In 1926, the funeral for a 91-year-old Catholic nun brought downtown Wellington to a standstill: Boulcott Street thronged with mourners, every available vantage point claimed in an effort to glimpse the funeral carriage. French-born Suzanne Aubert had spent more than 60 years in New Zealand caring for her adopted home’s most vulnerable—abandoned children, the sick, orphans, single mothers—and the country was showing its thanks. More people attended her funeral, they say, than had attended that of any other woman in the country’s history.
Already declared “venerable” by Pope Francis for her lifetime of good deeds, Aubert is also in line to become New Zealand’s first official saint. After a 20 year campaign by the New Zealand Catholic Church just the small matter of two official “miracles”, unexplained by science, stand between her and sainthood. Father Maurice Carmody, of St Theresa’s in Wellington, calls Aubert “a saint in every sense of the word, whether you do it from a specifically Christian perspective or from any other. She’s one of the greats and I think she deserves a bit more publicity.”
One thing Aubert has gained publicity for: her reported use of what was then called “Indian hemp”—what we now call cannabis. Aubert opened a home for the disadvantaged at Hiruhārama, or Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River. Cannabis grown on the surrounding farm became part of her practice. She was known to brew a cannabis tea to ease the pain of the nuns’ menstrual cramps, which didn’t exactly make her a revolutionary. Even The New Zealand Family Herb Doctor, published in 1889, recommended cannabis as a treatment for asthma, neuralgia, and spasmodic coughing, among other maladies. It is probable that the range of remedies Aubert sold, ‘Paramo’ for digestive complaints, ‘Marupa’ for respiratory problems, and the ‘Wanema’ wound balm, all included cannabis.
Carmody is unwilling to confirm that Aubert used cannabis as part of her nursing but he doesn’t seem unduly concerned by the prospect. “Like anyone at the time, she would’ve used the materials that were available for the sick that she was caring for. She was a very practical person.”
It is a bit of an understatement. Fluent in te reo Māori, Aubert had a profound interest in rongoā, traditional Māori healing, pioneering the practice of combining its teachings with the Western medicine she had learned alongside Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. She was involved in the establishment of the nurses’ union. She wrote a Māori dictionary. She founded a soup kitchen and a crèche for the children of working parents.
But if the lawmakers of the day ever benefited from Aubert’s cannabis-friendly practicality, it was soon forgotten. The year following Aubert’s death, the Dangerous Drugs Act outlawed cannabis, after the government decided to bring New Zealand’s drug laws into line with those of the international community. And that, for the 90 years since, has essentially been that. Advocates for reform now pin their hopes on the referendum on the legalisation of cannabis promised before the next election. And if that were to pass, Carmody’s description would take on a prophetic aspect: “She was a great pioneering woman.”
In the new season of WEEDIQUETTE coming tomorrow to VICELAND, SKY Channel 13, Krishna Andavolu investigates the world of weed—meeting pregnant women medicating with marijuana and the man denied a life-saving kidney transplant because he smokes pot. Watch fresh new WEEDIQUETTE every Thursday at 7.30 PM.