My “Little Grandma,” as we
called my dad’s mother, died
in 1963 in the care of the Little
Sisters of the Poor at St. Augustine’s
Home in Indianapolis, Indiana.
I didn’t know then that Little Sisters
take a fourth vow of hospitality. Now
I can testify that every sister there kept
that vow with joy and good humor—and with liberal offerings of hard candy.
They followed the example set by
Blessed Jeanne Jugan, their founder.
Servant, Nurse, Companion
Jeanne Jugan was born, lived and died
in the French province of Brittany.
When she died at 86, the Little Sisters
numbered 2,400 and served in 10 countries.
Today, they number 4,000 and
have tripled the number of countries.
It amazes me that Jeanne began this
work at the age of 47. At 24, the thenkitchen
maid had twice refused marriage
to a persistent Catholic sailor,
declaring, “God is keeping me for a
work as yet unknown, for a work which
is not yet founded.”
Young Jeanne was devout and kind
but not very strong. In fact, some years
as a practical nurse so exhausted her
that she required nursing herself—and
received it from an older woman who
was, like Jeanne, prayerful and generous.
She seems to have gravitated toward
such women and they toward her.
What little money Jeanne made,
what little space she had, she happily
shared. She built her spiritual future
on a foundation of poverty, community
and service to the elderly poor. Jeanne’s
talent for begging seems to have compensated
for any physical frailty.
October 25, 1792
Born and baptized in Les Petites-Croix,
Winter 1839 Brought a blind widow to stay in her quarters
August 29, 1879 Died at La Tour Saint-Joseph, the motherhouse
in Saint Pern, after 27 years in imposed
October 3, 1982 Beatified by Pope John Paul II
Several biographies chronicle the long
life of the woman also known as Sister
Marie of the Cross. I was engaged as
much by small vignettes of her life as
by the larger narrative.
For instance, when a man annoyed
by Jeanne’s request for money slapped
her, she replied, “Thank you; that was
for me. Now give me something for
my poor.” He did.
She told the young sisters that they
didn’t need to nag God in prayer: “That
you have told God is enough. He has a
good memory.” In her final years,
nearly blind, Sister Marie didn’t seem to
mind. “God sees me; that’s enough,”
Abbé Augustin Marie le Pailleur, confessor
to the two women who first
joined Jeanne in her work, somehow
inveigled himself into the Little Sisters’
story, declaring himself their
founder! From 1852 until her death,
Jeanne Jugan, though honored by the
French government for her public service,
lived in forced retirement at the
motherhouse. She never even tried to
set the record straight, though she is
said to have told le Pailleur, “You have
stolen my work from me, but I willingly
give it to you.”
Reading this, I doubt I could be so
docile! I believe I could beg, but I judge
Jeanne’s obedience to le Pailleur to be
a bloodless martyrdom I could never
imitate. I nominate Jeanne Jugan for
immediate canonization! She can be
patroness of the untold women who
signed their names Anonymous.
Next: Maria Chávez Orozco