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French Founder Humble and Hospitable
By Carol Ann Morrow

Q U I C K S C A N

Servant, Nurse, Companion
Best Beggar
'Epic of Evangelical Charity'
Blessed Jeanne Jugan

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.

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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, Brittany, France

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 retirement

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,” she said.

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

 

“The entire Church and society itself cannot but admire and applaud the marvelous growth of the tiny evangelical seed cast to the Breton soil by this very humble Cancalaise woman....The attentive reading of the biographies dedicated to Jeanne Jugan and to her epic of evangelical charity encourages me to say that God could not glorify a more humble servant....In our day, pride, the quest for efficacy and the temptation of powerful means are common in the world and sometimes, alas, in the Church. They are an obstacle to the coming of the kingdom of God. This is why the spiritual physiognomy of Jeanne Jugan is capable of attracting disciples of Christ.”

—Homily from the Mass of beatification

 

Carol Ann Morrow is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger.


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