The worthy founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor may well have been permanently unknown had the schemes of a young priest come to full fruition. This is one of those rare turnabouts in which the priest was the subject of a Vatican investigation and the woman vindicated. But more on that later.
Let’s open the Two Weeks with Jeanne Jugan, born in Brittany during the French Revolution. Her father was lost at sea when Jeanne was four. Her mother ensured the eight children were provided for and despite religious persecution, reared in the Catholic faith.
Jeanne refused proposals of marriage, telling suitors and her mother than God was calling her to a work “not yet founded.” Before the founding, she lived the first three decades of her adult life as a menial worker: shepherding, nursing, and serving as a house servant for many years. With the care and devotion she gave to her employers, as well as her attention to a charitable apostolate, it seems clear than Jeanne was already living a deeply holy life. She joined a religious association for the laity, the Third Order of St. John Eudes.
The seed of the Little Sisters began to sprout when Jeanne, in her mid-forties, took a blind widow into her rented cottage in Saint Servan. Over the course of the following few years, a few other women joined Jeanne in caring for an increasing number of elderly women. Jeanne solicited donations and as her coterie expanded, her gentle effectiveness at persuasion had landed many admirers, supporters, and larger homes to accommodate her companions and those for whom they cared.
A young priest, Father Auguste le Pailleur latched himself to this work. Seeming to be a friend and advisor, he assisted in the organization and the recognition of the Little Sisters, who date their founding from 1842.
Ten years later, official recognition came from the Bishop of Rennes. At that time, Fr le Pailleur had maneuvered himself into the position of Father Superior General. He called Jeanne into his office, and ordered her to cease fundraising and ministry and to retire to a life of prayer. Postulants were told he was the founder of the Little Sisters, and that Jeanne was not even the first of his recruits. He had a plaque installed on the first house used by the Sisters. It 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.
For her part, Jeanne accepted this turn of events with docility. Her twenty-seven years of prayer are attributed as the reason the Little Sisters of the Poor became so fruitful in their apostolate, spreading around the world.
Clearly, Jeanne’s persuasive abilities with grumbling rich donors extended to a great influence with God.
I love this bit of advice she gave her sisters:
Jesus is waiting for you in the chapel. Go and find him when your strength and patience are giving out, when you feel lonely and helpless. Say to him: ‘You know well what is happening, my dear Jesus. I have only you. Come to my aid …’ And then go your way. And don’t worry about knowing how you are going to manage. It is enough to have told our good Lord. He has an excellent memory.
Jeanne died in obscurity, and a new generation of Little Sisters had no idea of the true history of their founding. A decade after her death, Fr le Pailleur was summoned to Rome. An apostolic inquiry uncovered the truth and the priest was relieved of his position and ordered to his own retirement in a convent.
Le Pailleur’s legacy of deception is now forgotten. St Mary of the Cross was canonized by Pope Benedict four years ago. He remarked that her example “show(s) once again how living faith is prodigious in good works, and how sanctity is a healing balm for the wounds of humankind.”
We can recognize the injustice of freedom denied, and certainly criticize it in those who offend so deeply against the truth. And yet, I think we see the clear example of Christ in those who keep their focus on the positive mission of the Christian apostolate in the world. Jeanne Jugan, Saint Mary of the Cross, is a worthy example for us.
Worthy link: The Little Sisters of the Poor American website, for more information on their community, their founder, and their apostolate.