Little Sisters With Big Hearts

How Special Women Care for Elderly

WASHINGTON — More than 60 years ago, Leonard Donatelli was in search of a job in Washington.

"After World War II, I got off of a bus in a rough section of town," he told the Register Feb. 5. "I was looking for a job. I knocked on the door of this brick building and said, ‘I’m a tailor. St. Joseph sent me to help you.’"

The brick building belonged to the Little Sisters of the Poor. They had been praying to St. Joseph, asking him to send them a tailor for the home. Donatelli worked and volunteered at the Jeanne Jugan Home, a residency center for the elderly poor, until retiring in 1988. Now 91 years old, he is a resident.

"The sisters walk the talk," he said. "They really want to help the people. That’s the beautiful part. No matter where you come from, what race or religion, they want to help."

As the Little Sisters’ homes continue to operate in this spirit, they are involved in a legal battle. The Little Sisters of the Poor were granted a Jan. 24 reprieve by the U.S. Supreme Court from having to pay fines as their lawsuit against the federal government’s contraceptive mandate continues. The reprieve applies both to the Little Sisters and to similarly situated Catholic ministries that receive their health-care benefits through Christian Brothers Benefit Trust and Christian Brothers Services, which are Catholic health-care organizations. Opening briefs are due Feb. 24 at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. The Little Sisters and Christian Brothers are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The Becket Fund also represents Eternal Word Television Network, which has also filed a legal challenge against the HHS mandate. The Register is a service of EWTN.

At the Jeanne Jugan Home, the Little Sisters’ day begins at 5:30am. The home, named for St. Jeanne Jugan — the founder of their order, who was canonized in 2009 — houses 37 residential rooms and 40 nursing-facility rooms for the elderly poor.

The sisters say a personal meditative prayer at 6am, before praying Morning Prayer together half an hour later. On most days, they spend much of the rest of their day taking care of the elderly in their home. While some sisters are trained to provide medical care, others oversee staff members, provide food for the residents and assist with their everyday needs.

Sister Maria Grace has been with the Little Sisters since 1995. "While working with the St. Joseph Sisters … I was moved by the work of taking care of the elderly. I realized that it was the face of Christ in front of me," she told the Register. "I felt as though working with the elderly was what God was calling me to do."

After spending one summer with the Little Sisters, she was invited to join the order.

"And the rest is history!" she said with a laugh.

Sister Mary Bernard also followed her vocational path to the Little Sisters. During her early years attending Catholic school, she believed that she was called to the religious life but did not want to teach. In eighth grade, she visited the Little Sisters of the Poor in Cleveland. She fell in love with the work and spent "every free moment" volunteering. After graduating from high school in 1958, her parents gave her permission to join the Little Sisters.


‘Give Them a Home’

A lot has changed at the Little Sisters’ residency centers since Sister Mary Bernard first joined the order. "Back then, they weren’t even health-care facilities; they were just homes for the elderly," she said. "Our founder’s philosophy was: ‘Give them a home and make them a part of the family.’ And that’s what we did."

In the ’60s and ’70s, she explained, the Little Sisters’ homes changed dramatically. They became entire health-care facilities, comparable to nursing homes. As a result, the Little Sisters needed to be professionally licensed and employ a much larger staff to keep up with changing regulations. Even today, the Little Sisters’ homes face the same inspections as other nursing homes.

According to Sister Mary Bernard, "Our whole philosophy is: ‘Receive them.’ Give them a home until they die. And we are with them day and night when they are dying, and that is the climax of our mission. It’s gotten much more sophisticated, but through it all, we have tried to keep the spirit of our founder alive. And that is what has allowed us to endure so much."

Sister Maria Grace agreed, saying that caring for the dying is the "summit" of their vocation.

"We never leave them alone," she said. "We are there to be with them, pray with them and to keep them comfortable. We need them to know that someone is praying for them. ... You can feel God so present at the end of a person’s life. He is coming for that soul; you can feel him so close."


Grateful Residents

Many residents are eager to express gratitude for the work of the Little Sisters.

One resident, resting in a wheelchair and barely able to speak, described her stay with the Little Sisters as "heaven on earth."

Another resident named Joe said the sisters provide love even when it isn’t easy.

"They see the love of Christ in people, even when we don’t deserve it. Some of [the residents] are old, cranky and didn’t get much love at home. But the sisters see Christ in us — not that we are worthy. And that makes a big difference."

The pervasive sense of Christ’s love is what led Sisters Anne and Miriam of the Third Order Secular Carmelite Discalced to move into the Jeanne Jugan Home as residents.

In the late 1990s, during a trip to Washington from their home in New Jersey, they visited the Jeanne Jugan Home to see the sister of a member of their order. They fell in love with the place and filled out paperwork to retire there before they left that day. They moved into the home in 2000.

Sister Miriam emphasized the Little Sisters’ vow of hospitality as the cornerstone of their work.

"We can see that in all they do," she said. "They exceed that vow. When a sister walks into a room to get something done, five people stop her and ask for help. She helps them all and somehow still remembers why she came into the room in the first place."

Sister Anne emphasized the quality of care in the home. "There are nurses here 24 hours a day, and we don’t have to worry about doctors. Doctors come here, and if we need to go to the doctor, the sisters bend over backwards to help us."

Both sisters spoke highly of the activities office in the home.

"There’s always something going on in the café," Sister Miriam said. "And they do special things throughout the year. Around Christmastime, they used to drive us around the town and bring us to see all the Christmas lights."

When asked if the activities stand out as the best part of her experience, she said, "Everything stands out. Everything is a whole new part of life at the end of my life. This is a house of the Lord. They are even there when you die. They are doing everything that is in the Gospel. We are all one."

She added, "We are their vocation. If you are just here for a job, you don’t have that spirit. The sisters have the spirit of those who serve."

Another appreciative resident at the Jeanne Jugan Home is Cardinal William Baum. The longest-serving cardinal in U.S. history, Cardinal Baum moved into the home in May 2011.

"My relationship with the sisters is excellent," Cardinal Baum said. "They have remained true and faithful to their founding. They manifest their love for the Lord in everything they do. There is such an atmosphere of peace and joy here."

Cardinal Baum attributed the joyful atmosphere to the "spirit" of the sisters. "I’ve said it before, and I say it all the time," he said. "They have a spirit about them that lights up this home. And I think I speak for everyone here when I say that."

Christopher Crawford writes from Washington.