|01-10-2009 - Traces, n. 9
Saint Jeanne Jugan
Love for God
in the Weakest
Two hundred years after the start of her still-flourishing work, Blessed Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, was canonized on October 11th. A tribute to a humble spirit of charity that gives dignity to the fragile elderly among us.
by Emily Risch
In December of last year, members of Communion and Liberation, myself included, were putting up Christmas decorations at St. John’s Home for the Aged, a nursing facility run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Evansville, Indiana. Before we left for the night, the Mother Superior, a slight, soft-voiced Irish woman, asked us to come into a dying resident’s room with her. We’ll call this resident “Isabelle.”
When we entered the room, Isabelle was lying on her left side, her body curled into a vague C-shape. Her dentures weren’t in her mouth, which was gaping open, and her eyes were squeezed shut. Mother spoke to Isabelle: “These young people came in to decorate our home for Christmas. Isn’t that nice? You’ll be home for Christmas this year, won’t you, Isabelle?” Mother sat on the edge of the bed and stroked Isabelle’s hair. “Would you like them to sing you a song? How about ‘Silent Night’?” Mother turned to look at us and smiled.
We sang, but Isabelle’s face never betrayed if she knew we were there. Mother continued to sit on the edge of the bed with a gentle smile on her face, her attention totally focused on Isabelle. She thanked us when we finished and, as we left, I remember looking at one of my friends and saying, “I want to die like that.”
I am an employee at St. John’s Home for the Aged and when I arrived for work the next morning, I discovered that Isabelle had died during the night. It was startling and moving to think that our voices were some of the last she heard. Of course, the last voices Isabelle probably heard were those of the Little Sisters themselves, praying or singing, and absolutely refusing to let one of their residents die alone, no matter when that moment came.
Vocation. The Little Sisters trace their mission back to the rustic seaport of Cancale, France, in 1792 when a baby girl was born to a fisherman and his wife. They named her Jeanne. Jeanne and her family struggled to make ends meet after her father’s disappearance and eventually, at the age of sixteen, she began working in one of their neighbor’s homes. The lady of the house was especially dedicated to visiting the poor and the elderly. She took young Jeanne with her on those visits, perhaps giving Jeanne her first experiences of caring for the elderly poor.
During this time, a young man proposed marriage to Jeanne, who, after some consideration, refused. Her experiences working in the missions in Brittany led her to recognize God’s call for her to a life of devotion to Him. Jeanne told her mother, “God wants me for Himself. He is keeping me for a work as yet unknown, for a work which is not yet founded.”
Jeanne gave up many of her possessions and headed to Saint-Servan, a remarkably poor region of France. There she took a job as a nurse and exhausted herself with her devotion to her patients. She continued working until 1824 when she was 32 years old. It was then that she resigned in favor of rest and rebuilding her strength.
Jeanne rented an apartment with her friends Françoise Aubert and Virginie Trédaniel. Soon afterward, Jeanne discovered a blind, paralyzed, elderly woman living on the streets of Saint-Servan. The lady’s name was Anne Chauvin. After discussing it with her friends, Jeanne carried Anne into their home and up a narrow, winding staircase to place Anne in her own bed. A few days later, another woman was brought into the home and this time it was Virginie who surrendered her bed.
The community grew in a very short amount of time. Not only were more and more elderly people coming to them for help, but young women also came to offer their services. They soon outgrew the apartment and Jeanne and her companions moved themselves and the ladies they were caring for from home to home, constantly looking for more spacious quarters to accommodate all.
It was during this time that Jeanne began taking a basket and setting out to go door to door, begging on behalf of her residents who could no longer beg for themselves. This was not an easy undertaking for her. A proud woman, Jeanne found it difficult to ask people for their leftover food, excess cloth and thread, or any money they could spare. She knew, though, that no one else would take care of the poor if she did not, and this strengthened her resolve to keep going. She did it out of a love for God and, of course, a love for His poor.
Jeanne and her community of women began taking steps to establish themselves as members of a legitimate religious order. They took private vows of obedience and chastity and eventually hospitality and poverty.
Obedience. Through the intervention of Abbé Le Pailleur, an ambitious and power-hungry young priest who had become involved with the order, Jeanne was removed from her position as Superior. To take her place, Le Pailleur appointed Marie Jamet, a timid young woman who was much easier to influence. By this time, Jeanne was 51 years old and very strong-willed. He named Marie as the foundress of the order and demoted Jeanne to directing the work of the young postulants. She accepted her circumstances gracefully. She never spoke about being the first true Little Sister of the Poor, but simply remarked to Abbé Le Pailleur, “You have stolen my work from me, but I willingly give it to you.”
Jeanne died on August 29, 1879, at the motherhouse, La Tour Saint Joseph, in the village of Saint Pern (Ille-et-Vilaine). She was 86 years old, and at this time there were over 2,400 Little Sisters of the Poor. It had been only 40 years since Jeanne began her work.
Dramatically, Marie Jamet confessed on her deathbed to knowing Jeanne to be the original foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
It is truly an openness to beauty that is at the heart of the Little Sisters’ mission. They care for a part of the world’s population that is often considered a burden, and they do it with joy. To witness an exchange between a Little Sister and her resident is to be shown mercy and love the likes of which I have only seen between parents and their children. As Isabelle lay dying in that bed last year, it was Mother’s response that struck me so deeply. In front of a woman who was completely helpless and vulnerable, Mother mirrored the response of Jeanne Jugan, which was simply to love.
The miracle. In Omaha, Nebraska, in 1989, Dr. Edward Gatz and his wife Jeanne were given terrible news–Dr. Gatz had a large adenocarcinoma in his esophagus that stretched into his stomach. It was a lethal form of cancer with which, they were told, no one survived. He was given six months to a year to live.
Mrs. Gatz called their good friend Rev. Richard McGloin to tell him of Dr. Gatz’s diagnosis. Immediately, Fr. McGloin suggested that they begin praying for the intercession of Jeanne Jugan, whom he had become familiar with through his time serving as chaplain at the home in Milwaukee. Fr. McGloin had tremendous admiration and respect for the Little Sisters and their mission. Mrs. Gatz agreed to pray with him daily for Jeanne Jugan’s help.
Dr. Gatz underwent a palliative surgical procedure to remove the tumor. Most of his esophagus was removed, along with part of the stomach and his vagus nerve. Even with this surgery, Dr. Gatz was told the tumors would return and that no chemotherapy or radiation would prolong his life.
Over the next thirteen years, Dr. Gatz remained cancer free. Fr. McGloin and Mrs. Gatz had continued their daily prayers to Jeanne Jugan and as Dr. Gatz was continually told he was a walking miracle, they all began to consider officially reporting the healing. They called Sr. Marguerite in Kansas City, who set everything in motion. It took seven years of written testimonies and interviews before the Vatican confirmed the miracle. Pope Benedict XVI announced last February that, with the help of Dr. and Mrs. Gatz and the now deceased Fr. McGloin, Jeanne Jugan would be canonized.
During the canonization on October 11, 2009, the Gatzes participated in the ceremony by carrying a relic of Jeanne Jugan up to the altar at the Offertory of the Mass.