JEANNE JUGAN

LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR

 

Lifetime: Born in 1792, died in 1879 at the age of 86.

Order: Little Sisters of the Poor

Founded: Saint-Servan, France, 1842, at the age of 50.

Mission: Care for the elderly

Impact: By the time of Jeanne’s death, there were 2400 Little Sisters of the Poor in 10 different countries.

Quote: "Go and find him when your patience and strength run out and you feel alone and helpless. Jesus is waiting for you in the chapel. Say to him, ‘Jesus, you know exactly what is going on. You are all I have, and you know all things. Come to my help.’ And then go, and don’t worry about how you are going to manage. That you have told God about it is enough. He has a good memory."

 

In 1837 Jeanne Jugan and two companions decided to move into a two-room apartment on Center Street and lead a life of prayer and dedication to God. Jeanne had always been sensitive to the things of God, and she saw him reflected in the numberless faces of the poor of France.

One day she encountered Anne Chauvin, a blind old widow with no one to look after her, and decided to bring her home. Since the apartment was on the second floor, Jeanne had to physically carry her up the narrow stairs. Jeanne gave her bed to Anne and moved into the loft.

Before long she took in another old woman, and Jeanne and her two companions had to work to support and feed themselves and two others. They would often stay up late at night mending and washing clothes and get up early each morning to care for the women in their charge.

Often on Sundays the three of them would go for a walk together along the seashore, stopping at a favorite cleft in the rocks to talk about God, their lives, and their plans for the future.

They would also discuss these matters with a young priest who had recently arrived to the parish. Fr le Pailleur was immediately interested in the work and gave it his full approval. A very capable, sometimes daring, and often ingenious man, he too had aspirations to help the poor; he felt compelled to support this work which held so much promise.

Visiting them at their home, he met with the three of them, and together they resolved to create a charitable association. Jeanne was delighted with the help promised by this young priest who approved of their mad plan. In very little time they were taking in more and more people, urged on by the desire to share the poverty and distress of those whom they sought to help and to alleviate their plight as much as possible.

 

Begging

Less than three years after this foundation, Jeanne and her companions moved down the street into their first house. Their new home was spacious, built around a courtyard large enough to make a proper dormitory. That same day six more women joined the group; many more would soon follow.

To support this growth, Jeanne devoted herself to begging. One young visitor to the new house wrote, "I saw Jeanne Jugan. She greeted me and my grandmother with a kind smile as she was preparing to go out collecting. Over her arm she put her basket, already such a well-known sight all over town. The old women called her Sister Jeanne. ‘Sister Jeanne,’ they would say, ‘do our job properly for us. Collect for us.’ Jeanne would lean over them and listen to a few more whispered instructions; she smiled at them. She left them promptly, for she did things quickly, yet she never gave the impression of hurrying or being hurried."

One day she rang the doorbell of a rich man notorious for his miserliness and persuaded him to donate a sizable gift. The next day she called again; at this he became very angry. She simply smiled and said, "Sir, my poor were hungry yesterday, they are hungry again today, and tomorrow they will be hungry too." The man became a regular benefactor of Jeanne’s works.

On another occasion Jeanne went to beg from a local ship owner, a fiery man given to violent fits of passion. Jeanne was the only person who knew how to manage his explosive temper. One time he was overseeing the unloading of one of his ships. Among the cargo were some small but enormously valuable bags filled with gold ingots. As the cargo was being unloaded one of these bags dropped into the water, provoking one of the man’s characteristic eruptions. Just at this moment Jeanne came along seeking a donation from him. While still some distance away, she saw that something was wrong and approached to see if she could help. He immediately launched into a tirade about what had happened. Promising to pray for the recovery of the lost money, Jeanne continued on her way.

The bag was eventually recovered, and when Jeanne passed by a short time later she remarked, "I told you God would recover your money."

The man looked almost sheepish for a moment, but he quickly regained his customary brusque demeanor. "Here," he growled. "Take the bag. This is for your little old folks."

 

Recognition

Each year the prestigious Montyon Award was presented by the French Academy to a poor French man or woman who performed outstanding public service. Some of Jeanne’s friends decided to submit her name as a candidate for the award. They prepared a brief memorial and presented it to the Academy for consideration. Several months later her friends were informed that Jeanne Jugan had been awarded the first prize, a total of three thousand francs. The money arrived just in time to pay for the new roof and some furniture which she had bought.

Jeanne soon realized she could use this award to advertise her work to the civil authorities. As one unexpected result of this publicity, she received a large gold medal as an award from the local Masonic Lodge. She promptly had it melted down and used the gold for a chalice.

 

The Deception

The little group continued to grow, and on December 8, 1842, the first "sisters" took a vow of obedience, thus establishing the Little Sisters of the Poor. In their first election, Jeanne Jugan was chosen as Mother Superior. However, two weeks later Fr le Pailleur called a surprise meeting. He nullified the election and named the timid twenty-three year old Marie Jamet in Jeanne’s place.

Eight years later, Fr le Pailleur drafted the definitive constitution of the institute with the help of another priest who had assisted Jeanne from the beginning. In the document, Fr le Pailleur carefully assured that the office of Father Superior General be given absolute authority over the congregation. The next year, the constitution was approved, and the Little Sisters of the Poor became a recognized congregation within the Church. The bishop was present when twenty-four postulants received their uniform and seventeen novices professed vows.

Fr le Pailleur had every reason to be satisfied. He had now secured the office of Father Superior General of the congregation, and consequently he had full authority. At this point, he made an important decision.

Calling Jeanne into his office, he told her she was to retire to the mother house. He ordered her to cut off all connection with her benefactors and friends and to no longer go out begging. She was to devote herself entirely to prayer and overseeing the manual work of the postulants. In everything, Jeanne obeyed with complete submission.

Gradually, Fr le Pailleur began to insinuate that he had always been the driving force behind the congregation. The story gradually spread that he had begun this work by recruiting two other sisters before encountering Jeanne Jugan. When he saw her talent for fundraising, he immediately set her to work begging for the sisters and the elderly in their charge. To bolster this story, he placed a plaque outside their first home which read, "Here Fr le Pailleur, founder of the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, began his work by helping a poor blind woman. He entrusted her to his two spiritual daughters to take her into the attic of this house where Jeanne Jugan was living. To their number, the founder soon added Jeanne Jugan, who discharged her duty of collecting with admirable devotion."

As the Little Sisters continued to grow and spread across the French countryside, journalists began to report this story, lending it still more credibility. Even the new novices were taught that Fr le Pailleur was the founder of the congregation. For all those who had known Jeanne in the early years, this caused some confusion.

He became ever more inflated with pride, demanding the most exaggerated signs of respect and flattery from the sisters; if they met him going for a walk they had to kiss his feet and ask for his blessing. Even his admirers became disquieted by the spectacle.

Out of obedience, Jeanne did nothing to dispel these falsehoods. Some postulants who had heard that Jeanne was the founder kept trying to get the whole story from her. Knowing the version of the story taught in the novitiate, Jeanne would say evasively, "They’ll tell you all about that in the novitiate." Then she would add, "Later, you’ll know all about that."

On one occasion, Jeanne, with her head in her hands, groaned, "They have stolen my work from me!" She later repeated these words jokingly to Fr le Pailleur, adding, "But I willingly give it to you."

 

"I Am Not the First Little Sister"

As the years went by, the witnesses began to pass away one by one. Eventually Jeanne herself died, twenty-seven years after being confined to the mother house. Rumors of the injustice ultimately reached Rome, where they raised some eyebrows. An apostolic inquiry was begun.

In 1890, Fr le Pailleur was summoned to Rome, eleven years after Jeanne Jugan had passed away. He spent his last five years in a convent, relieved of his office as Father Superior General.

The new chaplain at the mother house began to conduct a historical investigation into the origins of the congregation. He interviewed the founding sisters who were still alive and began to reconstruct the true story of the foundation. The most important document of the inquiry was the memorial for the Academy Award, written in Fr le Pailleur’s handwriting, which named Jeanne Jugan as the founder.

Marie Jamet, the Mother Superior whom Fr le Pailleur had named to replace Jeanne, lived to see the conclusion. "I am not the first Little Sister, nor the founder of the work," she testified. "Jeanne Jugan was the first one and the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor." On her death bed she said, "I am not the first one but I was told to act as though I were."

From that point on, Jeanne Jugan would be called "Founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor." From God’s point of view, those twenty-seven years of silent faith had proven to be the most fruitful of her life.

 

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