St Joseph's Convent (Catholic)

5050 Whanganui River Road, Jerusalem / Hiruharama

  • St Joseph's Convent.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Vivienne Morrell.
  • Convent North Façade.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Vivienne Morrell.
  • Convent kitchen.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Vivienne Morrell.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 961 Date Entered 19th April 2012 Date of Effect 19th April 2012


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Parapara Blk (RT WN51/195), and part of Pt Ikaroa 2 Blk, Wellington Land District and the building known as St Joseph's Convent (Catholic) thereon, and its fittings and fixtures and also the outbuildings located around the Convent. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Whanganui District


Horizons (Manawatū-Whanganui) Region

Legal description

Parapara Blk (RT WN51/195), Pt Ikaroa 2, Wellington Land District.


St Joseph’s Convent (Catholic), located at Jerusalem (or Hiruharama) 64 kilometres from Whanganui on the Whanganui River Road, was built in 1892 as the base for the order of the Sisters of Compassion, which was founded at the site that same year by Sister Mary Joseph Aubert (1835-1926) to care ‘solely for the Maori and the poor’.

The Whanganui River is home to one Maori iwi, the Atihaunui-a-Paparangi. The hapu associated with Hiruharama is Ngati Hau. The first Roman Catholic mission to the area was established in the 1850s, but was abandoned after the Battle of Moutua in 1864. In the early 1880s, partly due to the request of the local Ngati Hau to have their own priest, the site of Jerusalem was chosen by the Catholic Church as the spearhead of a rejuvenated Maori mission. The new mission began in July 1883, and was led by the Marist missionary Father Christophe Soulas, assisted by Sister Mary Joseph Aubert (1835-1926) (now known as Mother Aubert).

Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert arrived in New Zealand in December 1860. Nine years after arriving at Jerusalem, in 1892, she founded the only Catholic order to be established in New Zealand. Her religious order, the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, became known as the Sisters of Compassion.

St Joseph’s Convent was constructed near St Joseph’s Church (Record no. 161, Category I Registration) to house the Sisters of Compassion and to serve as the base for their work. The convent was originally a rectangular building, with gable roof. The building is two-storeyed and distinctive features include the rows of small windows on the first floor, and matai flooring.

The Sisters moved into the new convent building in 1892 along with seven children in their care. From the Convent, the Sisters ran a local day school until 1969, and a home for ‘orphaned’ children from 1892 to 1907. The convent was extended in 1897 to include a children’s wing to accommodate the growing numbers of orphanage children.

During her time at Jerusalem, Mother Aubert became widely known throughout New Zealand as a result of her work with poor and destitute children and for her medicines, which were made at Jerusalem and distributed commercially. She left Jerusalem in 1899 to extend the work of the Sisters of Compassion among the poor of Wellington, but the Maori mission continued. Since 1990, the Sisters have been seeking the lengthy process of canonisation for Mother Aubert.

The convent also operated as a Post Office agency and until 1955 the Sisters kept the local Births, Deaths and Marriages register. Their nursing skills were also called on - before the river road went through in 1934 they were the principal Pakeha medical personnel on the river. Although the school was a convent school it operated within the Native Schools System. Another schoolroom was added to the Convent in the 1940s (making the building roughly T-shaped) and it was used again for boarders in the 1950s and 1960s. The school operated until 1969 when the Native School System ceased and that, coupled with declining rolls, caused the school to close the same year. Generations of local Maori children went through the school; one child was Iriaka Te Rio, who later as Mrs Ratana headed the Ratana movement for some years and was a Member of Parliament for 20 years.

In the 1970s the convent was adapted to accommodate large groups coming for retreats or weekend visits. The Sisters now live in another house behind the convent. In the mid-2000s both the church and convent were renovated following a conservation plan by conservation architect Chris Cochran.

St Joseph’s Convent has outstanding significance due to its fundamental association with Mother Aubert; a woman of national stature revered for her work with Maori and the poor and sick. She founded the only Catholic order to be established in New Zealand, the Sisters of Compassion, while she was at Jerusalem and the convent served as the first home for the new order of Sisters and as the base for their operations. The level of authenticity is high and the historic uses of the building can still be fully understood today.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

St Joseph’s Convent has outstanding historical significance through its close association with Mother Aubert (1835–1926), a woman of national stature revered in her time for her work with Maori and the poor and sick. Mother Aubert founded the only Catholic order to be established in New Zealand, the Sisters of Compassion, while she was at Jerusalem. The convent was constructed in the same year that the Order was founded and was built as its first home and as the base for its missionary activities. At the convent, Mother Aubert directed the missionary activities of the Order and, as she said in 1899, the children’s home ‘was her own and maintained almost entirely at her own expense’.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

One of the great iconic views of buildings in the New Zealand landscape is the view of Jerusalem/Hiruharama from the Whanganui River Road, with St Joseph’s Church and Convent most prominent, as evoked by James K. Baxter in his poem ‘Haere Ra’. The river and framing hills make it an unforgettable picture. The largely rural setting of the convent and church, surrounded by mature trees and paddocks, add to the picturesque scene. The yellow-painted convent, with its red roof and the white crosses on the gable ends is set among green paddocks with hills behind. Inside the convent, the tongue and groove wall boards, matai timber floor and simple furnishings add to its aesthetic significance.

Architectural Significance or Value:

The architectural value of the convent rests on the simplicity of its forms, the interest of its details, and the beauty of some of the interior spaces, especially the dormitories on the first floor. Built in 1892, it had one major addition five years later and smaller additions since to reflect changing circumstances, but remains largely as it was when the school closed in 1969. Additions have generally been carefully designed and are compatible with the style of the building. Its current use for accommodation has meant few changes were needed, other than improving some of the toilet and bathroom facilities. The level of authenticity is high and the historic uses of the building can still be fully understood today.

Social Significance or Value:

From its inception, the convent operated as the local school, as well as housing the Sisters and some orphaned or destitute children. In addition, as a dispensary for Mother Aubert’s remedies, a Post Office agency, and holder of the local Births, Deaths and Marriages Register, the convent would have been one of the main focal points of social activity at Jerusalem and for the wider area over many decades. Today, the village public library is located there.

Spiritual Significance or Value:

The convent and church’s isolation and its spiritual history make it a place of pilgrimage and retreat, yet it is in full view rather than behind walls. The convent has been the home of many Sisters of Compassion for decades, women who devoted their lives to spiritual practice and carried out everyday ministrations of this in the building. It also contains a small chapel where prayers were said several times a day, and a sanctuary.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

Missionary activity was one of the first reasons Europeans were drawn to New Zealand. The French Catholic Missionaries arriving in 1838 were comparatively late on the scene. They were not the first missionaries in the upper Whanganui River area, but once established, maintained the association longer than any other. Jerusalem was established as a Maori mission and in the early days there was a close association with France, in the nationality of the priests and Mother Aubert, and for providing some funding. The place also reflects the close association between religion and education; however education was provided for local children, not just for Catholic children.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

Jerusalem is of fundamental importance in the life of Mother Mary Joseph Aubert. The process of seeking canonisation for her is presently underway and if progressed successfully she will become the first person associated with the Catholic Church in New Zealand to become a saint. It was while she was at Jerusalem that her order of nuns was established. The order’s focus on Maori, the sick, poor and children was first carried out at St Joseph’s Convent.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place:

Local Maori contributed labour to helping build the first St Joseph’s Church and may have assisted with the convent. . The convent was not just a home for the Sisters, but also operated as the local school until 1969, at times an orphanage, a boarding school, the Post Office agency, holder of the local Births, Deaths and Marriages Register, and a dispensary of medicine. The community have had a long ongoing association with the place.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

St Joseph’s Convent functions as an accommodation place for pilgrims and travellers. Visitors are already exposed to the interpretation on the walls in at least three of the rooms. There are historic photos in other rooms and there is also a museum in the convent. From this a visitor can learn about the Sisters of Compassion, their founder Mother Aubert, and their work at Jerusalem for over 110 years. If Mother Aubert is eventually canonised (the process is underway), it is likely the convent and church will receive pilgrims drawn to the place because of its important association with her. The building itself is a good example of a multi-purpose convent, much of it dating from the 1890s.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

The convent is closely linked historically and functionally with St Joseph’s Church (Record 161, Category I). They were built almost at the same time and are visually prominent in Jerusalem, being located on a hill above the river. The church is about 150 metres further along the driveway from the convent.

Poet and social activist James K. Baxter also lived in Jerusalem for approximately two years from 1969 to 1971; where he formed a community. He is also buried there. The church and convent, as well as his grave site, are a focal point for those drawn to Jerusalem because of Baxter’s association with the place.

Summary of Significance or Values:

This place was assessed against, and found to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e, f, k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

St Joseph’s Convent (Catholic), Jerusalem is considered to have outstanding significance due to its fundamental association with Mother Mary Joseph Aubert. Aubert was a woman of national stature revered in her time for her work with Maori and the poor and sick. She founded the only Catholic order to be established in New Zealand, the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, more commonly known as the Sisters of Compassion, while she was at the Jerusalem convent. The convent was constructed in the same year that the Order was founded and was built as its first home and as the base for its missionary activities. It is one of the oldest convent buildings currently on the Register (possibly the oldest purpose-built convent). The level of authenticity is high and the historic uses of the building can still be fully understood today.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Turnbull, Thomas

Thomas Turnbull (1824-1907) was born and educated in Scotland and trained under David Bryce, Her Majesty's Architect. He travelled to Melbourne in 1851 and after nine years there moved to San Francisco. He arrived in New Zealand in 1871 and soon established a thriving business. His son William, a distinguished architect in his own right, became a partner in the firm in 1891.

Turnbull was a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He was a pioneer in the design of buildings to withstand earthquakes and he was responsible for breaking down prejudice against the use of permanent materials for building construction. He specialised in masonry construction for commercial purposes but was also responsible for some fine houses.

Among his most important buildings were the Willis Street churches of St Peter (1879) and St John (1885), the former National Mutual Building (1883-84), the General Assembly Library (1899) and the former Bank of New Zealand Head Office (1901), all in Wellington.

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Uniquely in the annals of Maori settlement, the Whanganui River - the country’s longest navigable river - is home to just one iwi, the Atihaunui-a-Paparangi. Three parts of the river are customarily associated with three sibling ancestors: the upper part with Hinengakau, the middle with Tama Upoko, and the lower with Tupoho. The nine board members of the Whanganui River Maori Trust Board represent the three areas. However, these divisions should not be overly emphasised as there has been considerable movement of people between them.

Patiarero is the original name of Jerusalem (Hiruharama being a transliteration of Jerusalem). The hapu associated with Hiruharama is Ngati Hau. Hiruharama before and after European contact was a natural meeting place for hapu from up and down the river to come together. The hapu Ngati Ruaka at Ranana, five kilometres downstream, also has close links with Jerusalem.

The first European missionaries in the wider area were the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) from 1840 and the Methodists from 1848. In the early 1840s, the Anglican Reverend Richard Taylor (1805-1873) was asked by many rangatira on the river for Maori forms of Biblical or European names for their kainga. Those surviving names include Atene (Athens), Koriniti (Corinth), Ranana (London) and Hiruharama (Jerusalem). The first Roman Catholic mission was established first in the lower Whanganui River. In 1854, under Father Lampila, they pushed upriver to near Jerusalem, but across the river at Kauaeroa. But after the Battle of Moutua in 1864 the mission was abandoned. Father Lampila survived the battle, but five Catholic catechists and a lay brother Euloge Reignier were killed - their graves are across the river from Jerusalem.

In the early 1880s, partly due to the request of the local Ngati Hau to have their own priest, the site of Jerusalem (Hiruharama) was chosen by the Catholic Church as the spearhead of a rejuvenated Maori mission. The new mission began in July 1883, and was led by the Marist missionary Father Christophe Soulas. Assisting him was Sister Aubert (1835-1926), and, for the first year, two Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth.

Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert and the Catholic mission:

In January 1838 this country’s first bishop of any denomination, the Roman Catholic Jean-Baptiste Francoise Pompallier (1801-1871) arrived in New Zealand. Eventually six Pompallier-led missionary groups came to New Zealand. Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert (1835-1926) was in the last group of these, arriving in Auckland in December 1860.

Aubert was from a well-to-do French family and many have cited an accident at the age of two as a key reason for her adult work amongst marginalised people and her empathy for them. Aubert’s accident motivated her family to move to a house in Lyon which happened to be opposite a property used by the newly-formed Society of Mary. This early exposure to the Marists’ spiritual influence was formative and Aubert continued to have a close connection to the order for the rest of her life, with several of her ventures in New Zealand established in association with, or in close proximity to, Marist ones. It was also in Lyon that she was exposed to a variety of women’s missionary organisations, as well as numerous medical facilities and hospices that were run by female religious groups.

By the time she began her missionary life in New Zealand at the age of 25, Aubert was said to have been among France’s most educated women. After arriving in Auckland, Aubert, then called Sister Mary Joseph (or Meri Hohepa), spent the first decade teaching Maori girls at the Nazareth Institution. She spent the 1870s in Hawke’s Bay, mostly nursing, where she began developing and using herbal medicines. Although still known as Sister Mary Joseph, she was not formally a religious sister at this time. While there she also updated and printed the Catholic Maori Prayer Book, prepared a Maori–French phrasebook and later published its Maori-English equivalent.

Mother Aubert at Jerusalem:

In 1883 Father Christophe Soulas, two Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth and Sister Aubert went to Jerusalem to help revive the Catholic mission. Aubert was there to help the two Sisters learn Maori, which was probably the catalyst for publishing her Maori-English New and Complete Manual of Maori Conversation in 1885. After a year the two young Sisters returned to Wanganui, but Sister Aubert remained. She was joined by three young women to establish the New Zealand branch of the new Marist women’s missionary congregation, the Third Order Regular of Mary. They worked alongside the Marist mission, helping to establish schools and a place to care for foundlings (abandoned or orphaned, often ex-nuptial, children) and ‘incurable’ adults (destitute and chronically or mentally ill, and disabled people).

To help fund these activities she continued to produce a range of herbal medicines. In 1887 she decided to market her herbal remedies, and in 1888, using her own money, she purchased 300 acres at Jerusalem, which was where the medicines were made. These were initially marketed by Kempthorne and Prosser, but after it was discovered they were diluting her medicines, in 1894 she successfully sued them and changed her distributors to Sharland and Company. The products had Maori names.

It was while St Joseph’s Convent was being built in 1892 that Aubert founded her own religious order. Initially, she intended that the order would be closely associated with the Society of Mary. However, the two had slightly different focuses and in September 1892 Bishop Francis Redwood (1839–1935) re-christened Aubert’s order the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion, who became more commonly known as the Sisters of Compassion. They were instituted, as their constitution said, ‘solely for the Maori and the poor’.

A primary school had opened at Jerusalem in 1873 with at first secular teachers. When Aubert and the Sisters arrived in 1883 they became the teachers. The school house was in a building on the site of what is now a paddock (the Sisters slept in the attic). It served as school and convent for eight years and was also used as a church over part of this time.

St Joseph’s Convent was constructed in mid 1892 to house the Sisters and serve as a base for many of their missionary activities. It is not known exactly who designed the building, but conservation architect Chris Cochran believes it is likely an architect would have prepared plans for the convent given its scale. As Thomas Turnbull designed the associated churches, Cochran believes it is probable he may have done the convent plans as well, but this is not confirmed. The Sisters moved into the current convent building in November 1892 and with them came seven ‘orphan’ children. Also from the time it was built the new convent housed the local school. Although both the Hiruharama and Ranana schools were run as convent schools, they were nevertheless connected to the inspection and support system of the government Native Schools System, which operated from 1867 to 1969.

The first Catholic Church at Jerusalem (attributed to architect Thomas Turnbull), St Joseph's (Hato Hohepa), was built on the site by local Maori in 1885, but was burnt down in 1888 by an irate Pakeha. The present church building was begun in 1892, with construction completed by April 1893. This second St Joseph's church (built in a simple Gothic revival style) was largely funded by the efforts of Soulas and Aubert. Aubert and some of her fellow Sisters undertook a year-long journey around the country, often walking long distances, asking for donations to support the Jerusalem mission and raise money for the construction of the church. In the early years, mass was said in Latin, but a Maori catechist (katekita in Maori) would say it in Maori as well - for many years Te Manihera Keremeneta, who was aged 19 in 1883, performed this role.

The church was served by French Marist (Society of Mary) priests until 1920. One, Jean-Marie Vibaud, from 1906 to 1914 explored the possibility of blending Maori and Catholic beliefs, receiving instruction in the whare wananga on Peterehema marae at Jerusalem. Neither the priests nor Sisters received much money - the Sisters grew vegetables and gave milk and eggs to the priests, while the nearby Morikaunui farm helped with a regular supply of meat. However, they did receive some funding from the French-founded international Catholic association, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

The church was part of the diocese of Wellington, which became the archdiocese in 1887, and came into the diocese of Palmerston North when this was established in 1980. St Joseph’s is now the outermost church in the diocesan parish of St Mary’s Wanganui. In 1968, Father Wiremu Te Awhitu, who had been the first Maori Catholic priest ordained in New Zealand, arrived at Jerusalem. Since he left in 1988 priests have no longer lived at Jerusalem.

In Mother Aubert’s time at Jerusalem, access to these remote settlements was mostly from boats that operated along the Whanganui River. The Sisters had a landing by the river, from which a path led up the slope through the orchard and into the garden. Tourists began taking river steamer cruises in the 1890s and Jerusalem was a popular stop - Mother Aubert’s name being known through her medicines. Cook’s Australasian Travellers Gazette advertised a new four-day tourist route between Taupo and Wellington in 1891 that included a half-day trip from Pipiriki to Wanganui on the river.

A Wellington builder who visited saw that the convent was much too small and raised the money needed to add an extension in 1897, which became known as the children’s wing. This almost doubled the size of the building. The extension also included a chapel that the Sisters would use several times a day for prayers and meditation. By 1898 the ‘orphan’ children numbered 47, including 32 under four years of age and 16 not yet walking. These predominantly Pakeha children played with the local Maori children and were integrated into the day-to-day life of the marae as much as the convent.

In July 1899, at an inquest held into the death of one of the orphanage children at the convent, Mother Aubert said ‘the home was her own and maintained almost entirely at her own expense. She occasionally got some gifts from tourists.’ Most of the children were aged under four, but she would not take children under 12 months anymore after some had died. Many of the children were in bad health when they arrived. Presumably because of lack of space or their ages she ‘had refused 45 applications for illegitimate children since last November from all parts of the colony.’

St Joseph’s Convent after Mother Aubert left:

Mother Aubert left Jerusalem for Wellington in 1899, but the main Maori mission remained. In 1898, there were 22 children on the school roll, joined sometimes by others who were temporarily resident in Jerusalem. In 1916 there were 26 on the roll, while in 1919 the school was closed while the Sisters looked after victims of the influenza pandemic. The school roll peaked at 42 in 1937. In the 1930s there were about eight Sisters in the community, joined at weekends by three from Ranana. The school closed at the end of 1969 due to falling rolls and the Native Schools System ending the same year. Generations of local Maori children went through the school; one student was Iriaka Te Rio, who as Mrs Ratana headed the Ratana movement for some years and was a Member of Parliament for 20 years. The closure of the school meant that for the first time since the order’s inception in 1892, the Sisters would no longer be teachers. This required a ‘conceptual readjustment’ about what their role was.

From very early in the 1900s, the Sisters held the agency for postal services at Jerusalem and Ranana, for which they received an annual fee from the Post Office. Until 1955, the Sisters also kept the local Births, Deaths and Marriages register. Their nursing skills were also called on - before the road went through in 1934 they were the principal Pakeha medical personnel on the river. Electricity only arrived in 1932 and then for part of the day, provided by a generator until 1965 when it was wired in.

After the children’s wing was added in 1897 the convent building did not change much - a sanctuary was added to the chapel in the 1920s, bathroom and toilet facilities upstairs for the boarders in the 1950s, fire escapes and an infant schoolroom were also added. After the orphanage children were moved to Wellington in 1907, that part of the building was largely used for storage.

In the 1950s the convent housed about 12 school boarders. The Angelus bell rang at 6am and the Sisters and boarders went to mass each day before breakfast. However, the Sisters would have got up earlier to milk cows, and feed poultry and pigs. Many of the local schoolchildren would have started their day similarly. The schoolchildren also practised singing in the church and helped to clean it for Sunday services. The priests came to the school to teach catechism. School sports were often held at the marae where there was more space.

In the 1970s the convent was adapted to accommodate large groups coming for retreats or weekend visits. Floor coverings were laid in the school rooms, showers installed upstairs, and a septic tank. Tanks, water pipes and guttering were replaced - all this was carried out in working bees, largely by local Maori. A sturdier fire escape was also added from the Sisters’ dormitory on the west wall. Major work was carried out on the church in 2005, including re-piling, sprinkler installation, structural repairs, painting, plumbing and wiring. The convent was then also upgraded following a conservation plan by conservation architect Chris Cochran. Work on the convent included re-piling, painting, installing sprinklers and a ramp was added for wheelchair accessibility. A shed was converted into an accessible toilet and other changes were made to a toilet block. These were discreet and low-key changes that rendered the building more fit for purpose and in accord with current Building Act requirements.

In the 1980s the Hato Hohepa Management Committee was established to take some of the administrative load off the Sisters. Two Sisters continue to live there, but in a modern house behind the convent. The Sisters are regarded as tangata whenua on local marae. The convent offers dormitory accommodation for people seeking rest or a spiritual retreat - estimated at around 18,000 visitors annually.

St Joseph’s is one of the oldest convent buildings currently on the NZHPT Register, and possibly the oldest surviving purpose-built convent. It is one of only a few wooden convents (or former convents) on the Register. ‘The Pah’ (Register no. 89, Category I) in Auckland was built in 1880 as a residence for the then Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand and was used as a convent from 1913. Another wooden former convent, St Mary’s Church Convent in Blenheim (1901, Register no. 1531, Category II) has been relocated and is now a hotel/wedding venue. The Convent of St John the Baptist (Catholic) in Parnell, Auckland dates from 1903 (Register no. 562). Its front façade is symmetrically arranged with an impressive double veranda. The nuns there had cells on the first floor rather than the dormitory accommodation at Jerusalem. In comparison with these convents, St Joseph’s is plainer both externally and internally, reflecting the shortage of available funds and the philosophy of the Sisters.

Mother Aubert’s later years and her legacy:

Catholics in Wellington had long urged Aubert and her Sisters to come to Wellington and work among the urban poor, which they did in 1899. It was here that the foundations for the continuance of the Sisters of Compassion were firmly established.

In 1907 the Sisters further expanded their services, and property, with the building of Our Lady’s Home of Compassion in Island Bay, which enabled them to accept foundlings. The incurable children previously at Buckle Street were also transferred there along with the ‘orphanage’ children from Jerusalem. A few years later in 1910 the Sisters of Compassion expanded their work further by purchasing a building in Auckland to house foundlings, which they called St Vincent’s Home of Compassion.

On 1 October 1926, it was announced that one of New Zealand’s greatest women had passed away. Aubert died at the age of 91 at Our Lady’s Home of Compassion. Her funeral, which was attended by clergy of many denominations as well as top politicians, was described as ‘the greatest funeral New Zealand had ever accorded a woman.’ The route of the mile-long funeral cortege was crowded with people.

Upon reflecting on the achievements and legacy of Aubert, historian Michael King stated: ‘Mother Aubert’s vision and example - her insistence on seeing Christ in every person who needed help, her refusal while doing so to distinguish between Catholic and non-Catholic, Maori and Pakeha - were among the most pervasive and enduring forces to emerge from the Catholic Church in New Zealand.’ In 1990 the Sisters of Compassion began the process of seeking official Vatican recognition of the saintliness that people attributed to Aubert in life through beatification and canonisation, which are rigorous and lengthy processes. However, this is now well underway and if progressed successfully Aubert will become the first person associated with the Catholic Church in New Zealand to become a saint.

The work of the Sisters of Compassion continued after Aubert’s passing, drawing inspiration from her life and example. From the 1920s the Sisters of Compassion began transferring their work with adults to Island Bay, as well as to the new Silverstream Home of Compassion in 1933. The Sisters of Compassion also set up other institutions around New Zealand and overseas.

James K. Baxter at Jerusalem:

Many people will also know of Jerusalem from its association with the poet and social activist James K. Baxter, who arrived in May 1969. Drawn by the blend of Maoritanga and Catholicism, he eventually established an alternative community at Jerusalem. In his first year he lived in a three-roomed cottage loaned by the Sisters (known by them as the ‘farm worker’s cottage’, but to Baxter as the nuns’ cottage). He was mainly on his own at this time and the Sisters sometimes invited him to their parlour in the evening to talk - an experience one described as exhausting.

Canterbury University lecturer and poet, John Newton, was a writer in residence at the convent in 2005, researching bicultural relationships at Jerusalem in the 1960s and 1970s. Newton believes that Baxter was indebted to the Sisters and in particular to Father Te Awhitu for smoothing his relations with local Maori:

From the outset it was the church that gave Baxter the beginnings of a foothold among the local people… But where Baxter was perhaps even more significantly indebted was in relation to Meri Hohepa’s own mana. If Pakeha New Zealand had largely forgotten her, Ngati Hau certainly hadn’t. The Sisters were a long-established part of community life, and the work that Aubert and her successors had done left a space in which Baxter’s own charitable ideals could be recognised and ultimately embraced.

After his first year, he moved into a house called the Top House where he was joined by many followers. Sister Aquinas, who served as the local community nurse and ran a dispensary from the convent, had most to do with the commune at this time. Women from the commune, as well as local Maori women, were invited to retreats at the convent that the Sisters periodically held. Commune members also painted St Joseph’s Church and Convent. However, the numbers of people attracted there and their conditions of living caused concern to both the Sisters and local Maori. The commune became the focus of adverse publicity and Baxter left in September 1971.

Baxter returned to Jerusalem for a short time in 1972, but left for Auckland in August. He died in October 1972, and was buried, at his request, near the Top House at Jerusalem with a full Maori tangi - a rare honour for a pakeha. One of his well-known poems (‘Haere ra’, 1969) was written for one of the Sisters as she was leaving Jerusalem following the school’s closure - ‘Farewell to Hiruharama - the green hills and the river fog / cradling the convent and the Maori houses / The peach tree at my door is broken, Sister...’

Physical Description

Construction Professionals:

The architect Thomas Turnbull designed St Joseph’s Church (first and second). Conservation architect Chris Cochran believes it is likely an architect would have prepared plans for the convent given its scale and as Turnbull was involved with the church it is probable he may have done the convent plans as well, but this is not confirmed. Bett and McFadgen of Wanganui, possibly with local help, built the second church - it is not known if they also built the convent at the same time. Mr R P Collins supervised the building of the 1897 extension.

St Joseph’s Convent is located at Jerusalem (or Hiruharama), 64 kilometres from Whanganui up the Whanganui River Road. Twelve kilometres north of Jerusalem is Pipiriki where the river road turns inland toward Raetihi and a popular stopping point for river boats in the days when they were the main form of river transport. The road beside the river is narrow, windy and unsealed for the last five kilometres between Ranana and Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Pipiriki. After more than an hour’s drive from Wanganui, turning a bend, the view opens up to a broad sweeping curve of the river and buildings on the hill opposite - topped by the wooden spire of St Joseph’s Church. It is a scene that has been photographed many times.

The convent is located at the northern end of Jerusalem village. Going through Jerusalem on the Whanganui River Road only a few buildings are visible as the road is surrounded by trees. The river is located on the left but is also only visible in places because of the trees. The convent is reached from a driveway off the main road - the convent is located on a rise to the right. By continuing further along the driveway the church is reached. The location has a very rural feel, surrounded by paddocks, hills and trees. The other buildings in Jerusalem and the river are only visible from a few windows of the convent, or from in front of the church.

The convent building comprises the original 1892 rectangular block, with the 1897 children’s wing built at right angles on the north side; at this stage the building would have been an L shape. But since another schoolroom was added on in the 1940s the building is now roughly a T shape.

The convent architecture is typical for the 1890s, with gable roofs, barge boards and cover boards and double-hung sash windows. However, there are small crosses on the gable ends, where in a secular building there might have been finials. The building is two-storeyed and distinctive features of the exterior include the rows of small windows of the dormitories on the first floor, which are decorated on the north façade, and the vents high up in the south and west end gables. The large double-hung windows of both wings have sashes divided into six panes, while there are several, perhaps later, windows with plain one-light sashes.

The entrance is in the middle of the building on the west side. The whole building flows from room to room, with alternative routes nearly everywhere. The room on entering is called the ‘dining room’ on the plans. This room has three doors - the one to the left leads into a large meeting room or lounge (formerly the senior schoolroom). The door in front leads to the former dispensary. The main entrance to the convent used to be at this end of the building, with an exterior door into the dispensary and one into the parlour where guests were received (now a museum). The dining room has a large six-over-six double-hung sash window and a small window above the entrance door.

The room to the right of the dining room is a small lounge and contains a large fireplace sharing the same chimney space as the kitchen range, located in the room behind it. A closed wood burner now occupies the open fireplace (added in the 1980s), but the original mantelpiece is still there. At the south end of this lounge, behind the enclosed staircase, are a toilet, shower and bathroom.

The kitchen leads off to the left of this small lounge. In here there are two large six-over-six double-hung sash windows - there used to be a door to the outside between the windows but this was blocked in the 1970s and a bench and cupboards now line the wall. There is a long table in the centre of the kitchen. A large wood-burning range occupies the fireplace. Flour and sugar bins line the end wall. A door at this end leads into a scullery, with a large meat safe on the back (south-facing) wall. The butter used to be made here, but now a sink has replaced the tub, and the safe is used to store kitchen equipment. A door from the scullery leads into a small laundry, with an external door off this room to the outside on the south.

The former dispensary can be reached from either the dining room or the kitchen. This contains some cupboards, a hand basin and a table where jam made by the Sisters can be purchased. The rooms discussed up to this point are all in the original 1892 part of the building and have tongue and groove lined interior walls.

The next rooms to be discussed on the ground floor are in the 1897 part of the building or are later additions. The former parlour - now used as a museum - is reached from the dispensary, but it also has an external door. The museum contains interpretation panels and display cases, one containing letters written by Mother Aubert. A small chapel leads off the museum, with a sanctuary at the end – on the north wall. The chapel has a pressed metal ceiling. The chapel was part of the 1897 wing, but the sanctuary was added in the 1920s.

The large meeting room can be reached from either the dining room or the chapel. This contains a large number of chairs, cupboards, further interpretation panels, a piano, and a sofa. It has three large double-hung windows of the same style as the dining room and kitchen. Off this room to the west is a bedroom (formerly the junior school room; added in the 1940s), which also has an en suite bathroom, formerly a store room. Another door off the meeting room on the north wall leads to a former porch, now used as a bedroom.

There are two stair cases to the first floor - one off the kitchen and one off the large meeting room. The set off the kitchen lead up to what was the sister’s dormitory (in the 1892 wing) and the other set to the former children’s dormitory in the 1897 wing. There is a connecting door between the two dormitories, with three steps up from the Sisters to the children’s dormitory. There are six beds in the Sisters’ dormitory, with curtains and railing around each. The floor is beautifully aged matai. The other notable features of this room are the coved ceiling and the chimney enclosed in tongue and groove panelling. The small low windows in the Sisters’ dormitory (three on each of the east and west sides) once had ‘shamrock’ tops to their frames but now are squared off. A single double-hung window on the south wall looks across to the hills over the river. There is also a door on the west wall which leads to external stairs and is a fire exit.

After the children were taken to Wellington in 1907, the children’s dormitory was used as a storeroom until the boarders in the 1950s used it again. It is now used for accommodation for visitors and contains beds and toilet and shower facilities. There is a double-hung window on the east side, which has a fire escape leading from it, and three windows on the west wall - one large double-hung sash and two smaller. The north wall has four small four-paned windows.

The dormitories on the first floor are fully lined with tongue and groove, and together with the coved ceilings, chimney, and Matai floor have a special architectural quality. They have an ‘old-fashioned’ institutional feel and still retain the look of their former use as dormitories.

It is not known when the outbuildings were built, but they are an integral part of the convent. There are three of them on the south side, two small wooden sheds and one clad in corrugated iron, labelled wood shed, drying room and wash house on the plans. These buildings were used for storing tools, sports gear, wood, food for the poultry, onions and potatoes, jars of preserves, a laundry, and a dairy. While they have little intrinsic architectural interest, they were essential to the running of the convent and school and have strong historic associations with the parent building. On the north side there is an outside toilet block, a garage and a small rectangular building, added in 1955 as a school room, but which is now used as a branch of the Wanganui Public Library for the Jerusalem community.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1892 -
Construction of convent

1897 -
‘Children’s wing’ added

Sanctuary added at the end of the chapel

Infants’ school room was added

1955 -
School room/library outbuilding added

1960 -
A fire started in the kitchen and some of the dormitory above was damaged

2005 -
Re-piling, painting, installing sprinklers and a ramp was added for wheelchair accessibility; toilet facilities also upgraded in accordance with the conservation plan.

Construction Details

Concrete, timber, galvanised iron.

Completion Date

3rd April 2012

Report Written By

Vivienne Morrell

Information Sources

MacDonald, 1991

Charlotte MacDonald, Merimeri Penfold, & Bridget Williams (eds), 'The Book of New Zealand Women - Ko kui ma te Kaupapa', Wellington, 1991

Tennant, M., ‘Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, 1835–1926,’ in C. Macdonald et. al. (ed.), The Book of New Zealand Women Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa, Bridget Wil-liams Books, Wellington, 1991, pp.29–32

Munro, 1997

Jessie Munro, The Story of Suzanne Aubert, Auckland, 1997

Thornton, 2003

G. Thornton, Worship in the Wilderness: Early country churches of New Zealand, Auckland, 2003

King, 1997

Michael King, God's Farthest Outpost - A History of Catholics in New Zealand. Penguin Books, Auckland, 1997.

Ombler, 1999

Ombler, Kathy, ‘More than a Hundred Years of Compassion’ in Whanganui Riv-er Memories, Arthur Bates & Phil Thomsen (eds), Auckland: Heritage Press Ltd, 1999.

Rafter, 1972

Rafter, P., Never Let Go!: The remarkable story of Mother Aubert, A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1972

Other Information

A fully referenced report is available from the Central Region office of NZHPT.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.