“We must spoil the poor all we can,” Saint Mary of the Cross, better known as Saint Jeanne Jugan, told the community she founded, the Little Sisters of the Poor. And those Sisters, now almost 4,000 in number, continue to do just that for the poor of six continents. Today the world holds in honor Mother Teresa of Calcutta for her work among the “poorest of the poor”. Saint Jeanne’s career a century ago was much like Mother Teresa’s today, and she too was accorded public honors for her charitable work.
Not that Jeanne Jugan’s national or social background was like that of Mother Teresa.
Jeanne was born October 25, 1792 in the rural hamlet of Petite Croix, a fishing village on the coast of Brittany, France. She was the sixth of the eight children of Joseph and Marie Jugan. Her father was lost at sea when she was three, leaving to Marie Jugan the task of raising their brood in their one room, earthen-floored house.
During the days of the French Revolution, the radical governments did their best to suppress religion. But the Jugans were raised as strong Catholics, and Jeanne early volunteered to assist the local sisters of the Third Order of the Admirable Mother. Their order had been suppressed by the state, but its members continued to teach catechism and perform the corporal works of mercy in secret. In her mid teens, Jeanne Jugan took her first job as a kitchen servant. Her employer, the Vicountess de la Choue, was a devout woman, who had her servant accompany her as she took care of the sick and poor on her own estate. From her Jeanne learned not only the arts of charity but also the arts of refinement, in which peasants like herself usually remained untutored. While she was with the Vicountess, Jeanne was proposed to by a young sailor. By this time, however, she had decided not to marry but to devote her life to God. But that plan materialized only very slowly. She spent six years working in a hospital. Thereafter she did domestic service with a succession of employers.
When she was 47, in the employ of one Monsieur Leroy at Saint-Servan, Mlle. Jugan told him of her decision to devote the rest of her life to the service of the poor, begging on their behalf from door to door. Leroy asked who would respond to her requests. “People like you,” she replied. He laughed and gave her the large sum of 3000 francs as a beginning.
She had already rented a small apartment and taken in an elderly woman and a 17-year-old orphan girl. Then she turned to the most pitiful of the poor, abandoned elderly ladies, giving up her own bed to a blind widow. Other guests were welcomed later, and some local women volunteered to assist in the work. Although Jeanne hated to beg, she did just that, and so did her companions. Finally, in 1842, she and her companions formed a religious association with vows. She was elected superior.
The good work expanded so rapidly that in 1845 the French Academy gave the Montyon Prize to Sister Jeanne “for outstanding meritorious activity.” Even the Freemasons conferred on her a gold medal. This she had melted down and made into the cup of a Mass chalice.
Sister Jeanne had not been long in office when her parish priest, on his own authority, deposed her and named one of the younger sisters head of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Thereafter, as she served devotedly in one house or another of her growing community, she was content to have her role in founding it forgotten. Not until after her death did her own sisters fully realize that this serene, wise and witty old servant of the poor had established their sisterhood. Pope John Paul II declared her “blessed” in 1982; This caused special joy in the Order’s 32 homes in the United States and Canada. (Their first American foundation was made at Brooklyn in 1868, while Saint Jeanne was still alive.)
Taking care of the aged is a challenge to patience. Sister Jeanne told her nuns, “Be like a mother to the grateful ones and, also to those who don’t know how to be grateful for all the things you do for them. Say in your heart, `I do it for You, my Jesus!'”
Surely that attitude explains the success of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
–Father Robert F. McNamara
Update: Pope Benedict XVI canonized Sister Jeanne on October 11, 2009.