Sister Susanne Aubert was so revered by Māori on the Whanganui River that they called her, ‘Meri Hohepa’ – wahine tino whakapono, a very holy lady.

With her Sisters of Compassion, Aubert cared for orphaned and abandoned babies and children during the 1890s at the Jerusalem convent. One baby was dispatched anonymously in a basket loaded on Hatrick’s riverboat labelled, ‘To Mother Aubert, Jerusalem’.

The free-thinking, French-born nun went on to establish the Wellington Home of Compassion in 1907. She died in 1926 after a lifetime devoted to helping others. The long process of her canonisation is currently underway and it is hoped that Susanne Aubert may become New Zealand’s first saint.

This is one of the heartfelt heritage stories that come to light when you set out to drive down the old River Road from Pipiriki to Whanganui. The journey from the mountains to the sea starts in Raetihi. It follows a switchback road down to Pipiriki, and then the narrow, twisting, sealed River Road runs 79km to Whanganui City.

Arriving in Pipiriki, my first reaction is, ‘Where is the town and where are the people?’ There is absolute silence amongst the leafy lanes, yet this is the main gateway to the Whanganui National Park and the wildest stretches of the river.

The old Waimarie paddle steamer still plies the river

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