Little Sisters to Big Brother: ‘We Must Obey God, Not Man’

While the high court gets set to hear oral arguments in the religious congregation’s religious-freedom case, a visit to the order's San Francisco home shows what is at stake.

The Little Sisters care for the elderly at their St. Anne’s Home in San Francisco.
The Little Sisters care for the elderly at their St. Anne’s Home in San Francisco. (photo: Emily Hardman photos)

SAN FRANCISCO — Little Sister of the Poor Rose Cantu remembers the first time she saw the women religious who inspired her to embrace the Catholic Church as her spiritual home.

“What drew me to the faith was the joy on the sisters’ faces as they cared for the elderly,” Sister Rose told the Register, as she recalled her pivotal visit to the order’s home as a teenage volunteer.

“Witnessing their faith in action led me to ask more questions about the God they worshipped.”

Almost two decades later, Sister Rose is a registered nurse who serves the elderly poor at St. Anne’s Home, a San Francisco-based residence that offers nursing care and assisted-living options to 86 residents.

At first glance, the young sister might appear far removed from the order’s legal fight to secure an exemption from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate.

But Sister Rose, like other members of her order, has followed the legal case closely and is now praying for a successful outcome to the oral arguments that will take place on Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Right now, we are putting this in God’s hands,” said Sister Rose.

Focus on Service, Not Policy

As lawyers for the Little Sisters prepared to address the high court, Little Sister Constance Veil, the vocation’s director for the order, clarified their stand in a March 18 column on the opinion page of The New York Times.

“Over our 175-year history, my charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, has been focused on service, not advocacy or policy. Nevertheless, we have been forced into the spotlight over our position regarding a regulation issued under the Affordable Care Act, namely that we provide health insurance coverage for birth control,” wrote Sister Constance.

“Our goal with this case is to have the freedom to follow our conscience in what we do and offer.”

The Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) has also filed a legal challenge to the HHS mandate. The Register is a service of EWTN.

Few legal experts are ready to predict the outcome of the high-stakes case, especially now that Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death in February has shifted the balance of power on an ideologically divided court.

Back at St. Anne’s Home, however, the Little Sisters keep their worries and questions to themselves, as the daily routine continues undisturbed.


Stations of the Cross

It is Lent, and a group of residents and sisters gather in the gleaming chapel for Stations of the Cross. The time set aside for hushed community prayer highlights the distinctive spirit of this religious order, which has incorporated modern nursing techniques while staying true to St. Jeanne Jugan’s original vision for end-of-life care for human beings who can be cast aside by relatives and society.

“We want to live our life in a way that, should Jeanne Jugan come through the door today, she would recognize this facility, and say, ‘This is my home,’” Little Sister Theresa Robertson, the mother superior, told the Register last week, during a visit to St. Anne’s.

“Would she see that the sisters and the staff love the residents? Would she see that everything she cared about — treating residents with dignity and respect — is here?

“I ask God to give us the grace so we always follow the footsteps of Jeanne Jugan.”

Like many Little Sisters, Mother Theresa is also a trained nurse, who has worked in several of the order’s 27 homes in the United States. And just as St. Jeanne invited the elderly poor into her own home, so the sisters continue to provide a homelike environment, aided by multidisciplinary teams that help residents and their families navigate the medical, emotional and spiritual issues that arise during the end of each person’s life.

“One of the Little Sisters’ greatest joys and privileges is to accompany the dying,” Mother Theresa said.


Joy-Filled Moments

The Little Sisters treasure the joy-filled moments that come when a resident returns to his or her cradle Catholic faith or a troubled family experiences healing at the bedside of a dying parent.

“When families have severed relationships, a great consolation for parents is to see how God has offered time to reunify,” said Mother Theresa.

The sisters actively work to provide a place of peace and trust where healing and forgiveness can take root.

The children of residents are assured that their parents will always be accompanied by a Little Sister, whether they make a late-night visit to a hospital emergency room or face imminent death.

In the state of California, where physician-assisted suicide is now legal, the Little Sisters offer added assurance that the poorest and most vulnerable men and women in their charge will be protected until natural death. And those who are Catholic know they can take part in daily Mass and receive the anointing of the sick.

“We protect and enhance the dignity of life to its natural end,” Little Sister Dara Vishnefske told the Register. “It goes on to that last breath, and we let God do the rest.”

“We never leave them alone, and take three-hour shifts to accompany them,” explained Sister Dara.

“For the residents, it is the climax of their life, and they know they don’t have to go there alone. “

While she was still a postulant, Sister Dara was asked to stay with a resident who was in a coma.

“He was a fervent Catholic, with seven or eight children, who had mostly left the faith,” she recalled.

“Some had been estranged for years, yet they all came from across the country to be there. We found hymns that we could all sing together because he loved music.”

Years later, she is still deeply stirred by the time she shared with that wounded family.

“To see the healing of an estrangement was a powerful grace. I witnessed God’s mercy.”


St. Anne’s Home

Established before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, St. Anne’s Home remains a special place, and in local Catholic circles, it is reported to have a long waiting list.

St. Anne’s is also the only Catholic nursing facility in the city — a troubling fact that underscores the potential consequences for its residents and others who hope to enter, should the Little Sisters fail to prevail at the Supreme Court.

During a telephone interview with the Register, Sister Constance acknowledged that if the order loses its case, it faces the “prospect of paying fines that would total $70 million a year across our U.S. homes. It is an impossible sum of money: We depend on donations from the community to cover 50% of our operating costs.”


Court Date

Sister Constance will be in court when the order’s advocate, Paul Clement, the former U.S. solicitor general for the George W. Bush administration, makes the case for an exemption for the order and other religious nonprofits that object to the contraceptive mandate.

Outside the court house, she said, members of the order will join other women religious and lay Catholic women at a rally organized by Women Speak for Themselves. Led by the pro-life law professor Helen Alvare, Women Speak for Themselves will also sponsor on March National Day of Service on March 23 that will encourage supporters to take part in service opportunities at the Little Sisters' homes across the country.

At St. Anne’s, the sisters continueto ponder the unfolding events in the nation’s capital and the deeper cultural forces that have pushed their order into the spotlight.

Americans “pride ourselves on being the’ land of the free’ and the ‘home of the brave,’” said Sister Dara.

“However, most of us don’t seem to realize what freedom is. Are we all talking about the same thing? For some of the young, freedom means ‘to do what I want,’” she added, a hint of worry in her voice. The Little Sisters have no contingency plan, should they fail to receive a reprieve from the court.

Yet, just as the Little Sisters routinely visit food markets for donations, trusting that they will receive what is needed to feed their charges, so Sister Dara approaches the unpredictable outcome of their legal case with equal confidence that God will provide.

“We are witnessing God’s providence every day,” said Sister Dara, “so why would we doubt it now?”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.