SAN PEDRO, Calif. — Many Americans are only aware of the Little Sisters of the Poor because of the religious order’s fight against government-mandated contraception. But this August they will celebrate their 150th anniversary of the community’s arrival in the United States.
The congregation was founded in France in 1839 by a humble religious sister named Jeanne Jugan, who opened her own home to a blind elderly woman who had nowhere else to go. From this simple act of charity grew a movement — and then a full-throttle religious order dedicated to taking care of the needs of the elderly poor, doing so with a complete and absolute faith that God will provide all the resources necessary to carry out that mission.
In 1868, the Little Sisters of the Poor landed in Brooklyn. There are no planned giving departments, no Little Sisters of the Poor annuities to be purchased for a donation, just the sustaining providence of God and the generosity of friends and strangers. For 150 years, since first stepping foot in New York, the sisters have experienced firsthand how God and all those friends and strangers have graced them as they now span 26 dioceses across the United States.
Getting a jump on the jubilee celebrations, the Little Sisters of the Poor in San Pedro, California, hosted Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio for the United States of America, June 7. He has made a special effort to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor throughout his travels because, like their foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, he grew up in the same simple fishing village of Saint-Servan … just a few centuries afterward.
To a casual observer, the commonality between these two would stop there. But upon closer inspection, the connection they share is so much more than mere geography.
What Archbishop Pierre found during this week’s visit to California was the Little Sisters’ St. Jeanne Jugan Residence — a place 100 elderly men and women call home — a place where the charism of hospitality that St. Jeanne began in 1839 continues, and a place elderly and impoverished souls find love, compassion and the face of Jesus through the acts of dedicated consecrated women and an equally devoted staff.
Archbishop Pierre shared a meal at the sisters’ residence and then divulged his thoughts about his special bond with St. Jeanne and the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“Charism is a gift God gives to the world through a person,” Archbishop Pierre said. “St. Jeanne Jugan’s charism carries on today, not only here in America, but in more than 30 other countries around the world where the Little Sisters of the Poor carry on their work.”
To Archbishop Pierre, St. Jeanne “was the Mother Teresa of her time.” It is probably no coincidence, either, that St. Teresa of Calcutta spent several of her formative years in India with the Little Sisters of the Poor before founding the Sisters of Charity. It was also St. Jeanne’s model of humility that had a profound impact on the archbishop, as he told of how the last several decades of her life were spent.
“The vicar of her parish notified her that she would no longer be the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor and another woman would take her place,” he said. “And she spent the rest of her life … forgotten.”
All of this befell her after establishing the order’s foothold in post-Revolution France.
“For a reason lost in time, she was removed and spent the remaining 27 years of her life teaching and mentoring the hundreds of novices that came her way … many of them having no idea she was indeed the woman who had started it all.”
Archbishop Pierre sees those 27 years of solitude, obscurity and humility as one of St. Jeanne Jugan’s greatest examples of saintliness: “A charism isn’t just a nice idea; it’s an example, and the example has to be lived by the founder. … The founder has to incarnate in her own life the charism, which is a gift from the Holy Spirit.”
Speaking about the model of humility St. Jeanne displayed, considering what must have been a devastating disappointment at being removed from her own order by her vicar, Mother Marguerite McCarthy, mother superior and administrator of the Little Sisters of the Poor St. Jeanne Jugan Residence in San Pedro, remarked, “St. Jeanne Jugan’s focus was always on Christ, even in the light of what must have been a terrible sense of loss. It was never about her, but about her openness to carry the cross.”
In the fall of last year, Archbishop Pierre, in his capacity as the U.S. apostolic nuncio, addressed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. His topic was the upcoming Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment and the crucial need to evangelize people at the beginning of their faith journeys, as they make their way into a secular and sometimes hostile world.
So, it was very fitting, and some might say, a very Catholic “thing,” that Archbishop Pierre found himself in San Pedro this week commemorating the 150th year in America of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
From his address to the bishops last fall to his remarks to the Little Sisters of the Poor this June, Catholic teaching on life was brought full circle.
The October synod on youth will be about respect and dignity for life at its earlier stages and the Little Sisters of the Poor and the legacy of St. Jeanne Jugan represent that consistent ethos at the end stage of life. In many ways, the papal nuncio and the saint from long ago have become theological bookends.
Register correspondent Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.
He filed this report after attending the nuncio’s visit.