The once banished and forgotten foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Jeanne Jugan, will be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI Oct. 11, receiving the fullness of recognition she was denied in life.
Instead of carrying the pain that could fittingly be associated with the isolation she suffered for the last quarter century of her life, the Little Sisters see it as an example of humility and hiddenness, which they now embrace as the charisms of their order.
Meanwhile, more than 2,700 Little Sisters, who care for some 13,000 needy elderly in 202 residences worldwide, 31 in the United States, are ecstatic.
A delegation of some 4,000 patrons, admirers, staffers and others touched by the work of these women are expected in St. Peter’s Square in Rome for the celebration. They will be standing shoulder-to-veil with over 200 sisters, chosen to be on hand for the festivities by chance, one from each of the Little Sisters’ homes for the needy elderly.
While undeniably pleased, they will be harboring quiet hope that Benedict will name their foundress a patron of the elderly.
Asked how she will feel that day, Little Sister Constance Veit, the order’s publication director who lives at the Baltimore home, said: “I will feel an immense pride that Jeanne Jugan is our mother and she will be finally be universally recognized. I will also feel the poor and elderly are getting the champion they need.”
Veit said the canonization is coming at an auspicious time as the United States is focused on finding ways to revamp a hurting health care system. “Nine out of 10 of our residents are on Medicaid, which covers only half of the care costs. The rest we have to raise.”
She added, “We feel there is a need for major health care reform in our country.”
As the Little Sisters tell the story, Jugan was born in a small town in France in 1792 and grew up poor. As a young girl she earned money knitting and working as a kitchen maid and later as a servant.
Later in life, at the age of 47, Jugan took a blind and infirm elderly woman, Anne Chauvin, into the modest apartment she shared with another woman. Jugan gave up her bed, moving into the attic. That act of kindness led to others and soon other women were sharing similar kindnesses, helping the elderly poor.
“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!” a short Little Sisters’ Jugan sketch reads.
It was in 1841 Jugan was first elected superior of the small congregation. By December 1843, the women were providing care for some 40 people and the sisters for the second time re-elected Jugan as their mother general.
But here the story takes an unfortunate twist.
A priest, Fr. Auguste le Pailleur, had been a spiritual advisor for two of the sisters, and through them gained a foothold in the community. Then, on Dec. 23, 1843, just weeks after the women had re-elected Jugan, Pailleur on his own authority declared the election void, designating a 23-year-old sister, Marie Jamet, as the new mother general. Still not satisfied with his authority in the order he declared himself father general and took total control. Pailleur assigned Jugan to begging for aid.
Additionally, Pailleur began falsifying documents to state that he had founded the Little Sisters.
Paul Milcent, author of the biography Jeanne Jugan: Humble So As to Love More, wrote: “The Abbé le Pailleur’s behavior has something odd about it, pointing to some kind of psychological disturbance. He was determined, even at the cost of falsifying the truth, to concentrate power and fame in his own person.”
So relegated did Jugan eventually become, said Veit, that younger sisters entering the order had no idea the woman living in the shadows of the motherhouse for the last 27 years of her life was their foundress.
“She died in oblivion,” Veit said. “She had been thoroughly set aside.” Referring to the canonization, Veit added, “There is definitely a sense that she is finally gaining her rightful place. And the elderly are getting the honor they deserve.”
Decades later, the mother general Pailleur appointed told an aid on her deathbed that Jugan had, indeed, been the original foundress. When Pailleur’s ruse became known he was eventually sent to live out his life in a monastery.
But the misrepresentations did not get quickly cleared up. The first edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1913, reads: “Little Sisters of the Poor, an active, unenclosed religious congregation founded at St. Servant, Brittany, 1839, through the instrumentality of Abbé Augustin Marie le Pailleur.”
It was only in the year 2000 that the Little Sisters offered the following clarification to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Jeanne Jugan is truly our foundress, not the priest mentioned in the article. Father le Pailleur was in fact involved in the early phases of the work, but he was not the founder. In fact, as time went on, he removed Jeanne Jugan from the office of superior, forced her into oblivion, and then manufactured and propagated a false story about the origins of our congregation.”
Jugan died at age 86.
“I never thought Jeanne Jugan would be canonized,” said Little Sister Gonzague, who works at the Jeanne Jugan Center in Kansas City, Mo. “She was so humble and didn’t toot her horn. But we feel this grounded our congregation in the spirit of humility and hiddenness of Christ. She lived that. God worked through those years of hiddenness.”
Thomas Fox is NCR editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.