France, which is what Munro does for a chapter. A good deal of speculation comes into the sections on Aubert’s childhood. It has to. In 1913, just before her trip to Rome, Aubert made a bonfire of most of her personal correspondence and family mementoes. The verbs “could have” and “would have” are openly and honestly used.
Likewise, to tell of Aubert’s 60-plus years in New Zealand is to give a history of Catholicism here, warts and all. There genuinely are stories of heroism and dedication, such as make most of today’s clergy seem a smug, complacent bunch by comparison. But there is also Bishop Pompallier mismanaging finances and famously quarrelling with Father Colin, the head of the Marist order. There is a delicious vignette of a punch-up in the chapel that stood where Auckland’s St Patrick’s Cathedral now stands. Denied entry, a group of Italian Franciscans grew quarrelsome (result: one hurled missal, one broken chalice and tears before bedtime). There is the sombre story of Antoinette Deloncle, one of Aubert’s original companions, who succumbed to melancholia and attempted suicide. And there is the French Marist priest Soulas, who went ga-ga in old age and began to discipline the nuns in his care in quite the wrong way.
Outside such incidental scandals, the institutional church does not always emerge in a flattering light. Especially later in her career, Aubert’s course was often obstructed by members of the hierarchy. I was saddened to see how badly Auckland’s Bishop Henry Cleary (surely one of our most urbane and broad-minded prelates) came out in his dealings with Aubert. Basically, he chased her and her charities out of his diocese.
Munro’s sympathies in such matters are wholly on Aubert’s side. In isolation, some paragraphs could be taken to support a feminist reading of Aubert as a “strong woman” (this nascent cliche phrase does surface a couple of times) at odds with male authority. But Munro is nothing if not balanced. Most nuanced is the portrait of Wellington’s Bishop Francis Redwood, the bishop most closely associated with Aubert over 50 years. Redwood was understanding and supportive of Aubert’s interdenominational work — far more so than his Irish vicar-general, Thomas O’Shea — but even Redwood blanched at some of her later schemes and withdrew his support.
Quite rightly, Munro places this in the context of the fierce sectarian rivalries of the time. Redwood was often looking over his shoulder, anxious at how the bigoted Howard Elliott and his Protestant Political Association would react to the merest whiff of impropriety by Catholic orphanages. (At this time, remember, all PPA members “knew” that Catholic institutions were filled with nuns’ illegitimate babies, mummified corpses, etc, etc.) In hindsight, Redwood’s pusillanimity may not seem as admirable as Aubert’s fearlessness but Munro still makes it understandable. Besides, there is ample evidence that the ageing Aubert could be quite a handful.
As for the institutional church, so for Aubert herself. Her faults are not airbrushed out. This is, after all, biography and not hagiography. Her outbursts against Pompallier seem most unsaintlike but are pardonable in that she had been misled over a matter of property ownership. She was not above “talking up” her relatively humble origins when she was appealing for funds from genteel audiences. She indulged in more than a little discreet self-promotion in her charity drives and she was hopeless at delegating authority. More than once her temper frayed as she travelled between establishments in Auckland and Wellington, trying to manage them both. Perhaps saddest of all, she often expected members of her sisterhood to accept unquestioningly the rigorous self-denial that she practised herself. Not surprisingly, some of the sisters rebelled and sided with the bishop whose “regularisation” of her order Aubert had herself opposed.
A number of themes emerge, implicitly or explicitly. One is Aubert’s essential Frenchness, which sometimes created tensions in the progressive “Irishing” of New Zealand Catholicism. Munro says Aubert sometimes spoke, not without a tinge of scorn, of “the faith of patrick and the gospel of Erin”. Another strong theme is her real commitment to any human person — hence her inevitable clashes with the type of eugenics that are, under new names, re-emerging in the late twentieth century.
With only one of Munro’s interpretations would I take serious issue, however. In what amounts to her peroration Munro comes close to suggesting that Aubert’s strength was her ability to adapt to a multidenominational environment — in effect to move towards a distinctively New Zealand variety of christianity. It does credit to Aubert’s lack of bigotry that Munro can make this suggestion. But the whole record shows that Aubert’s lifelong daily piety was very traditional, very conservative, very Catholic. On her visit to Rome she made sure she offered prayers at nearly every one of the city’s 300-plus churches. Fatigued at having constantly to travel up and down the main trunk railway line, she could say to her sisters: “Let us offer our journeys on the railroad in order to honour the speed with which Jesus daily and constantly descends from heaven to earth in obedience to the priest’s word at consecration.” Her conscious model was the ascetic, mystic French parish priest, Jean Vianney, the “Curé of Ars”. Hers simply was not a life of questioning, speculation or conscious cultural adaptation, for all her knowledge and understanding of Maori culture.
A modern parallel suggests itself for the paradox of Aubert’s life. In our own time outsiders often assume that politically-radical Latin American liberation theologians are necessarily theologically radical as well. Closer inspection shows this is not the case. In my left hand a rigorous marxist critique of society and American capital, but in my right hand rosary beads and a traditional Marianism that would make comfy, “progressive” Catholics elsewhere blush. I suggest this is at least similar to Aubert’s approach to the realities around her. It was the very certainty of her traditional faith which freed her hands for all the practical work she accomplished. Leave doctrinal quibbles to the smart-alecks and seminarians. Pray — and get on with building that orphanage.
I have raised my own clever quibble in differing from Munro over this one minor interpretation. For the full value it delivers (and its fascinating illustrations) Suzanne Aubert is very reasonably priced. I don’t know a better book about a New Zealander. And I don’t know a book about a better New Zealander.
Coming down many notches from such scholarship, we find Jim Sullivan with cassette-recorder and questionnaire quizzing 15 men about their Catholic upbringing. Catholic Boys tries to be very balanced. There’s the priest (Geoff Gray) and the ex-priest who’s still sympathetic to the church (John Clark); the politician who speaks with diplomatic caution (Jim Bolger) and the politician whose affection for the church is tempered somewhat (Peter Dunne); the sportsman who positively oozes enthusiasm (Martin Snedden) and the sports commentator still fuming over the church’s attitude to his divorce (Phillip Leishman). Manuka Henare gives about the most bracing perspective on current social justice issues and Harry Orsman, at least in his incidental asides, shows how deeply ingrained anti-Catholic prejudice has been in our academic establishment.
Catholic Boys was clearly planned as some sort of companion-piece to Jane Tolerton’s Convent Girls. One reviewer has pointed out (correctly) that the women interviewed in that volume were mainly negative about their Catholic upbringing, whereas the men interviewed here are mainly positive. The conclusion he drew was that it must have something to do with the church’s attitude to birth control. Cobblers! The tonea of the two books depend entirely on the specific, and not necessarily representative, individuals chosen. Sullivan could have rounded up a bunch of bolshie ex-Catholic men if he’d wanted to and Jane Tolerton could have talked to Carmelites. Neat sociological conclusions don’t apply.
As a Catholic boy myself, I found it surprisingly hard to relate to many of these men. It may be a generational thing. All but two were born before my time and their tales of daily rosary and a picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall come out of a distinctly pre-Vatican II experience. It might also have to do with the way my (academic) father insulated his family from too much forelock-tugging awe at the clergy. We respected priests but we did not regard them as oracles or infallible. To my discomfort, many of the men interviewed here seem to have been brought up in an atmosphere of serious kow-towing.
The oral history approach raises a host of problems — not least in factual inaccuracies. (Item: I know of one teacher, referred to in the text as a priest, who never has been a priest). This is interviewees’ uncorrected shonky recall. The questionnaire underlying each piece also forces contributors to talk first about school discipline, then about whether they were encouraged to become priests, then about sex education (or the lack of it). All rather mechanical.
But it is really stimulating to hear Sam Hunt trying to balance the pose of wild man with the pose of Catholic mystic. Francis Pound’s piece suggests that if you leave something when you are an adolescent you will probably retain an adolescent’s understanding of it. Ex-army boss Ron Hassett is right that the liturgy has gone to blazes. Today’s bland gutlessness makes my feet twitch under the pews too.
Not every nun is a Suzanne Aubert and some people just aren’t suited to convent life. Seven or eight years after making her final vows Pauline Grogan wanted out. She was already seeking the church’s dispensation when she was sexually molested by the priest she refers to only as “Father X”. Loose publicity for Beyond the Veil had suggested to me that it was the autobiography of a woman driven from the veil by a lustful priest. Not true. “Father X” may have hastened Grogan’s departure but her mind was already fairly made up.
Subtitled A Triumph of Love and Faith, this is not a book to read for prurient interest. “Father X’s” gropings occupy five or six pages and there is later passing mention of another priest who made an obscene suggestion by mail. Grogan is much more concerned with what happened to her after her marriage. A good half ofVeil concerns the long trauma of coping with her daughter’s stroke which left the girl paralysed down one side. I doubt if any mainstream-published book in New Zealand over the last year has said as much about the need for prayer, the power of prayer, the formation of prayer support-groups, etc. Nope — this is not a story of disillusion. Grogan appears now to be some sort of non-denominational christian, but she regards the Catholic Bishop of Auckland as a friend and she still treasures her two letters from the Pope.
This is all very edifying but, sadly, I have the task of writing a review. Like Grogan, I love boasting about my children’s achievements. I have been known to bore people witless with them. But — O Lordie! — I would not commit my ramblings to print. Whole chapters of Veil are accounts of schools attended by, school productions participated in by, Suzuki concerts played in by, operational procedures undergone by, Grogan’s (four) children.
And the style? P88: “I blossomed into a new womanhood”. P113: “Something inside me caught fire and I had a wonderful spiritual awakening.” P187: “That afternoon I experienced a sense of joy and inner healing.” Last words of book: “My tears expressed a rich mixture of discernment and hope and I allowed them to fall as the sun rose to usher in a new era in my life.”
Is this stuff sincere? You betcha. It’s in a long tradition of popular inspirational writing. Which forcefully reminds me why I don’t read much popular inspirational writing.
Nicholas Reid is a critic and reviewer of long standing currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in church history.