Little Sisters of the Poor Lose, Then Win, at Costco and in Court

The story of a “good Samaritan” who was really a thief, and a government that tried to become an oppressor.

Little Sisters of the Poor gather outside the Supreme Court where oral arguments were heard on March 23, 2016 in the Zubik v. Burwell case against the HHS Mandate.
Little Sisters of the Poor gather outside the Supreme Court where oral arguments were heard on March 23, 2016 in the Zubik v. Burwell case against the HHS Mandate. (photo: Addie Mena/CNA)

The Little Sisters of the Poor just can't catch a break. First, the HHS Mandate lawsuits (which they won, by the way). And this week, the Little Sisters of the Poor in Baltimore, who run a hospice called St. Martin's Home, were robbed of Christmas gifts they had just purchased for their sick and elderly residents and for their staff Christmas party. The good news is that they got the gifts back undamaged – but they offer a warning for others.


A “Good Samaritan” Who Was Really a Thief?

Sister Lawrence Mary, a member of the community, talked with the Register about the events surrounding the theft. Sister Joseph Caroline and Sister Bernadette, she explained, were Christmas shopping at Costco in the Baltimore suburb of Columbia on Monday, November 26 – selecting presents for the elderly and impoverished hospice patients at St. Martin's Home, as well as for their employees. The Sisters wheeled two shopping carts full of gifts toward their car and were just about to unload the baskets into their trunk, when a man approached them from the rear and asked if he could help. Sister Joseph Caroline later reported to local news station WBAL-TV, “A man approached from behind Sister and asked if he could help. So we just thought it was a good Samaritan, and he was there out of the willingness of his heart and the holiday spirit.”

Sister Bernadette was gracious. She praised the man for loading their gifts so quickly, and expressed her gratitude for his help. “God bless you,” she said as she shook his hand, and she promised to pray for him. But when the Sisters got home, they opened their trunk – and they were shocked to see that only half of their gifts were there. The man who had seemed like a good Samaritan had, in fact, kept half of the gifts himself rather than loading them into the car.


A Surprise Turn of Events

The Sisters were deeply disappointed to discover the theft, and they planned to file a police report on Tuesday morning. But before they could do that, they received a phone call from Costco. The remaining gifts – all of them – had been found, still in the basket, abandoned at the far end of the parking lot. A store employee had brought the items back into the store, and Costco's management had been able to determine, based on the items left behind, who had made the purchase. They contacted the Sisters with the good news.

Sister Lawrence Mary offered a guess as to why the thief had abandoned the gifts:  Either he had not wanted the items, she theorized, or he had had a change of heart, experiencing remorse after he was treated so warmly by the Sisters. “Out of something bad comes something good,” Sister Lawrence Mary reported. “So many people are reaching out to us, offering to help our work.”

Sister Lawrence Mary added that all the elderly residents they care for are very needy people. “It's hard to imagine,” she said, “how someone could attack the nuns, at this time of year especially. We don't feel bad because they were gifts for ourselves; but the money was spent to purchase these things for our elderly residents.”

She worried that if someone could attack two women – in this case, the two able-bodied nuns – then what could happen to an older person who was shopping? It would be easy for the person or persons involved in this theft to prey upon the elderly or infirm. Lastly, Sister Lawrence Mary told the Register that the Sisters have forgiven the person or persons who attempted to steal from them, and they pray that the thief and his accomplices will have a change of heart.

St. Martin's Home is a nonprofit organization, and the Little Sisters of the Poor rely on contributions to enable their work with the destitute and the dying. If you would like to help them in their mission, you can send a contribution in care of Sister Lawrence Mary at Little Sisters of the Poor, 601 Maiden Choice Lane, Baltimore MD 21228; or visit their website.


An Update on the Little Sisters of the Poor and the HHS Mandate

The Little Sisters of the Poor in Baltimore have had a happy ending to their story. At the national level, the Little Sisters of the Poor have inspired by their faithful adherence to the Gospel, as evidenced by their refusal to provide contraception in their health coverage for employees.

After a lengthy court battle, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled in May 2016 that the Sisters need not provide contraceptives and abortifacients in their health coverage for their employees, as required by the HHS contraceptive mandate. (Under that mandate, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, employer health plans must include cost-free coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and some drugs which can cause abortions.) Despite the fact that 1/3 of all Americans are exempted from the Mandate, the Obama Administration had insisted that the Sisters – who are, of course, celibate and unlikely to need “abortion services” – must provide contraceptive services including the “week after pill.” But on May 16, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could find other ways to distribute the drugs, without assistance from the Little Sisters of the Poor.

On Oct. 6, 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services provided the Little Sisters and other religious nonprofits an interim religious exemption from having to provide services such as the week-after pill in their employee health care plans against their religious beliefs. This new rule finalizes that exemption after HHS considered public comments. The new rule follows an Executive Order issued in May 2017 and the 2016 unanimous Supreme Court decision protecting the Little Sisters in Zubik v. Burwell.

But the victory was tempered by a challenge by the states of California and Pennsylvania, asserting that the Little Sisters should be forced to comply with the federal mandate or pay tens of millions of dollars of government fines. In California, the Little Sisters appealed to the Ninth Circuit to overturn a federal judge’s decision to invalidate the new HHS rule protecting the Sisters. On April 9, Becket, the religious liberty, filed a brief explaining why the states have no right to challenge this regulation, and why the new regulation is required by law and the 2016 Supreme Court order in Zubik v. Burwell. Oral arguments took place on Oct. 19, 2018. On Nov. 7, 2018 the government issued a new rule finalizing its exemption protecting religious ministries. A decision is expected sometime next year.

Those new cases are unlikely to reverse the Supreme Court's decision, but the Sisters are required once again to seek legal counsel and to divert attention away from their mission, which is service to the poor.