Jerusalem (New Zealand)

Jerusalem panorama 2

View of Jerusalem (Hiruharama) and river

convent & outbuildings

St Joseph’s Convent


This Jerusalem is located on the Whanganui River in the North Island of New Zealand – 64 kilometres from Whanganui on the Whanganui River Road. The area has a very interesting history.

Maori history

The Whanganui River – the country’s longest navigable river – is home to just one Maori iwi (tribe), 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.

Patiarero is the original name of Jerusalem (Hiruharama being a transliteration of Jerusalem). The hapu (‘sub tribe’) 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.

European Missionaries

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 (chiefs) on the river for Maori forms of Biblical or European names for their kainga (villages). 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 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. Sister Aubert is now known as Mother Aubert.

Catholic church and convent

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 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.

The first Catholic Church at Jerusalem, 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 man. The present church building, designed by Wellington architect Thomas Turnbull, 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

James K Baxter – NZ poet

Many New Zealanders 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). After his first year, he moved into a house called the Top House where he was joined by many followers. 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. He 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…’

Both the church and convent are listed as Category 1 Historic buildings by Heritage New Zealand. You can read more about them on the Heritage New Zealand website


I wrote the report on the convent when I worked at Heritage New Zealand. I have also stayed at the convent. I liked the ‘still life’ composition in the former meat safe (see photo) – somewhat reminiscent of a Giorgio Morandi painting, perhaps!


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