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Little Sister, Big Heart: St. Jeanne Jugan
By Carol Ann Morrow
This month, the humble Jeanne Jugan will be canonized. Those whose lives have been touched by her legacy feel the honor is long overdue.

Q U I C K S C A N

‘The Poor Are Our Lord’
Documenting a Contemporary Miracle
Instrument of God’s Work
Making the Residents Happy
One More Miracle of God
Little Sisters Post Big Numbers in 2009


Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
ART BY GEORGE PINECROSS, COURTESY LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR

HOSPITALITY is a hallmark—actually a vow—of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Rosemary Cleveland speaks warmly of the pleasant atmosphere she has experienced in their care.

Rosemary has lived for 16 years at St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged in Indianapolis, Indiana, and recently celebrated her 99th birthday there. St. Augustine’s is the successor to an earlier home in Indianapolis, founded in 1873.

While Rosemary is surrounded in her spacious room with reminders of her past, she is quite aware of the present. “I’d rather be home with Jean [her daughter, Franciscan Sister Jean Marie], but since that can’t be, I’ll take this,” she says. She cites safety, good company and good times as three reasons she enjoys her days at St. Augustine’s.

Last May, the spacious limestone residence Rosemary and 98 other men and women call home already featured large banners announcing the October 11 canonization of Jeanne Jugan (1792-1879), the founder of the Little Sisters. An imposing statue of the founder is in the sanctuary of their chapel.

The humble Breton woman who began this work would be surprised by the bustle. She might say, as she once did, “They’ll talk to you about me. Don’t pay any attention. Our good Lord knows the whole story.”

‘The Poor Are Our Lord’

The whole story began in the winter of 1839, when Jeanne and her two companions took in Anne Chauvin, a blind and infirm elderly widow. Jeanne, who was 47 years old, carried Anne up the stairs to the second-floor rented space where the three women lived and prayed. She gave up her own bed to Anne. Jeanne began to sleep in the attic.

Since her mid-20s, when she refused a proposal of marriage, Jeanne had been convinced that a special work of God lay in her future. Now that work had a face: Anne Chauvin. By 1840, Anne was one of 26 guests. Jeanne, her companions and their guests required a larger space and she began her mission of begging for the poor in her care.

St. Augustine’s Home in Indianapolis, Indiana, had similar humble beginnings. In 1872 (when Jeanne was living in forced retirement in France), four Little Sisters responded to the invitation of Bishop Maurice de St. Palais. The vicar general rented two small houses near St. John’s Church in Indianapolis where he was pastor. Within days, the sisters were caring for six elderly guests.

At that time, St. Augustine’s was one of more than a hundred outposts of Little Sisters—with foundations in Africa, Ireland and Italy, as well as in France and the United States.

Who was the powerhouse behind such phenomenal growth? Jeanne Jugan, the first of the Little Sisters, lived in tough economic times in a country under the shadow of revolution and revolt. The French social fabric had been worn thin by political upheaval.

Jeanne’s family was Catholic, though her education in the faith had to be kept secret. A lay order founded by St. John Eudes operated in this repressive secular environment. When she was 25, Jeanne became a member. She led a life of prayer and service to the poor, despite her own modest means.

The biographers of Jeanne Jugan seem to marvel at the rapid growth of the Little Sisters: from a trio of women, to a charitable organization, to a fledgling religious order, to one with thousands of members by the time of their founder’s death in 1879. This growth may well be Jeanne’s first miracle.

Another miracle was the manner in which she took on the work from which she had rescued others. She begged on behalf of those no longer on the streets. She begged tirelessly, with great faith, cheerfulness and indomitability. Biographer Paul Milcent describes her collecting as a work of evangelization.

When she was slapped in the face by a man who refused her, she replied, “Thank you. That was for me. Now please give me something for my poor.” Such courtesy was for everyone, generous or not. It is said that she was as thankful for one potato as for a load of firewood.

“It is a great grace God is giving you,” Jeanne once said of caring for the poor. “In serving them, it is Himself whom you are serving. Never forget that the poor are Our Lord.”

It is this single-minded belief that God will provide for the little ones that has energized the faith and foundations of all the Little Sisters to follow, those who knew Jeanne and those who carry on that same work in the present day.

“Jeanne Jugan was Mother Teresa before Mother Teresa,” Dr. Edward Gatz says.

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Dr. Edward Gatz and his wife, Jeanne, didn’t know of Jeanne Jugan or the Little Sisters of the Poor until 1989. The sisters have no foundation in Nebraska, where Dr. and Mrs. Gatz have lived all their lives.

They did know a Jesuit, however, who knew the Little Sisters. Father Richard McGloin, S.J., had been Jeanne’s Latin teacher. He had also been chaplain to the Little Sisters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (This house has been in the care of the Salvatorian Sisters since 1992.)

The Little Sisters, whose mission was to collect or beg for that Milwaukee home, also served Father McGloin breakfast after Mass every day. Their hospitality was a grace he never forgot. He told Dr. and Mrs. Gatz, “They are the most wonderful group of women you’ll ever meet.”

In 1989, Dr. Gatz was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, cancer originating in glandular tissue. He was 51 at the time.

Dr. Gatz’s prognosis was so poor that a partial esophagogastrectomy was simply a palliative measure. In a May 2009 telephone interview, Dr. Gatz recalled, “I had begun to prepare for my final exam.” After all, he had outlived both his parents already. He had seen his mother struggle with cancer for two years before her death at 45. He had been anointed three times.

The doctor began to put his affairs in order, trying to smooth the path for his wife and son. He was not praying for a cure. He was in a “state of peacefulness and calm,” he says.

His wife was not as resigned. She called their friend Father McGloin for consolation and advice. He recommended the novena prayer to Blessed Jeanne Jugan. He began to pray for his friend’s cure that very day and Jeanne Gatz joined in as soon as the prayer arrived in the mail.

Seven or eight weeks after surgery, some visible symptoms associated with Dr. Gatz’s cancer disappeared and he had a sense of “something leaving me.” Subsequent exams showed no evidence of cancer. Five years after his surgery, he indeed had a final exam of sorts in which he was declared to be cancer-free. Early on, he had decided against both radiation and chemotherapy, so those treatment regimens had not contributed to his renewed health.

After two and a half years, the doctor’s disability insurers began to question the initial diagnosis and required thorough medical review to rule out error or fraud. That review would serve as convincing evidence later.

Jeanne Gatz speculates that her husband was the recipient of this miracle because his medical background enabled him to document his case in such a credible and exact manner, both on paper and in person. He is glad to do that out of gratitude, but he compares himself to the centurion’s servant (see Luke 7:1-10). His wife and his Jesuit friend are the centurions requesting the cure, Jesus is the healer and Dr. Gatz is the servant who was healed.

Each year of improved health has added to the marvel. After 13 such years, Dr. and Mrs. Gatz asked Father McGloin whether they should report this cure. Upon reflection, the Jesuit agreed. Through guests who had enjoyed the hospitality of the Little Sisters in Kansas City and subsequently of Dr. and Jeanne Gatz in Omaha, they learned the name of Mother Marguerite McCarthy. Jeanne Gatz called her.

• 2,710 Little Sisters of the Poor
• Serving 13,232 residents
• In 202 homes
• In 32 countries
• On six continents
• With 31 homes in North America
• And 2,065 lay associates (Association Jeanne Jugan)

Little Sister of the Poor Marguerite McCarthy continues the work of the founder at the Jeanne Jugan Residence in San Pedro, California, where the sisters have served since 1905. In 2002, however, Mother Marguerite was in charge of the Jeanne Jugan Center in Kansas City, Missouri, where the Little Sisters have served since 1882.

As Mother Marguerite puts it, “I just happened to be the person who took the phone call.” She realized that something “unique and spiritual” had happened. She asked the Gatzes to write a narrative of their experience.

Then McCarthy spoke with Father McGloin and asked him to do the same. She forwarded this dossier to her provincial in Chicago, who sent it to their headquarters in La Tour, France.

The wait was difficult. The Little Sisters in Kansas City held the intention close to their hearts. Then things began to fall into place. New Jersey-based Passionist Father Dominic Papa, vice postulator of Jugan’s cause, examined the evidence and interviewed people.

Officials of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, did the same. It took three years of Vatican discernment until, on December 6, 2008, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints decreed Dr. Gatz’s cure to be a miracle. “Until the Church spoke,” Mother Marguerite says, “everything was based on hope.”

What is the impact of Jeanne Jugan’s canonization on the Little Sisters? Sister Marguerite believes that it “confirms that the work begun by Jeanne Jugan is needed.” It honors her holiness and emphasizes that “the elderly poor deserve respect and love.”

It is also a miracle, Mother Marguerite observes, that the work of Jeanne Jugan spread so rapidly when the sisters have continued her commitment to work without any guaranteed income. Each house has its collecting sisters who ask for alms daily, just as Jeanne did. On any given day they may visit grocers, florists, butchers or produce warehouses. They ask for alms at parishes on weekends as well.

“We are successful because of Jeanne Jugan’s spiritual legacy,” says Mother Marguerite with conviction. “Hopefully, young women will want to follow in her footsteps. She is not of our century, but the work is. It is a pro-life mission.”

Following in the footsteps of Jeanne Jugan is also a pledge more than 2,000 people have made through the Association Jeanne Jugan (AJJ). Jeannine Hong is a new AJJ associate. She began as a volunteer when the Little Sisters collected at her parish. After a period of formation, AJJs make annual promises.

Jeannine is an accomplished musician and felt she could minister to the aging through music. She is now doing just that by leading sing-alongs at St. Augustine’s Home and also teaching piano lessons to eight residents.

Rosemary Cleveland, whom Jeannine calls an “incredible musician,” likes to join in these sing-alongs and also plays the drums in the residents’ band.

Inspired by her visits to St. Augustine’s, Jeannine wrote a song entitled “If These Walls Could Speak.” On hearing it, the sisters invited her to compose a song to celebrate the upcoming canonization. The musician decided to rely on words attributed to the founder, which, though not many, are both simple and profound.

She entitled the song “Be Little, Very Little.” In 34 heartfelt lines, Jeannine Hong traces Jeanne Jugan’s vocation—from the day she carried Anne Chauvin up the stairs, through the forced 23-year seclusion imposed by a priest who claimed authority over the religious community, to her single written signature affirming the Sisters’ commitment to live by begging, not accepting any endowments.

Just like the first woman she took in, Jeanne Jugan’s eyesight was impaired in her final years. She is said to have cautioned the novices of the congregation, with whom she lived, “When you are old, you won’t be able to see anymore. Now all I can see is God.”

Jeannine Hong chose that phrase as the final line of her song.

Jeannine Hong, Dr. and Mrs. Edward Gatz and Mother Marguerite McCarthy all plan to join the throngs gathering in Rome for the ceremonies proclaiming the first Little Sister of the Poor a saint of the Church on October 11, 2009. Dr. Gatz, his health allowing, will carry a relic of Jeanne Jugan in procession.

But they recognize that this newest saint wants everyone who hears the story of the humble founder or experiences the ministry of the Little Sisters to see only God at work. That is the miracle that would most please St. Jeanne Jugan.

See www.littlesistersofthepoor.org for more information.

 

Carol Ann Morrow was on the staff of St. Anthony Messenger for 25 years and is now an actively involved grandma. Her own grandmother was happy in the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she died in 1964.


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