St. Jeanne Jugan and Me

St. Jeanne Jugan

I've had the good fortune to know Jeanne Jugan -- one of those who will be canonized tomorrow -- through the congregation she founded, the Little Sisters of the Poor, since I was a little girl. The sisters have a home for the elderly in Scranton, not far from the house where I grew up, and my great uncle was a resident there in the last years of his life. My parents used to take us to visit him (I mainly remember playing with his wheelchair), and in the summer, when the sisters held their annual block party fundraiser, we spent the better part of three days there, volunteering and spending money and generally having fun. (Church picnics are a major social event in Scranton, and I must say my summers feel a little less joyful without them.) I remember a sister pressing a book about Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the order, into my hands when I was eight or nine years old. As I recall, I found it a little dry, but I didn't need a book to tell me how important she was. The evidence was all around me.

When I was very young I thought the "little" part of the sisters' name was meant to describe them physically -- so many of the sisters I knew were of small stature that it seemed like it might be an entrance requirement. But I found them impressive all the same, drifting up and down halls and in and out of rooms in their ghostly white habits. Their humility -- the real significance of little -- was obvious, but they also struck me as efficient and highly competent, doing difficult jobs with great skill and, even more remarkably, with great love. I was in high school when my paternal grandmother, who had lived with us since before I was born, moved into the Little Sisters' home. She had become confused and agitated, and we couldn't provide the care she needed at our house anymore, so it was a great comfort to know that she was in the care of the sisters and their employees. Not long after she moved there she suffered a stroke, and for the remaining years of her life she was barely able to communicate. I wasn't always certain she knew who I was when I went to visit her. But she always straightened up a bit when she saw the sisters -- she had seen how well they cared for her younger brother, and the sight of their habits told her she was in good hands.

I worked at the Little Sisters' home when I was in high school and college, as a dining-room aide, and later as a part-time receptionist. That gave me a closer look at the way the sisters lived their vows, and how their charism of serving Christ in the elderly poor influenced the work of the lay staff and volunteers. It was a joy for me to serve the residents in simple ways: preparing their coffee and tea the way they liked it; pushing their wheelchairs into the chapel for Mass; stopping by their rooms after my shift to chat or look at pictures of their loved ones. I learned to pray the Angelus from the sister who led grace in the dining room before lunch every day. I attended New Year's Eve parties at the elderly-friendly hour of 8:00 p.m. And I discovered that the sisters' well-known humility could cause complications at the front desk, since they almost never used their surnames. I knew them only as Sr. Firstname, lsp, which was usually sufficient, but occasionally I took a message about a doctor's appointment for Sr. Surname, and then I would have to do some detective work to figure out where to deliver it! Above all I was impressed by the joy with which they went about their work. Even going out to ask for donations -- begging, as they put it -- was something the sisters looked forward to. (By the way, if you're looking for a worthy cause, I can certainly vouch for the Little Sisters. They will put your donations to good use.)

The "poor" that the sisters care for in the United States aren't always as materially destitute as the elderly that Jeanne Jugan took in. But they are poor in many ways: some are alone; many are confused; all are in need of professional medical attention. The sisters minister to all those needs, and above all they are faithful to Jeanne Jugan's mission of accompanying the dying on their final journey. I was far from home when my grandmother died, but I heard about it later from my siblings. When the sisters recognized that she was nearing death, they began to keep vigil, taking turns staying by her side all day and all night. They would smile and say, "Mary, are you ready to go to Jesus?" And they were standing around her bed, praying and singing hymns, when she passed away.

My maternal grandmother lives in the same home now -- she just celebrated her ninetieth birthday there. She is often confused about where she is or what her circumstances are (e.g., she'll offer me a ride home, though she hasn't driven a car for more than a decade). But she never fails to remark on what a wonderful place she's in. "I'd recommend it to anybody!" she is always telling us. And we always agree with her.

My family has been richly blessed by the service of the Little Sisters of the Poor and the example of St. Jeanne Jugan, so I cant help but be excited about tomorrow's canonization -- she feels like an old family friend. I've been following the news of the canonization and the pilgrimages from the sisters' homes all over the world. (Each home is sending a delegation that represents all the elements of the order's service: sisters, residents, employees, and lay associates and volunteers. For those staying home, theres a blog!) St. Jeanne Jugan, pray for us.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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