Today, the Queen Elizabeth II Pukeahu Education Centre was officially opened. This building was once the Home of Compassion Crèche, next to the Basin Reserve. A crèche was established in 1903 by the Sisters of Compassion to care for children whose mothers, often widows or those who had been abandoned by their husbands, needed to work, and did so for no fee. This building, designed in 1914 by Catholic architect John Swan, was built as a replacement for the original crèche building on the site. It was New Zealand’s first purpose-built crèche, and an important part of women’s history in New Zealand.
The crèche is one of the only buildings left which are directly associated with Mother Suzanne Aubert, who has been, since 2010, on the track to become a saint. It is also the last remnant of the fascinating complex of Catholic buildings that were once in the area, including St Patrick’s College.
Aubert was a remarkable woman who arrived in New Zealand in 1865, and came to Wellington in 1899 after many years caring for Maori in Auckland, the Hawke’s Bay and Whanganui. While in Whanganui she established her own religious order, which was eventually recognised by the Pope, giving Aubert more autonomy over her work. After coming to Wellington she worked tirelessly for the rest of her life on charitable works for the urban poor, particularly creating a home for incurables, a soup kitchen, which still operates today, the crèche and, a few years later, an enormous Home of Compassion in Island Bay, complete with hospital, school and nursery. Aubert was a force of nature.
The Island Bay Home of Compassion
After the crèche was closed it was used as a classroom for St Partick’s college and the for many years sat empty and unloved. In 2014 it was moved 15 metres in order for it to fit in better with the Pukeahu War Memorial Park which had been built around it, and it was redeveloped to become an education centre for visitors to the park. It is great the building was saved as part of the process of developing the park.
Today the building was named in honour of Queen Elizabeth II – as a 90th birthday gift to her from New Zealand. But why? I find it extraordinary that the crèche, one of the last remaining buildings connected to a Catholic icon of New Zealand would be renamed after the head of the Anglican church (and given to a woman who, let’s face it, really needs no more birthday presents).
Why obscure this part of Catholic history, working class history, women’s history and the history of children in New Zealand under the layer of a name of a woman from the other side of the planet, who has no connection with the building?
Maggie Barry said today: ‘The War Memorial Park is a place where New Zealanders can learn about our nation’s involvement in war, honour those who fell and remember the impact of conflict throughout our history … I cannot think of a more fitting gift to Her Majesty The Queen on her 90th birthday than to have the new education centre named after her’. But I just can’t agree. Heritage buildings change names, and the names old and new become part of the story of the building, but for me, it seems an unfortunate choice, obscuring a part of New Zealand’s heritage that shouldn’t be hidden.
If you would like to listen to a Radio New Zealand programme about the building follow this link:
See also: Margaret Tennant. ‘Aubert, Mary Joseph’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,
Images: Modern Image, Ministry of Culture and Heritage; Historic images: Home of Compassion. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/2-203263-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23188594; Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, Home of Compassion. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/2-197333-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23242143