Saint Jeanne Jugan
Saint Jeanne Jugan’s Story – (October 25, 1792 – August 29, 1879)
Born in northern France during the French Revolution—a time when congregations of women and men religious were being suppressed by the national government, Jeanne would eventually be highly praised in the French academy for her community’s compassionate care of elderly poor people.
When Jeanne was three and a half years old, her father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. Her widowed mother was hard pressed to raise her eight children (four died young) alone. At the age of 15 or 16, Jeanne became a kitchen maid for a family that not only cared for its own members, but also served poor, elderly people nearby. Ten years later, Jeanne became a nurse at the hospital in Le Rosais. Soon thereafter, she joined a third order group founded by Saint John Eudes.
After six years she became a servant and friend of a woman she met through the third order. They prayed, visited the poor, and taught catechism to children. After her friend’s death, Jeanne and two other women continued a similar life in the city of Saint-Sevran. In 1839, they brought in their first permanent guest. They began an association, received more members, and more guests. Mother Marie of the Cross, as Jeanne was now known, founded six more houses for the elderly by the end of 1849, all staffed by members of her association—the Little Sisters of the Poor. By 1853, the association numbered 500 and had houses as far away as England.
Abbé Le Pailleur, a chaplain, had prevented Jeanne’s reelection as superior in 1843; nine years later, he had her assigned to duties within the congregation, but would not allow her to be recognized as its founder. He was removed from office by the Holy See in 1890.
By the time Pope Leo XIII gave her final approval to the community’s constitutions in 1879, there were 2,400 Little Sisters of the Poor. Jeanne died later that same year, on August 30. Her cause was introduced in Rome in 1970, and she was beatified in 1982 and canonized in 2009.
Jeanne Jugan grew up in a small town in revolutionary France. Times were tough. Violence ruled the day. For thousands, begging was a way of life.
Those who openly practiced their faith were not merely ridiculed – they were imprisoned or killed. Jeanne received her faith formation, secretly and at great risk, from her mother and a group of women who belonged to a lay movement of the day.
By the time Jeanne was four years old her father had been lost at sea. Her mother found odd jobs to make ends meet. Neighbor helped neighbor. As a young girl Jeanne worked as a shepherdess. She learned to knit and spin wool. Later she went to work as a kitchen maid for a wealthy family.
On fire with love for God
Jeanne barely learned to read and write. Her education consisted mostly of on-the-job training in the school of real life. Neither beautiful nor talented in the usual sense, she was gifted with an extraordinary heart. Jeanne was on fire with love for God!
Those who let themselves be seized by the love of Christ cannot help abandoning everything to follow him… Barely out of her teens, Jeanne felt the call of divine love. Preparing to leave home, she told her mother “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet founded.” Jeanne took the road less traveled, setting out to work among the poor and forsaken in a local hospital.
Jeanne meets Christ in the Poor
Many years went by before Jeanne discovered her vocation. Finally, one cold winter night she met Jesus Christ in the person of an elderly, blind and infirm woman who had no one to care for her. Jeanne carried the woman home, climbed up the stairs to her small apartment and placed her in her own bed. From then on, Jeanne would sleep in the attic.
God led more poor old people to her doorstep. Generous young women came to help. Like Jeanne, they wanted to make a difference. Like her, they believed that “the poor are Our Lord.” A religious community was born!
There were so many old people in need of a home, so many souls hungry for love! The work rapidly spread across France and beyond. Struck by their spirit of humble service, local citizens dubbed the group the Little Sisters of the Poor. The name stuck!
For herself Jeanne chose the religious name Sister Mary of the Cross. She would live it in its fullness …
Jeanne is set aside
The work of the Little Sisters continued to spread, borne by the wind of the Spirit. So did Jeanne’s renown – until one day she was mysteriously cast aside by an ambitious priest who had taken over the direction of the young community.
Jeanne was replaced as superior and sent out begging on behalf of the poor. And then one day she was placed in retirement, relegated to the shadows. At the time of her death 27 years later, the young Little Sisters didn’t even know that she was the foundress.
Jeanne had often told them, “We are grafted into the cross and we must carry it joyfully unto death.” How she lived these words! What a radiant example of holiness she gave to generations of Little Sisters!
God lifts up the lowly
Like the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, Jeanne’s life would bear much fruit. Thousands of young women followed in her footsteps. The Little Sisters’ mission of hospitality spread to the ends of the earth, like a great wave of charity.
In his time, God would raise Jeanne up. At her beatification Pope John Paul II said that “God could glorify no more humble a servant than she.”
Pope Benedict said that Saint Jeanne’s canonization would “show once again how living faith is prodigious in good works, and how sanctity is a healing balm for the wounds of humankind.”
A friend of the poor – a Gospel witness for our time – a Saint for old age and every age!
Jeanne Jugan saw Christ in what Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta would describe as his “distressing disguises.” With great confidence in God’s providence and the intercession of Saint Joseph, she begged willingly for the many homes that she opened, relying on the good example of the Sisters and the generosity of benefactors who knew the good that the Sisters were doing. They now work in 30 countries. “With the eye of faith, we must see Jesus in our old people—for they are God’s mouthpiece,” Jeanne once said. No matter what the difficulties, she was always able to praise God and move ahead.
Jeanne Jugan is the foundress and first Little Sisters of the Poor. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 3, 1982 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009.