Founder of the Sisters of Compassion Suzanne Aubert has been declared 'venerable' by the Catholic Church.
The declaration by Pope Francis is a major milestone on the path to sainthood being bestowed on Mother Aubert, who came to New Zealand from France in 1860 and died here aged 91 in 1926.
The Sisters of Compassion provide many charitable services, including running a soup kitchen in central Wellington.
Cardinal John Dew described her as a remarkable woman who devoted her life to helping others.
She was a pioneer of New Zealand's health and welfare system and a friend to Māori throughout her life, he said.
"Suzanne Aubert was ahead of her time, promoting the rights of women and Maori in the nineteenth century."
"Her care for infants, young children, their mothers and families, and her practical concern for the incurably sick and unemployed was legendary."
Suzanne Aubert was an expert in Maori language and tikanga, and developed a Maori - English dictionary which became a reference text for decades.
The order's congregational leader Sister Margaret Anne Mills said it was very exciting for the order, and was like an early Christmas present for New Zealand
"It affirms this woman's life, both in what she did, her faith, her values and her legacy in what she's left behind," she said.
She said Mother Aubert was an inspirational figure and declaring her venerable affirmed what she did in her life, and her legacy.
Her legacy lives on in the work of the Sisters of Compassion who are still engaged in social work, pastoral care, prison and hospital chaplaincies, Sister Margaret Anne said.
As well as the soup kitchen in Tory Street in Wellington started by Mother Aubert, the sisters run a dementia care unit in Upper Hutt and a housing support programme in Lower Hutt.