Saint Jeanne Jugan was born on October 25th, 1792 in Cancale France during the French Revolution. During this time, anti-Catholic persecutions were heavy in France and her family practiced their faith in secret. Roughly four years after her birth, Jeanne's father would
be lost at sea (he was a professional fisherman), leaving the family in dire financial straits. The family took odd jobs to keep food on the table, and when Jeanne turned 15 (or potentially 16), she was offered the job as a kitchen maid for the Viscountess de la Choue. The Viscountess was head of a wealthy Catholic family and would take Jeanne with her when they visited the local sick and poor, showing her the importance of putting her faith in action. When a member of the family proposed to her, she declined telling her mother
"God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet founded"
Jeanne continued this job for roughly 10 years until becoming a nurse at the hospital in Le Rosias. For six years she worked this very physically demanding job, eventually leaving to join a third order group founded by Saint John Eudes. She would make a dear friend here and together they prayed, visited the poor and helped teach catechism to the local children. When her friend was called home to the Lord, she joined with Francoise Aubert and Virginie Tredaniel to form a Catholic community devoted to assisting the poor and teaching the catechism.
In 1839, Jeanne met and brought home a sick and blind elderly widow (Anne Chauvin) who had no one to care for her to her house, letting her sleep in the bed while Jeanne slept in the attic. One, quickly became two in need of help and by 1841 they cared for nearly a dozen elderly people. In 1841, she purchased an unused convent building to house at least 40. Jeanne during this time had chosen the Christian name Mary of the Cross (Mere Marie of the Cross) and the community that arose to help take care of these people in need got its name from the local townspeople - seeing these women humbly taking care of so many poor, they named them the Little Sisters of the Poor.
For the next four decades, Saint Jeanne performed this mission to care the poor and in need. Her community would go door to door every day, requesting anything that could be used to help care for them (food, money, clothing) and by the end of the 1840s the foundress was able to establish four additional homes for more people in need.
By 1850, the order had over 100 sisters had joined the community. By 1853, the number had grown to over 500 with houses also now in England.
The Abbe Auguste Le Pailleur unfortunately forced her out of her leadership role in the community by preventing her reelection as superior and assigned her to only begging for donations in the streets. This priest had been directed by the bishop to take over the community and his ambitions caused him to begin changing the community's direction. The mission did not stop growing.
From 1866-1871, five communities of the Little Sisters were founded in America and by 1879, 2,400 women were members across Europe and North America. Saint Jeanne Jugan would be called into heaven on August 29 1879, with many of the sisters not knowing she was the founder. Le Pailleur was investigated and dismissed a year later and Jeanne formally recognized as the founder. In September 1885, the first foundation was laid by the sisters in South America (Valparaiso, Chile).
She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and canonized on October 11, 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI who said:
"In the Beatitudes, Jeanne Jugan found the source of the spirit of hospitality and fraternal love, founded on unlimited trust in Providence, which illuminated her whole life."
and that her canonization would
“show once again how living faith is prodigious in good works, and how sanctity is a healing balm for the wounds of humankind.”
Saint Jeanne Jugan's famous quote still guides us today:
“With the eye of faith, we must see Jesus in our old people—for they are God’s mouthpiece. Never forget that the poor are Our Lord. In caring for the poor say to yourself: This is for my Jesus—what a great grace!"
Today, the Little Sisters of the Poor continue their work across the world to care for the neediest elderly of every race and religion. If this article has moved you, or you have felt the calling in prayer, we ask that you visit their webpage using the links below.
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