Jeanne Jugan

And the Little Sisters of the Poor

On 25th October 1792, in a poor fisherman's cottage in Brittany in France, a baby girl was born. Her name was Jeanne Jugan, and hers is a story of remarkable devotion and selflessness to the poor and to God. Her father died at sea while she was still young. As a young teenager she went to work for a rich family and helped them give out handouts of food and money to the poor families of the village where they lived.

At the age of 25, she left her native town and went to serve the sick in a hospital of a nearby city. She was helped in her difficult and unwholesome work by her life of prayer. Soon she joined a group of women who lived a life of regular prayer and had a very close relationship with Jesus.

After six years of hard work in the hospital, Jeanne was exhausted. She was invited to live with a lady called Miss Lecoq, and for twelve years they lived a life of prayer, visited the poor and taught the Word of God to children. When she died, Miss Lecoq left Jeanne her small savings.

One winter evening in 1839, Jeanne was confronted with the distress of an elderly infirm lady, blind and completely abandoned. She took her in her arms, carried her up to the small lodging she shared with a friend, placed her in her own bed and cared for her as she would have cared for her mother. In time, other elderly and needy ladies knocked at her door and were welcomed by Jeanne who cook care of them with the help of several young girls who had joined her.

On October 15, 1840, Jeanne and her friends formed a group where they dreamt of offering comfort, security and care to other people. They knew that God would help them with money … and He did! They all moved into a slightly larger lodging in 1841, and so were able to receive twelve elderly ladies. When that became too small, they got donations of money to buy a bigger house. In 1842, the women added more rules to their way of life and officially chose the name 'Servants of the Poor'. Jeanne let herself be guided by what she knew was the Spirit of God.

The old women that came to live with Jeanne used to be beggars. Jeanne decided that she would go begging instead of them to get money, even though she was a proud woman. Guided by the Spirit of Jesus and putting aside her own feelings, she used to go around the town, begging at houses for money, food and clothes. She was not always kindly welcomed: one day she rang a rich man's doorbell and he gave her some money. When she called next time, he was angry. Jeanne smiled, 'But, Sir, my poor were hungry yesterday, they are hungry again today and tomorrow they will be hungry too'. He gave once more, and promised to go on giving. With a smile, Jeanne knew how to get rich people to think about their responsibilities.

When things were going badly, she would say, 'Let's go on for God!' and she had charm and grace that impressed people. One man said, 'She collected by praising God'.

Thanks to the collecting, the society's work grew. Money always seemed to arrive just when it was needed, and gradually the work of the 'Servants of the Poor' became well known. Jeanne obtained a first prize for a virtuous deed (the Montyon Prize), on account of what she had accomplished, and her name was mentioned in the newspapers. For ten years she continued to go begging, and the number of old people welcomed, including men, kept increasing. The only explanation was Jeanne's tireless work and her faith in God's love for His poor.

In February, 1844, Jeanne and her companions changed their name of 'Servants of the Poor' to 'Sisters of the Poor' (which would became 'Little Sisters of the Poor' in 1849), and they adopted a habit and a religious name. From then on Jeanne would be known as Sister Mary of the Cross. They also made private vows of poverty and hospitality for one year. Jeanne, who had already made the perpetual vow of chastity, had also made that of obedience two years earlier.

Jeanne was at the origin of other foundations in the west of France, and for ten years she continued to go begging. Even though more young women were joining to help, she kept on walking, her wallet on her shoulder and her basket on her arm. She was the person whom people trusted, who could see what had to be done and who would get the money. She did not care that she was without a permanent home herself. Provided that the poor old people were housed, cared for and loved, she was happy.

Whenever the houses needed something, Jeanne would tell them to pray to St. Joseph, and usually they obtained what they needed. One day, a house had no butter. She told the Sisters to light candles and pray, 'Good St. Joseph, send us butter for our old folks!' A few days later, some butter arrived!

Then came the first house in England. Telling of a visit he made to the house in Paris, Charles Dickens wrote, 'One old fellow has his feet on a foot-warmer, and thinly pipes up that he is very comfortable now, for he is always warm. The chills of age and the pavement remain together in his memory, but he is very comfortable now, very comfortable …'. This article helped the Sisters of the Poor get started in England.

When Jeanne was sixty years old, her life changed completely, for she was sent to live in the Sisters' main house. She lived a very humble life, helping the new novices and spending her days in prayer. She did insist however, that the Order continue to depend only on charity, and with no fixed income. Prayer became more and more the centre of her daily life, and many of the young Sisters among whom she lived noticed how full of joy and love she was, even when she did simple things like making the sign of the Cross. She gradually became almost blind, but lived until she was over 80. In 1878, the Pope gave official recognition to the Order she had begun. At that time there were more than 2,400 Sisters helping the elderly poor in ten countries. Jeanne died in 1879, looking forward to meeting God.

The Process of Beatification began. An old man who lived in one of the houses had an incurable disease (Raynaud's disease), but when he prayed to her, he got better straight away. The Church considers her to be an example for our times. Her work and her faith show us how we should use our faith and belief in God to help old people in our society, in families and in the Church, and to follow God's will.

On October 3rd, 1982, in St. Peter's basilica in Rome, John Paul II proclaimed Jeanne Jugan 'Blessed', in the presence of 6,000 pilgrims having come from the five continents.

Sarah Gwynn EMAS 10/99
Based on Jeanne Jugan — Foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor by Paul Milcent, Catholic Truth Society, 1982.