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Why Charles Dickens Cried When He Met St. Jeanne Jugan

With the Little Sisters of the Poor the focus of religious freedom threats recently, I was curious to know more about the order.

St. Jeanne Jugan is the foundress of the Little Sisters, who today quietly devote themselves to care of the elderly and alone in 31 countries.

Born in 1792 in Brittany, France, Jeanne grew up in tough times. The French Revolution meant begging was a way of life for many. Religious orders were suppressed and those who openly practiced their faith were often imprisoned. Her father died at sea when she was just four, leaving her mother to raise eight children in a one-room cottage. Jeanne learned her faith secretly at home from her mother and a group of women who got together to pray.  Barely learning to read and write, she was noted for her love of God. In her teenage years she worked as a kitchen maid for a wealthy family who lived their faith by serving the poor and elderly. Jeanne often went along to care for these people, and these experiences brought about a dedication to the elderly. 

After declining a marriage proposal, Jeanne told her mother, “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work not yet founded.” Yet it was quite a few years before she discovered her vocation. She worked as a nurse at a hospital and continued caring for the old and alone. After a few years of hospital work, Jeanne and two other women rented a room in a cottage and devoted themselves to daily Mass and caring for people in need, especially the old and sick.

One cold winter night, Jeanne brought home a blind elderly widow, giving the woman her own bed. What seemed to be a random encounter turned out to be a foreshadowing of her life’s mission. Along with the two other women, she prayed, visited the poor, and taught catechism to children. Jeanne and her friends started a congregation in Saint-Sevran and began a home for the elderly. She wrote a simple set of rules for them. The three went out door-to-door asking for food, clothing, and money, Gradually they took in more people to care for, and more young women became members, dedicated to the dignity of the elderly poor.

Jeanne chose the name Sister Mary of the Cross but was commonly known as Mother Marie of the Cross. She would often say, “the poor are Our Lord.” Locals began to call her humble sisters and their hospitality efforts, the Little Sisters of the Poor. 

In 1851 a small group of Little Sisters crossed the English Channel to establish the first home outside France, in a London suburb. Spain was next, followed by Belgium, Ireland, North Africa and North America. In just the last decade, new homes for the elderly have opened in India, Peru, and the Philippines. 

Read more at National Catholic Register

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