Once shunned and forgotten, Little Sisters of the Poor founder Jeanne Jugan now shines 

St. Jeanne Jugan Portrait of St. Jeanne Jugan (1792–1879), foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, by Léon Brune 1855. | Public domain

The French saint Jeanne Jugan (1792–1879), whose feast day is celebrated Aug. 30, founded the congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which spread throughout the world, including to the United States. Her intuition for caring for the elderly poor is acclaimed today, but what is less well known is that, unlike other founders of religious orders, Jeanne Jugan spent much of her life forgotten, sidelined by her own congregation. 

Born in Cancale in the French region of Brittany on Oct. 25, 1792, Jeanne, a sailor’s daughter, knew at an early age that she wanted to devote herself to God. According to the website of the Little Sisters of the Poor, at the age of 25, she joined the third order founded by St. John Eudes in the 17th century, worked as a nurse’s aide, and had only one desire: to serve God in the poorest of the poor.

One winter’s evening in 1839, Jeanne’s life changed drastically: In the freezing cold, she discovered a blind and crippled old woman. Moved by compassion, she carried the woman on her shoulders to her humble attic, laying her in her own bed. She brought a second old woman home shortly after that, then a third. Four years later, in 1843, an association had grown up around these first acts of service. At that time, Jeanne was joined by three companions, serving some 40 elderly people.

House of La Tronche, France, 2022. Photo credit: Little Sister of the Poor
House of La Tronche, France, 2022. Photo credit: Little Sister of the Poor

But soon, Jeanne Jugan — who in religious life would become Sister Marie de la Croix — was severely sidelined. Based on false stories, she was stripped of her position as superior and sent out to beg for the support of the houses opening all over France. 

“She kept quiet and silently accepted being sidelined," explained Sister Sophie, a member of the general council at the mother house, in an interview with CNA. “That’s Jeanne Jugan: stepping aside in the belief that God’s work is more important than anything she may have done… [Her] concern was for the poor, the elderly poor, and her spirituality was centered on Christ. That’s what it’s all about. If she agreed to keep silent, it was because everything was for Christ.”

Between 1843 and 1852, Jeanne collected financial support from donors and founded several houses in France. There is a story that she may have been visited by the English novelist Charles Dickens. The Breton newspapers praised her, and she also received the prestigious Montyon prize from the Académie Française for her work. But in her congregation, her unjust ostracism continued. In 1852, she was recalled to the city of Rennes, then to La Tour St. Joseph, the mother house of the congregation, with the instruction to cease all activity and all relations with benefactors.

This forced retirement lasted until Jeanne’s death at age 86 on Aug. 29, 1879, in obscurity and oblivion. She left no written records. However, her spiritual legacy left a strong imprint on the congregation. Indeed, for Sister Sophie, “it was providence that allowed Father [Auguste] Le Pailleur, who had taken over the leadership of the congregation, to bring her back to the mother house, to the heart of the novices. All the novices who passed through for generations saw her, rubbed shoulders with her, spoke with her. And even if she wasn’t the formator, she communicated her spirit in little phrases, like ‘Take good care of the good old people’; ‘What you do is for Jesus.’ We’re reaping the rewards today.”

House of St Pern, France, 2022. Photo credit: Little Sister of the Poor
House of St Pern, France, 2022. Photo credit: Little Sister of the Poor

More than 20 years after her death, from 1902 onward, light began to be shed on the life of Jeanne Jugan and her reputation began to be rehabilitated. Her words of wisdom, recounted by the nuns who knew her, now enlighten the spirit of the Little Sisters of the Poor today. “In your troubles, always say ‘Blessed be God, thank you my God, or glory to God,’” she used to say. 

Jeanne Jugan was beatified on Oct. 3, 1982, by Pope John Paul II and canonized on Oct. 11, 2009, by Pope Benedict XVI.

Over the years, Jeanne Jugan’s order has grown. Today, the Little Sisters of the Poor is a religious congregation with 1,400 members in over 200 homes in 31 countries on five continents. The congregation has kept the care of the elderly poor as its priority.

“In France, all the houses are called ‘Ma Maison,’ in other countries it may be ‘casa’, or ‘home’ ... we really want [the elderly] to be at home and for these houses to be for the poorest,” Sister Sophie said.

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