Saint Jeanne Jugan
Jeanne Jugan was born in 1792 in a small fishing village in Brittany, France. When she was almost four, her father was lost at sea, and her impoverished mother was left to raise eight children alone in a one-room earthen-floored cottage. In the midst of French Revolutionary anti-Catholic fervor, Jeanne’s mother secretly instructed her children in the Catholic faith. When Jeanne was 16, she became the kitchen maid to a wealthy aristocrat, who took her on visits to the poor and sick on and around her estate. At age 18, and again six years later, Jeanne declined proposals of marriage, telling her mother that God was calling her to “a work which is not yet founded.”
Jeanne took up work in a hospital, and as her faith deepened she and two other women began to live in a community of prayer and assistance to the poor. One night in the winter of 1839, Jeanne saw a blind, paralyzed old woman out in the cold with no one to care for her. Jeanne carried the old woman home and placed her in her own bed. It was the beginning of Jeanne’s ministry to the elderly. The work developed rapidly. Many elderly women were brought to her doorstep and Jeanne and her growing group of companions offered them care and hospitality.
Jeanne traveled the roads of France on foot seeking donations. She became widely recognized by the basket she carried. By the 1840s, a large number of young women had joined Jeanne’s group and followed her example. In 1842, the group moved into an unused convent and began to take on the rule of a religious community to which Jeanne was elected superior. By the late 1840s, a house had been established in Tours, France, and over 100 women had joined what was becoming known as the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Jeanne was fated to suffer persecution, however, as a priest who had been appointed superior general of the congregation forced her from her leadership position, tried to suppress her role as foundress, and ordered her into retirement and a life of obscurity for 27 years, until her death. She accepted these sufferings with humility and forbearance. At the time of her death on August 29, 1879, at age 86, she was not known to have founded the order that then included 2,400 women and was beginning to spread across Europe and to North America. Her persecutor was eventually investigated and disciplined, and her reputation was restored. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II and then canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Today, the Little Sisters of the Poor serve the elderly poor in 31 countries.
Jeanne Jugan’s feast day is August 30.
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