catholic precinct from the basin reserve about 1930

The Catholic precinct around Buckle and Tory streets, as seen from the Basin Reserve, in the 1930s. The Home of Compassion Crèche is the only remaining building. Image supplied by New Zealand Transport Agency

The former Home of Compassion Crèche, at the eastern side of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, was constructed in 1914 and is one of New Zealand’s first dedicated child day-care buildings. It was designed by prominent architect John Swan so that the Roman Catholic Sisters of Compassion could continue the pioneering crèche service begun by their founder, Mother Aubert.

Mother Aubert’s early work

Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert (later known as Mary Joseph Aubert) was born in France in 1835. In 1860, as a 25-year-old, she sailed to New Zealand after being recruited by Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier.

She spent some years in Auckland and then in Hawke's Bay, during which time she became fluent in the Māori language. In 1883 she was sent to assist a mission at Hiruhārama (Jerusalem) on the Whanganui River. While at Hiruhārama she began caring for unwanted Pākehā children. In 1892 she founded a new religious order, the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion.

Sisters of Compassion arrive in Wellington

In January 1899 Mother Aubert and three of her Sisters of Compassion left for Wellington, arriving, according to one story, with only two shillings and sixpence.

After renting a cottage at 22 Buckle Street, next to St Joseph’s Church and behind St Patrick’s Catholic College, the sisters began visiting the invalid and poor around Te Aro (central Wellington). In the absence of any government-funded social security scheme, many families were struggling with poverty and Mother Aubert was determined to help as much as possible.

A house on the other side of the church was purchased and enlarged. At the beginning of 1900 they opened St Joseph's Home for Incurables, which met a vital need, primarily catering to elderly men who were suffering from chronic and degenerative conditions and had no one else to look after them.

In July 1901 Mother Aubert was able to purchase two adjoining cottages to accommodate more patients. That same year they also opened St Anthony's Soup Kitchen in Buckle Street, serving hot soup to casual and unemployed workers in the mornings and evenings.

Opening of the crèche

Mother Aubert also saw the need for something to help mothers and children, and decided to open a crèche. The crèche property was bought in 1903 for £1400. It was one of the first such facilities in New Zealand. It enabled women to have their children looked after while they undertook work, which was especially important for women without other means of support, such as widows.

Children could be left at the crèche between 7 am and 6 pm. Apart from paying a few pence towards milk – for the benefit of the mother's self-respect – the crèche was free. It took children from birth to three years of age, providing for up to 34 children at a time – twice as many if the weather was fine.

A new building

Over time the buildings at Buckle Street needed repairs and rebuilding. Land at Island Bay had been purchased in 1900, and in 1907 a new Home for Incurables was opened. In 1908 the child patients were transferred to Island Bay, with women patients following in 1921. The old Buckle Street buildings were condemned by the Director of Health in 1929.

In 1914 the original crèche buildings between 18 and 22 Buckle Street were demolished, after being deemed structurally unsound by the city council. With Mother Aubert in Europe at that time, attaining papal recognition for her congregation, the sisters organised for the construction of a replacement building.

The building was constructed in brick and concrete, in a tudor-gothic design, with walls thick enough to support a second storey, if one was later required. It also featured a wide glassed veranda at the back for children to play in.

The Home of Compassion Crèche opened in 1914 and housed the sisters’ successful day-care service for nearly 60 years.

Crèche on the move

In 1973 the staff and children moved into the newly opened, nearby Relief Centre on Sussex Street. The crèche building was then used by St Patrick’s College as a classroom, before the college also moved away (to Kilbirnie) in 1979.

In 2014 the crèche building itself was moved 15 metres west to a new site, using hydraulic lifting and pulling systems, prior to restoration.

View of the Education Centre. Credit: Photo by Mark Tantrum. Ministry for Culture and Heritage

The Home of Compassion Crèche building is one of few remaining of the Sisters of Compassion’s buildings which is directly associated with Mother Aubert, the influential and important founder of the order. It is also the last remnant of the intensive Catholic presence around Buckle and Tory streets which began as early as the 1880s.

Queen Elizabeth II Pukeahu Education Centre

Prime Minister John Key speaking at the opening of the Education Centre.Credit: Photo by Mark Tantrum. Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

To mark the 90th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in June 2016, the building has been named as the Queen Elizabeth II Pukeahu Education Centre. The centre will also include a small display honouring Mother Aubert and the Sisters of Compassion. In August 2016 the centre was opened by the former Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae accompanied by the former Prime Minister Rt Hon John Key and the former Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Hon Maggie Barry.

Further information


Updated on 25th October 2017