Little Sisters of the Poor
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The Little Sisters of the Poor is a Roman Catholic religious institute for women. It was founded in the 19th century by Saint Jeanne Jugan near Rennes, France. Jugan felt the need to care for the many impoverished elderly who lined the streets of French towns and cities.
This led her to welcome an elderly lady into her home and the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor began. Gradually Jugan built up homes in and around Rennes. In 1843 the community's spiritual advisor declined to let Jugan head the institute and so she became an ordinary sister and model of humility. Jeanne Jugan was a helper to the elderly and disabled. She used to go on the streets of France to collect money for her organization. Once when Jugan begged a young man for money, he hit her on the face. She replied with calmness, "You gave that to me, now give me something for the elderly." The man was astounded by the sweetness of her reply and with all his heart he gave her all the money he had at that time.
Today the Little Sisters of the Poor serve in 31 countries around the world (including homes in Turkey, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Penang, New Zealand and Philippines), continuing in their original purpose of caring for the elderly. In addition to the Sisters' apostolate, a semi-contemplative emphasis is also maintained within the institute. Professed sisters therefore take a new religious name - usually a saint or someone associated with the institute, and wear a full religious habit consisting of a black dress and scapular, full grey veil and a white headband which covers the hair of the sister. In warmer climates/seasons a white habit/veil is worn by the sisters. They have grown from one woman helping one woman to one of the most successful religious organizations in the world.
Foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan
Saint Jeanne Jugan began with very little. She was born during the French Revolution and reduced to poverty when her father was lost at sea. As a teenager she went to work as a kitchen maid for a wealthy family. In 1817, she left home to work in the hospital in Saint Servan.
One night in the winter of 1839 when she could not resist the sight of a blind, paralyzed old woman out in the cold with no one to care for her. Jeanne carried the old woman home and placed her in her own bed. From that night on, Jeanne Jugan belonged to God and to the elderly poor.
The work developed quickly. More old women were brought to her doorstep. Jeanne and her companions—one older woman and several pious young girls—offered them hospitality and cared for them as if they were their own grandmothers. Giving the best place to the old women, Jeanne and her companions slept on the attic floor.
By 1841, the “family” of old women and their caregivers outgrew the small apartment and moved into larger accommodations. With the advice and support of the Hospitaller Brothers of Saint John of God, Jeanne began collecting in the local community. This spared the elderly women the indignity of begging for themselves on the streets of Saint Servan.
In 1842, the group moved into an even larger building — a nearby convent that had been vacated during the Revolution. The small nucleus of pious women began to take the form of a religious community. They called themselves the Servants of the Poor. Jeanne was elected superior. She and several others made a vow of obedience. The group changed their name to Sisters of the Poor to better reflect their desire to truly be sisters to the elderly. In 1849, ten years after the first old woman was welcomed by Jeanne, the popular name Little Sisters of the Poor is definitively adopted.
The motherhouse and novitiate are established in Rennes in 1852. Jeanne is recalled there, told to break all contact with friends and benefactors and placed in retirement, with no specific duties. Four years later she was moved to the new motherhouse in Saint Pern, to remain there for the rest of her life. The Congregation received diocesan approval on May 29, 1852. It is recognized as a Pontifical Institute by Pope Pius XI on July 9, 1854. Pope Leo XIII approves the Constitutions of the Little Sisters of the Poor for a period of seven years on March 1, 1879. By then there are 2,400 Little Sisters in 9 countries. Hidden away in La Tour, Jeanne Jugan died on August 29, 1879, at age 86.
Expansion of the Congregation
While continuing to spread all over France, the Congregation took roots in England in 1851 despite great hardships and resistance. The Little Sisters spread to Belgium next, and then Spain, Ireland and North Africa. A young priest named Ernest LeLievre dedicates his life to the Little Sisters, eventually traveling all over the world to establish homes for the elderly. Father LeLievre set out for America in 1868, stating, “As we leave the old world for the new, we still have the same responsibilities, the same struggle, the same people, the same God. On the shores of the Mississippi, as on the banks of the Jordan, the world has need of being renewed.” He landed in New York on June 10, 1868 and in four years he paved the way for the establishment of 13 homes in the United States.
Before leaving America in the summer of 1872 to establish more homes in France and Spain, LeLievre wrote to his cousin back in France, “The work of the Little Sisters here has succeeded far beyond what I ever expected. The thirteen homes founded on this continent are all the owners of the houses they occupy, or of the land on which they will build when necessary … Such a success and all it demands, I admit, is overwhelming.…”
The first group of Little Sisters destined for America left the motherhouse on August 28, 1868. After a long journey by boat they set foot on American soil in Brooklyn, New York, on September 13, 1868. The Little Sisters were faced with a cultural barrier, as no one traveling over spoke English.
Soon after arriving in Brooklyn the Little Sisters received their first donation, a gift of $20, from Rev. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists. After welcoming their first Residents, the Sisters wrote back to the motherhouse: “The public appear delighted to see that we are willing to work for the poor; that we ask no endowment; that we desire to trust in Providence and in the generosity of the public.” A second group of Sisters arrived in Cincinnati on October 14, 1868. The arrangements for the home were facilitated by Sarah Worthington Peter, a convert to Catholicism and daughter of an Ohio senator. Six days before Christmas a third group of Little Sisters arrive in New Orleans. The house was offered to them by a group of charitable ladies who already named the house “Home of St. Joseph.” As a show of support, the municipal government paved the street in front of the home and approved an allowance of $1,000 to pay for repairs to the building.
On April 6, 1869, the Little Sisters establish their work in Baltimore. The seminary, staffed by French Sulpicians, offers donations of food and their moral support. Bishop Martin John Spalding states, “The Little Sisters of the Poor are called to do a great deal of good in America, not only among the poor, but also among the rich; for words no longer suffice — works are necessary.” From Baltimore the Little Sisters head west, establishing a house in Saint Louis on May 3, 1869. People would ask, “What are you going to do in a house where there is nothing?” “Wait a few days,” the Little Sisters replied.
Observing the Little Sisters, Bishop Patrick J. Ryan said, “If one builds on holy poverty, Providence cements the building.” Shortly after, the Sisters established a relationship with a steamboat company on the Mississippi who would solicit donations from their passengers and would set aside leftovers from the dining room, all to the benefit of the aged poor of Saint Louis. Philadelphia opened its doors to the Little Sisters on August 24, 1869. In an act of generosity on the part of a young Philadelphian, Mary Twibill, asked for her estate to be left to the Little Sisters.
Just one month later Louisville welcomed the Little Sisters. Bishop William George MacCloskey provided his assistance by lending the Sisters an estate that was intended for a seminary. The Little Sisters write back to the motherhouse, “Divine Providence provided according to our needs; within a few days, our house was found furnished with beds, tables, chairs, kitchen utensils and provisions of all kinds. We were quite overcome with gratitude towards the good God, who disposed so well people’s hearts in our favor.” The Little Sisters arrived in Boston on April 19, 1870. The Superior of the local Jesuit community remarked, “What I admire is that these Sisters are such as people describe them. One sees that they not only have confidence in Providence, but that they have not a doubt of its protection. One sees that they do not calculate, they do not reckon, they do not ask what people will give them for the needs of their poor.”
In the spring of 1870, the Little Sisters also opened a home in Cleveland. With help from a local German family the Sisters were provided with linens, mattresses and other sorts of necessary items, while the bishop, along with a wealthy Protestant, contributed toward the purchase of a suitable property. The tenth home was established in our Nation’s Capital on February 2, 1871. Together with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Father Walter, parish priest of St. Patrick’s Church, Washington, D.C., provided the Sisters with a house with carpeted rooms, numerous fireplaces, plenty of furniture and a well-stocked kitchen. The home gained considerable political support and the Little Sisters were authorized to beg for donations in Federal government buildings — an unprecedented privilege that continued uninterrupted until the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
- Michel Lafon, 2009 15 Days of Prayer with Saint Jeanne Jugan New City Press ISBN 1-56548-329-4
- Catholic online video of the Motherhouse at La Tour Saint Joseph
- Little Sisters of the Poor, Chennai, India
- Little Sisters of the Poor, national U.S. site
- "Little Sisters of the Poor". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.