Saint Jeanne Jugan began with very little. She is born during the French Revolution and reduced to poverty when her father is lost at sea. As a teenager she goes to work as a kitchen maid for a wealthy family. In 1817 she leaves home to work in the hospital in Saint Servan. Twenty-two years later, she is still working for other people, living in a small apartment and leading a quiet life of piety and good works.
Everything changes one night in the winter of 1839—we don’t know the exact date—when she cannot resist the sight of a blind, paralyzed old woman out in the cold with no one to care for her. Jeanne carries the old woman home and places her in her own bed. From that night on, Jeanne Jugan belongs to God and to the elderly of the whole world.
The work develops quickly. More old women are brought to her doorstep. Jeanne and her companions—one older woman and several pious young girls—offer them hospitality and care for them as if they were their own grandmothers. Giving the best place to the old women, they sleep on the attic floor.
By 1841 the “family” of old women and their caregivers outgrow the small apartment and move into larger accommodations. With the advice and support of the Hospitaller Brothers of Saint John of God, Jeanne begins collecting in the local community on behalf of her poor. This spares the old women the indignity of begging for themselves on the streets of Saint Servan.
In 1842 the group moves into an even larger building—a nearby convent that had been vacated during the Revolution. The small nucleus of pious women begins to take the form of a religious community. They call themselves the Servants of the Poor. Jeanne is elected superior. She and several others make a vow of obedience.
Re-elected as superior the next year, Jeanne is removed from office by a young priest appointed to advise the nascent community on December 23, 1843. She is given the job of collecting for the elderly in Saint Servan and its environs. In early 1844 the group changes their name to Sisters of the Poor to better reflect their desire to truly be sisters to the elderly in the Lord’s name.
Jeanne is awarded the Montyon Prize, a prestigious award given by the French Academy for meritorious work, in 1845. The next year, she founds houses in Rennes and Dinan. Then Tours. Jeanne continues to beg on behalf of the poor.
In 1847 the young Congregation holds its first General Chapter. Jeanne is not invited. In 1849, ten years after the first old woman was welcomed by Jeanne, the popular name Little Sisters of the Poor is definitively adopted.
By 1850 the Congregation numbers over 100 Little Sisters. The motherhouse and novitiate are established in Rennes in 1852. Jeanne is recalled there, told to break all contact with friends and benefactors and placed in retirement, with no specific duties. Four years later she will move to the new motherhouse in Saint Pern, to remain there—hidden in the shadows—for the rest of her life.
The Congregation receives diocesan approval on May 29, 1852. It is recognized as a Pontifical Institute by Pope Pius XI on July 9, 1854. Pope Leo XIII approves the Constitutions of the Little Sisters of the Poor for a period of seven years on March 1, 1879. By then there are 2,400 Little Sisters in 9 countries.
Hidden away in La Tour, Jeanne Jugan dies on August 29, 1879, at age 86. She is no longer recognized as the foundress. But like the grain of wheat that falls into the ground her life bears much fruit …
Expansion of the Congregation
While continuing to spread all over France, the Congregation takes root in England in 1851 despite great hardships and resistance in some quarters due to anti-Catholic sentiments (this painting, by James Collinson, depicts the early days in London). Belgium is next, and then Spain, Ireland and North Africa. A young priest named Ernest LeLievre dedicates his life to the Little Sisters, eventually traveling all over the world to establish homes for the elderly.
Father LeLievre (pictured here) sets out for America in 1868, stating, “As we leave the old world for the new, we still have the same responsibilities, the same struggle, the same people, the same God. On the shores of the Mississippi, as on the banks of the Jordan, the world has need of being renewed.” He lands in New York June 10, 1868 and in the next four years he will pave the way for the establishment of 13 homes in the United States.
Before leaving America in the summer of 1872 to establish more homes in France and Spain, LeLievre writes to his cousin back in France, “The work of the Little Sisters here has succeeded far beyond what I ever expected. The thirteen homes founded on this continent are all the owners of the houses they occupy, or of the land on which they will build when necessary … Such a success and all it demands, I admit, is overwhelming.…”
The first group of Little Sisters destined for America leaves the motherhouse on August 28, 1868; Jeanne Jugan helps to see them off. After a long journey by boat they set foot on American soil in Brooklyn, New York, on September 13, 1868. No one speaks English.
Soon after arriving in Brooklyn the Little Sisters receive their first donation, a gift of $20.00, from Rev. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists. After welcoming their first Residents, the Sisters write back to the motherhouse: “The public appear delighted to see that we are willing to work for the poor; that we ask no endowment; that we desire to trust in Providence and in the generosity of the public.”
A second group of Sisters arrives in Cincinnati on October 14, 1868. The arrangements for this house have been facilitated by Sarah Worthington Peter, a convert to Catholicism and daughter of an Ohio senator, who visited the motherhouse herself to ask for a foundation in Cincinnati. A Catholic physician agrees to care for the Residents and is so touched after his first consultation that he takes off his coat and gives it to one of the old men.
Six days before Christmas a third group of Little Sisters arrives in New Orleans. They are thrilled to discover that the house being offered to them by a group of charitable ladies is already named “Home of St. Joseph.” As a show of support, the municipal government paves the street in front of the home and approves an allowance of $1,000 to pay for repairs to the building.
On April 6, 1869 the Little Sisters establish their work in Baltimore. The seminary, staffed by French Sulpicians, offers donations of food and their moral support. Bishop Spalding states, “The Little Sisters of the Poor are called to do a great deal of good in America, not only among the poor, but also among the rich; for words no longer suffice—works are necessary.”
From Baltimore the Little Sisters head west, establishing a house in Saint Louis on May 3, 1869. “What are you going to do in a house where there is nothing?” people ask them. “Wait a few days,” they reply, as they set out to clean and furnish their new home. Observing the Little Sisters, Bishop Ryan comments, “If one builds on holy poverty, Providence cements the building.” The Sisters regularly receive help from a steamboat company on the Mississippi that solicits donations from their passengers and sets aside leftovers from the dining room, all to the benefit of the aged poor of Saint Louis.
Philadelphia opens its doors to the Little Sisters on August 24, 1869. An act of generosity on the part of a young Philadelphian is particularly touching. Mary Twibill, a young woman of 18, is dying. Her father gives her the choice of having a fine monument made for her grave, or of leaving a sum of money to the poor. “What use will it be to have a beautiful monument after my death?” she asks. “I prefer to give the money to the Little Sisters of the Poor.” And so the Little Sisters receive a legacy of $1,000 from Mary Twibill.
Louisville welcomes the Little Sisters just one month later. Bishop MacCloskey gives his assistance by lending them an estate that had been intended for a seminary, arranging the chapel himself and celebrating the Sisters’ first Mass. The Little Sisters write back to the motherhouse, “Divine Providence provided according to our needs; within a few days, our house was found furnished with beds, tables, chairs, kitchen utensils and provisions of all kinds. We were quite overcome with gratitude towards the good God, who disposed so well people’s hearts in our favor.”
The Little Sisters arrive in Boston on April 19, 1870. As he witnesses the generosity of the local citizens in helping the Sisters to furnish the two houses given to them, the Superior of the local Jesuit community remarks, “What I admire is that these Sisters are such as people describe them. One sees that they not only have confidence in Providence, but that they have not a doubt of its protection. One sees that they do not calculate, they do not reckon, they do not ask what people will give them for the needs of their poor.”
In the spring of 1870, the Little Sisters also open a home in Cleveland. A good German family provides them with linens, mattresses and all sorts of necessary items, while the bishop, along with a wealthy Protestant, contribute toward the purchase of a suitable property.
The tenth home is established in our Nation’s Capital on February 2, 1871. Together with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Father Walter, parish priest of St. Patrick’s Church, Washington, D.C., provides the Sisters with a house with carpeted rooms, numerous fire places, plenty of furniture and a well-stocked kitchen. When the Little Sisters remove the carpets, the good priest is edified by their spirit of poverty. The home gains considerable political support and the Little Sisters are authorized to beg for donations in Federal government buildings—an unprecedented privilege that continued uninterrupted until the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
Back in La Tour, it is widely known that Jeanne Jugan has a soft spot in her heart for the first American young women who cross the ocean to begin their formation as Little Sisters. Despite protests from some of the other novices, she showers them with special attentions, insisting that they are the first missionaries of the Congregation.
Many years later, one of these Little Sisters remembers the foundress’ kindness: “I have never forgotten her kindness to us… She would often ask to see the Little Sister postulants from America. Some of the others would say that they were jealous because she liked the Americans. She would reply that that wasn’t fair because they were the first missionaries of the little family, and that they had crossed the wide ocean, being sixteen days at sea; that it was heroic for young girls to come from so far away, to say good-bye to their parents, their country and even to make the sacrifice of their own language in order to come here to prepare for the life of a Little Sister. It needed a double vocation” (testimony of Sr. Augustine de St. Laurent).
By the 1950s the Congregation has 52 homes for the aged across the United States. With the passage of the Life Safety Code and the dawn of nursing home regulations in the 1960s, nearly all the homes must be replaced. Some are combined, others closed, but many are rebuilt. Today we have 30 homes for the needy elderly in the United States and one in Canada.
Cancale, birthplace of Saint Jeanne Jugan
Saint Servan, apartment where the first old woman was welcomed
Saint Servan, winding staircase up which Jeanne Jugan carried the first old woman
Saint Servan, attic where Jeanne and her companions prayed and slept
Room in the original home in Rennes as Jeanne Jugan would have known it
Dinan, site where Jeanne Jugan wrote the first Constitutions
Chapel of La Tour Saint Joseph as it appears today
La Tour Saint Joseph after a snowfall
La Tour St. Joseph, room where Jeanne Jugan died
La Tour Crypt chapel