Modern Day Saints

Blessed Jeanne Jugan

(1792-1879)


Many Americans are familiar with Blessed Jeanne through the extraordinary work of the order she founded, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who dedicate themselves to care for the elderly (a mission that’s certainly just as important and needed in the twenty-first century as it was in Jeanne’s day). Today they operate homes for the elderly in 32 North American cities, including Philadelphia, Scranton, New Orleans, Mobile, Denver, Louisville, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

What an interesting life story she has! Beyond her example of heroic humility and love for the poor, there’s also an intriguing aspect to her biography.

Several years after she founded the Little Sisters of the Poor, it seems a priest whom she had turned to for support in her work tried to “revise” history by making it appear he was the founder of the group, and Jeanne was only the third woman to join him in his efforts. At the time of her own death, most of the sisters (there were already 2,400) didn’t know she was their founder! It was only a Vatican investigation eleven years after she died that brought the truth to light.

Being of humble origins needn’t keep us from doing great things for God. Blessed Jeanne Jugan is proof of that. Born to a poor family in Brittany, France, she learned the meaning of hard work at an early age. She also learned the beauty of the faith passed on to her by her widowed mother. At the age of 16, Jeanne became a kitchen maid for a family whose mistress often took the young girl on visits to the sick and poor. Over time Jeanne developed a special love for the aged, particularly poor widows.

She worked in hospitals and in domestic service for years. When she was 47, several other women moved into Jeanne’s home where they became an informal prayer community and eventually elected Jeanne as superior. They supported themselves through domestic work; in their free time they catechized children and aided the poor as to the best of their ability. Over time the community came to be known as the congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their members, who of ten begged for the needs of the elderly in their care, took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and hospitality.

A benefactor provided the growing community of women with a convent; other houses were soon established. Members begged for the needs of the elderly in their care and ate only leftovers. Sister Mary of the Cross, as she was known, proved to be a talented organizer and fundraiser, but jealousies and squabbles forced her to step down as superior. Her spiritual director instructed her to “remain in a hidden life behind the walls of the motherhouse.” Her last 27 years were spent in obscurity. She quietly supervised the manual work of the postulants, who were unaware of the real story behind the humble, elderly nun who loved and encouraged them. She lived to see Pope Leo XIII approve the constitutions for the Little Sisters of the Poor in 1879. But Jeanne Jugan was not officially recognized as the founder of the congregation until 14 years after her death.

Pope John Paul II beatified Jeanne Jugan in 1982. Her feast day is August 30.

Charles Dickens, a contemporary of Jeanne Jugan, said of her: “There is in this woman something so calm, and so holy, that in seeing her I know myself to be in the presence of a superior being. Her words went straight to my heart, so that my eyes, I know not how, filled with tears.”

Jim Fritz

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