Home of Compassion Crèche

Home of Compassion Creche Home of Compassion Creche Home of Compassion Creche

Home of Compassion Crèche (1914)

Charity for the urban poor

Sweated pay rates and dirty, dangerous workplaces were not the only problems faced by female Victorian- and Edwardian-era shop and factory workers. Prevailing mores stigmatised those mainly widowed or deserted women whose work took them away from their children during the day. Childcare - where it could be found - was expensive, as Mother Mary Joseph Aubert knew. We remember her best for founding the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion and for working among Whanganui Māori, but in 1899 she and three of her sisters moved to the capital, where they would devote the rest of their lives to caring for the urban poor.

Legend has it that they arrived with just 2s 6d between them. ‘Mother Orbit’, as some called her, settled in a cottage in Buckle Street and began begging to feed the poor, pushing prams laden with donated food through working class Te Aro. ‘I am always begging,’ she buttered up the mayor, ‘but it is for the poor in who[m] you take such a kind interest.’ In 1900-01 Aubert opened a home for incurables (against bureaucratic opposition) and St Anthony’s soup kitchen in Buckle Street for ‘Wellington's Workless, Wet and Weary Wandering Willies’, its unemployed and casual workers. In 1903 she added a crèche (day nursery) in Buckle Street. During the day the sisters and volunteers cared for the children and patched their clothes, all for a contribution towards the milk.

John Swan designed this building, the first purpose-built crèche in the country. It opened at the end of September 1914, replacing earlier wooden cottages used for this purpose. Of brick and concrete ‘with “compo” dressings of simple Tudor-Gothic design’, the crèche’s walls were thick enough to support a second storey should one be required. A wide glazed-in veranda at the rear offered children a safe play area.

You can still see the Sisters’ crest in the clumsy crenellated parapet above the Buckle Street porch. Inside it was basically a simple domestic structure. A large playroom and sleeping room ran off one side of the central passageway; two smaller amenity rooms, pantry, bathroom and toilet off the other. Later the building became a classroom and library for the (now demolished) St Patrick’s College, and in more recent times it has been an arts studio and a car parts shop, marooned by the one-way street system. Moved 15 metres from its original position and beautifully restored in 2014, the former crèche now sits within the new Pukeahu National War Memorial Park. In 2016 it reopened as the Queen Elizabeth II Pukeahu Education Centre.

The Sisters, like the poor, are still with us, at a modern centre nearby.

Further information

This site is item number 82 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

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