“Jeanne Jugan was born on October 25, 1792, in the midst of the French Revolution, in the little village of Petites Croix, near Cancale (Ille-et-Vilaine), as the sixth child of a poor fisherman. At the age of only six years she lost her father, who never returned from a fishing expedition at sea. Twice the young girl received marriage proposals. Each time she declined. With regard to a sailor who asked for her hand in 1816, she explained to her mother: ‘God wants me for himself. He wants me for a work that has not yet been started.’
In 1817 Jeanne Jugan began to work in the Hospital Rosais in Saint-Servan, caring for the sick. In this connection she accepted the invitation of a certain Mademoiselle Lecoq to live at her house, not really as a domestic servant but rather as a friend and co-worker. With this pious lady she would call on the sick, day after day, for fifteen years and assist them. During this time Jeanne Jugan became a member of the Third Order of Saint Eudes in the Society of the Heart of the Admirable Mother (Societe du Coeur de la Mere admirable).
After the death of Mademoiselle Lecoq, Jeanne Jugan, together with her friend Francoise Aubert, rented a simple house in Saint-Servan; this served not only as their home, from which they went out to visit poor sick people, but also as a place where they took them in to care for them. The first woman they took in – and Jeanne Jugan gave up her own bed for her – was the blind, half-lame Widow Harraux.
BEGINNINGS OF THE CONGREATION OF THE LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR
This laid the cornerstone for the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which was founded later. Gradually, as the poor sick people who were cared for in the house were joined by still other poor, old individuals, additional helpers, notably the eighteen-year-old orphan Virginie Tredaniel and her friend Marie Jamet, came also to care for the sick, and, together with Jeanne Jugan and Francoise Aubert, they formed the foundation of the future community of Sisters. So as to provide the necessary support for this little community of Sisters, they began collecting alms. This was to become and remain a characteristic feature of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
In 1842 Jeanne Jugan was elected superior of the little community, which more and more was assuming the form of a religious order. On this occasion two priests stood by her side, namely, the secretary (later the provincial) of the Hospitaller order of Saint John of God, Father Felix Massot, who instilled much of his order’s spirituality into the women’s community as it was being formed; and the chaplain in Saint-Servan, Father Augustin Le Pailleur, who indeed was a great help to the Sisters but who began to falsify the history of their congregation, in that he eventually presented himself as its founder and allowed himself too much influence over its direction. When Jeanne Jugan was reelected the superior of the small community in 1843, he considered the election invalid and appointed Marie Jamet as superior, though she was only twenty-three years old, whereas Jeanne Jugan, at age fifty-one, was assigned merely to collect alms, and she was prevented from having any part in the direction of the institute she had founded. In 1852 she had to go back to the novitiate house, which was located first in Rennes, then in La Tour Saint-Joseph (Saint-Pern). Here Sister Jeanne Jugan, who after professing vows had taken the religious name Sister Marie of the Cross, was sentenced to apparent inactivity for twenty-seven years, until her death on August 29, 1879. During all these years, however, she was for the novices of the growing congregation of nuns the embodiment of the ideal of the Little Sisters of the Poor and the living rule of this institute.
Jeanne Jugan was endowed with heroic humility; in 1879; when she fell asleep in the Lord, the community of the Little Sisters of the Poor – which had been approved definitely on March 1, 1879, by Pope Leo XIII – numbered 2,400 Sisters in 177 houses, and these were not only in France but had spread beyond Europe and America. At the beatification of Sister Jeanne Jugan on October 3, 1982, Pope John Paul II charcterised her as follows:
‘AND HE LIFTED UP THE LOWLY!’
Et exultavit humiles! And he lifted up the lowly! These well-known words of the Magnificat fill my spirit and heart with the feeling of joy since I have just declared the humble foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor one of the Blessed…[A] close reading of the Position on the virtues of Jeanne Jugan, as well as of recent biographies about her and her evangelical charity, inclines me to say that God could glorify no more humble a servant than her. Dear pilgrims, I have no fears about encouraging you to read or re-read these works which speak so well of the heroic humility of Blessed Jeanne Jugan as well as of that wondrous divine wisdom which so carefully arranges events destined to help a vocation to flower and a new order to blossom, an order which is at once ecclesial and social.
Having said this, I would like to meditate with you and for you on the reality of the spiritual message of the new Blessed Jeanne. Jeanne invites all of us, and I quote here from the Rule of the Little Sisters, ‘to share in the bliss of spiritual poverty which leads to total abandonment and lifts the soul to God.’ She invites us to this much more by her life than by those few words of hers which have been recorded and which are so marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit such as these: ‘It is so beautiful to be poor, to have nothing, to wait simply on the good God.’ Joyfully aware of her poverty, she depends completely on Divine Providence which she saw in her own life’s work and that of others.
LIVING THE GOSPEL
Still, this absolute confidence did not make her inactive. With the courage and faith that characterises the woman of her native land, she did not hesitate to beg on behalf of the poor whom she cared for. She saw herself as their sister, their ‘Little Sister’. She wanted to identify with all of the elderly who were often so sickly and even abandoned. Is this not the Gospel in its pure form? (cf. Mt 25:34-41). Is this not the way which the Third Order of St John Eudes had taught her, ‘…to have one life, one heart, one soul, one will with Jesus,’ to join together all those whom Jesus singled out, the little ones, and the poor? Thanks to her daily exercises of piety – long periods of silent prayer, participation in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and reception of Holy Communion more frequently than was the custom at that time, thoughtful recitation of the Rosary which she never stopped, and fervently kneeling as she made the Stations of the Cross – the soul of Jeanne was steeped in the mystery of Christ the Redeemer, especially in his passion and his cross. Her name in religion, Sister Mary of the Cross, is a real and moving symbol of this. From her native village of Petites-Croix (in English, Little Crosses – was this a coincidence or a sign?) until her departure from this world on 29 August 1879, this foundress’ life can be compared to a long and fruitful Way of the Cross, lived in the joyful peace of the Gospel.
SIMPLICITY AND HUMILITY
Must we not recall here that four years after the foundation of the Order she was exposed to the abusive and public meddling of some of her first companions? She allowed herself to be stripped of the office of superior, and a little later she went back to the Motherhouse for a retreat which was to last twenty-seven years, without the slightest complaint. Saint John Eudes, her spiritual [father], used to say, ‘The real measure of sanctity is humility’. Speaking to the Little Sisters, she would often say, ‘Be little, stay little! If we begin to consider ourselves as something, we would no longer be praising God, and we would collapse!’ Jeanne really surrendered herself to the spiritual life. In her long retreat at the Tour Saint-Joseph, many novices and Little Sisters came under her decisive influence and she left on her Congregation the stamp of her spirit by the quiet but eloquent radiance of her life.
In our day, pride, the search for success, and temptation to power all run rampant, and sometimes, unfortunately, even in the Church. They become an obstacle to the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is why the spirituality of Jeanne Jugan can attract followers of Christ and fill their hearts with simplicity and humility, filled with hope and the joy of the Gospel, strengthened by God and by forgetfulness of self. Her spiritual message can lead all those baptised and confirmed to a rediscovery and a practice of that realistic chaity which is stunningly effective in the life of a Little Sister, or of a lay person whenever the God of mercy and hope reigns over her completely.
A GREAT HUMAN FAMILY
Likewise, Jeanne Jugan has left us an apostolic lesson in reality. You could say that she received the Spirit as a kind of prophetic intuition born of the needs and deep desires of the elderly: their desire to be respected, esteemed and loved; their fear of loneliness and at the same time their wish for independence and intimacy; the sadness of feeling no longer useful; and very often, a desire to deepen their life of faith and to live it all the more. I would even add that, never having read the beautiful words of Gaudium et Spes, Jeanne already secretly agreed with what they say about establishing a great human family where all men are treated as brothers (n. 24) sharing the world’s goods according to the law of justice (n. 69) which is inseparable from the law of charity. Though the structures of the social security system have done away which much of the misery of Jeanne Jugan’s time, still her daughters come across the misery of the elderly in many different countries today. And even where these structures do exist, they often do not provide the kind of home atmosphere the elderly so deeply desire and need for their physical and spiritual well-being. You can see it today: in a world where the number of older people is constantly growing…, the timeliness of the apostolic message of Jeanne Jugan cannot be disputed. From the start, the foundress wanted her Congregation not to limit itself to the West of France, but to become a real network of family homes where each person would be received, honoured and even, to the extent possible, brought to a new widening of his or her existence.
THE LITTLE SISTERS TODAY
The timeliness of the apostolate undertaken by this foundress can be seen from the fact that there are today constant requests to be admitted to these homes and to found new ones. When she died, two thousand four hundred Little Sisters were ministering to the needs of the poor and aged in ten countries. Today, there are four thousand and four hundred of them in thirty nations and on six continents. The whole Church and society itself must admire and applaud the amazing growth of this little seed of the Gospel, sown in the soil of Brittany, and here, a hundred and fifty years later, so poor in possessions but rich in faith.
May the beatification of their dear Foundress bring to the Little Sisters new strength to be faithful to the charism of their mother. May this event have the effect of drawing more and more young girls throughout the world into the ranks of the Little Sisters. May the glorification of their fellow country-woman be a vigorous call to the parishioners of Cancale and the whole Diocese of Rennes to the faith and love of the Gospel. Finally, may this beatification be a source of joyous hope for all the aged of the world, thanks to the great witness of that lady who loved all of them so much in the name of Jesus Christ and of his Church!”
– “Example of Courage and Humility for Today’s World”, L’Osservatore romano, October 18, 1982