‘Making the poor happy is everything’

15 December 2009

Eloi Leclerc tells of the self-effacing holiness of St Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor

Reaching out: Jeanne Jugan with the poor elderly people among whom she worked; from an icon of 2004 by George Pinecross WILLY BERRE

Reaching out: Jeanne Jugan with the poor elderly people among whom she worked; from an icon of 2004 by George Pinecross WILLY BERRE

JEANNE JUGAN was born in a poor family in 1792 near Mont-Saint-Michel in France. She worked as a maid and a hospital nurse, before, on the death of her employer in 1835, she and a friend, Françoise Aubert, rented accommodation in Saint-Servan, a village near Saint-Malo. Soon, a young woman of 17, Virginie Trédaniel, came to live with them. The three of them lived a life of prayer and charity. Jeanne did the house work and the washing.

At the start of the winter of 1839, Jeanne was 47 years old. The cold northern winds were blowing in from the sea when Jeanne discovered an aged woman in dire straits, blind, infirm, and abandoned. Her heart was moved. Now was the moment when God gave her a sign. With the agreement of her two companions, she decided to take the old woman into her home, giving up her own bed, while she went up to the attic to sleep.

A gap had just opened in her life into which the breath of God would sweep, with all the distress and loneliness of suffering humanity. A great adventure began, humbly, without discussion, without fuss, in a deprived garret. Soon, a second poor woman was welcomed, then a third.

A friend of Virginie Trédaniel’s, Marie Jamet, came to support them with her help. Another young woman, Madeleine Bourges, initially taken in when sick, became a precious help once she had recovered. Charity was contagious. In this way, a charitable association was formed, which adopted a rule of life inspired by the Third Order founded by St John Eudes.

The small community, with its rule of life, found support in the person of the young parish priest of Saint-Servan, Fr Le Pailleur, who became their chaplain. He would be an effective support, but also, for Jeanne, a source of great ordeals.

In 1842, the small association clarified its rule of life and chose Jeanne as its superior. This was the first stage in the formation of a new community. The following year, Jeanne was re-elected as superior. But, in a dramatic turn of events, Fr Le Pailleur quashed the election on his own authority and replaced Jeanne with Marie Jamet — shy, younger, and more malleable. Jeanne bowed to his wishes. Unperturbed, she carried on. The work was begun, and nothing could stop it.

THE WORK responded to a great need at that time: that society had nothing for elderly people with no resources of their own. There was no provision at all. Jeanne’s initiative came from a prophetic intuition. She was far-sighted. For her it was not just a question of giving poor elderly folk a home, and feeding them, but rather of giving them respect, consideration, and love.

As soon as it became known, the work was applauded in the highest places. On 11 December 1845, the Académie Française granted Jeanne the Prix Montyon. Under the dome of the Academy building, before a renowned audience, which included among others the writers Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, André Dupin gave a powerful eulogy about Jeanne.

In 1846, an English visitor, drawn by Jeanne’s reputation, went to visit her. Impressed, he wrote: “There is something so calm and saintly in this woman that, when I saw her, I believed I was in the presence of a superior being. . . I told her that, after having journeyed through France, she should come to England to teach us how to care for the poor; she replied that, God willing, she would go if she were invited.”

From 1846 to 1852 there was a torrent of foundations. Houses were opened in Rennes, Dinan, Tours, Paris, Nantes, Besançon, Angers, Bordeaux, Rouen, and Nancy. In 1849, the Congregation definitively adopted the popular name Little Sisters of the Poor. By 1850, there were more than 100 Little Sisters, in 11 homes, looking after 1100 elderly people. In 1851, the first house was opened in England.

During these years, Jeanne was present everywhere. Tireless, she hastened from one city to another. Here she opened a home; there she brought help to a foundation in difficulty. She answered the slightest appeal. She was the person whom public opinion knew and celebrated.

Jeanne’s work and her growing popularity worried Fr Le Pailleur; they offended him. He so wanted to be considered the founder of the work. However, this seemed to elude him.

In 1853, Fr Le Pailleur asked Jeanne to stop all external work, and to cease all contact with benefactors. In future she was to regard herself as a simple Sister, with no authority or responsibility. She would be known only by her name in religion, Sister Mary of the Cross.

Jeanne obeyed without protest. Henceforth everything in the Congregation would be decided without her. The work nevertheless continued to grow, in France and abroad. In 1854, the Congregation numbered 500 Little Sisters and 36 homes.

Deprived of any external work, stripped of all responsibility, and condemned to silence and oblivion, Jeanne found herself insignificant, far from the city where she had friends and acquaintances. Everything was taken from her. It was the desert.

She was still too large-hearted for self-absorption. She also had the companionship of the novices, whom she loved. There was no complaint and no bitterness.

Jeanne was clear-sighted, however. One day, she said to Fr Le Pailleur: “You have stolen my work from me. But I give it to you willingly.” Such detachment was not without suffering. She said to a friend who had come to visit her: “Do not call me Jeanne any more, but Sister Mary of the Cross.” Her friend gazed at her. Jeanne was silent: Mary’s silence at the foot of the cross.

One day, a novice learned from her parents about the true origins of Jeanne’s important role, and came to ask her about it. Jeanne simply replied: “Make the most of your novitiate; be fervent and faithful to our holy rule.” And then she added: “You will never know what it cost.”

What it cost would remain Jeanne’s secret. She could have objected and appealed to a higher authority, but she preferred to remain silent. She allowed herself to be stripped of what was dearest to her — the work for which God had destined her.

The calm and serenity that she demonstrated throughout these 27 years in the desert revealed the solidity of her faith, and the depth of her heart, made for loving, and incapable of turning in on itself.

Among the novices, Jeanne, revealed her founding charism: “Be little; make yourselves little,” she liked to say to them.

In this way, she explained what she lived herself and what made her so present: being little, to be close to the least. “Our happiness”, she would say, “is to be a little sister to the poor. Making the poor happy is everything.”

The poor are not happy just because they are given a home, food, and care, but also because, through the care they are given, they see that they are loved and worthy of consideration.

It is not enough to say that there was no bitterness or rancour in her heart. She marvelled at all that was beautiful around her, doing so with even more joy than if it were her own work. She admired the Congregation’s expansion throughout the world.

Jeanne saw God’s work in all of this, and her heart rejoiced. It was the joy of the heart of the poor — a joy expressed in praise. “One must always say, ‘Blessed be God,’” she said repeatedly in the evening of her life.

If Jeanne is offered as an example, it is certainly not because she suffered humiliation and injustice — many others have known this fate — but because of the way in which she lived this humiliation and deprivation, which enabled the luminous work of God to be seen in her, in all its purity and radiance.

This is an edited extract from Saint Jeanne Jugan by Eloi Leclerc, published by DLT at £5.95 (CT Bookshop £5.35); 978-0-232-52778-0.

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