By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
The founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Blessed Jeanne Jugan, will be canonized in a ceremony at the Vatican on Oct. 11. This saint-to-be, who devoted her life to helping the elderly poor, is especially significant to the American faithful as we debate health care policies aimed at rationing care for seniors.
Born to a humble fisherman in 1792 in Cancale, France, Jeanne Jugan learned to embrace poverty early in life when her father perished at sea when she was only four years old, leaving behind a wife and four children.
By the age of 18, she knew God was calling her in a special way. After turning down a marriage proposal, she told her mother: “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet known, for a work which is not yet founded.”
In 1837, Jeanne and a few friends moved into a two-room apartment in Saint-Servan, France where she was working as a nurse at Le Rosais Hospital.
One night, she encountered a blind old widow who had been abandoned. Jeanne took her in, giving the widow her own bed. Before long, Jeanne and her friends took in another old woman who they also supported financially. The three women would often stay up late into the night mending and washing clothes for their elderly charges.
A young priest at their parish, Fr. Le Pailleur, who was also interested in serving the poor, took an interest in their labor of love and encouraged the women to create a charitable association, which they did.
The women eventually moved to a larger home and took in more and more people. It was Jeanne who begged for money on the streets every day. She would leave the house early in the morning with a basket over her arm and whatever she managed to collect, she accepted as God’s will.
Eventually, the number of women working in this apostolate became quite large and on Dec. 8, 1842, the first “sisters” took a vow of obedience, calling themselves the Little Sisters of the Poor. In their first election, Jeanne was chosen as Mother Superior.
However, a few weeks later, Fr. Le Pailleur nullified the election and appointed another sister in Jeanne’s place. Bowing to God’s will, Jeanne stepped aside and said nothing.
Not long after this, Fr. Le Pailleur ordered Jeanne to retire to the mother house and cease interacting with her benefactors and friends. Once again, she obeyed.
After Jeanne was safely tucked away in the motherhouse, Fr. Le Pailleur began to spread the rumor that he was the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Eventually, as the order began to spread throughout the French countryside, more and more people began to credit Fr. Le Pailleur for the work instead of Jeanne. She was pushed aside completely. Even new novices were taught that he was the founder.
Out of obedience, Jeanne did nothing to dispel these rumors. She was confined to the mother house for 27 years before she died in 1879. By then, most of the witnesses of the birth of the order were dead.
However, word of the deception eventually reached Rome and an apostolic inquiry was launched. Eleven years after her death, Jeanne Jugan was determined to be the official founder of the order.
Today, there are more then 2,700 Little Sisters of the Poor who look after more than 13,000 people over the age of 65 in 32 countries. They operate 31 residences in North America.
In an interview with the Catholic News Service, Sister Diane Shelby, a Little Sister of the Poor working in Washington, DC, said Blessed Jeanne “was very much like a Mother Teresa of her time . . . . She believed that old age is a stage of life deserving of respect and love.”
In the order’s Washington, DC home, the sisters provide for 100 residents, providing professional nursing care for the very ill, planned activities and full-service dining for those less active, and meals and aid to those in assisted-living apartments. Spiritual care, including daily Mass, is an integral part of the home’s routine.
“An important part of our ministry is to accompany those who are dying,” Sister Diane said. When a resident is near death, a sister is always with that person, holding his or her hand, talking and praying. “We make a point of being there with them, making them as comfortable as we can,” she said.
There are many challenges in working with the aged. But Blessed Jeanne left her sisters good advice: “Never forget that the poor are Our Lord. In caring for the poor say to yourself: ‘This is for my Jesus.'”
Jeanne Jugan was declared blessed by Pope John Paul II on October 3, 1982 and will be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 11.
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