Early Life and Early Hardship
St. Jeanne Jugan (1792 - 1879) was born in a coastal town in Brittany, France to a poor fisherman named Joseph and his wife Marie. Her father died out at sea when she was only 4 years of age. Because of the persecution against the Church during the French Revolution, Marie raised her children in secret in the Catholic Faith.
After the death of the husband and father, the family scraped by with Marie taking farming jobs and receiving help from neighbors. Jeanne learned her catechism and also how to read and write. She also was taught how to spin and to knit and worked as a shepherdess at an early age. Then, at the age of sixteen, she served as a kitchen maid for the Viscountess de la Choue. This would prove to be a turning point in her life.
The Viscountess that she worked for was a friend to the poor. She would visit the poor and the ill and bring them food and consolation. Jeanne would accompany the Viscountess on these visits, and she witnessed first-hand the generosity and love that was shown to the poor. Although, Jeanne was poor herself, she experienced the great joy of helping others who might be worse off than herself.
At the age of sixteen, Jeanne was of the marrying age. Nevertheless, Jeanne sensed that the Lord was not calling her to marriage, and, to her mother's surprise, she turned down marriage proposals. From her mother's perspective, by her refusal, Jeanne was throwing away the opportunity to have a more stable economic situation, and, of course, to have a family. Jeanne told her mother that she believed there was something else God had planned.
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Serving the Poor and Teaching the Faith
By the age of twenty-five, Jeanne was a Third Order Eudist, which was a congregation established by St. John Eudes. And, she also worked as a nurse in the town hospital of Saint-Servin. The nursing work was too difficult for her frail health, and after six years, she took a position as a servant for a fellow Eudist.
Jeanne and the woman for whom she worked began to teach catechism to children and to serve the poor until the woman's death some years later.
Finding others of a similar spirituality, Jeanne rented a small cottage with the seventy-two-year-old Françoise Aubert and the seventeen-year-old orphan Virginie Tredaniel in order to form a small community dedicated to teaching children the catechism and serving the poor.
Opening Up Her Home
When she was forty-seven years of age, Jeanne had another turning point. On a winter day in 1839, Jeanne encountered the elderly Anne Chauvin who was blind and partially paralyzed. Having no one to care for her, Jeanne decided to care for Anne and took her to home to give Anne her bed while she slept in the attic.
Soon, Jeanne had taken in two other women to care for them. With the support of her colleagues, they began to take in more and more elderly poor. By 1841, she had rented out another space to house more elderly poor. Other women joined the small group to help, and they supported themselves by begging.
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The Little Sisters of the Poor
Within a few more years, Jeanne had acquired an abandoned convent and was able to house at least forty people. As the little group grew, Jeanne wrote a simple rule to guide the group. In 1842, in the presence of Fr. Auguste La Pailleur, who was the parish priest of Saint-Servin, Jeanne was elected superior of the small group. This was the beginning of the Little Sisters of the Poor, although at the time, it was called Servants of the Poor.
The work begins to rapidly expand over the next decade. As word spread through articles in the press, requests came in asking the sisters to work in other towns throughout France. Indeed, within just a few years, additional houses were started in France and then in England by 1851. The demand for helping the poor was great, and many women answered the call to serve in the Little Sisters of the Poor.
By 1847, they were large enough and spread out enough to have a general chapter meeting. Oddly, Jeanne was not invited to the meeting. The reason was that beginning in 1843, Fr. La Pailleur, who had helped guide the group, decided to take complete control. Through his manipulation, he was appointed by the local bishop to serve as the spiritual director of the group.
When the sisters, re-elected Jeanne as superior in 1843, Fr. La Pailleur on his own authority, stepped in and annulled the vote and appointed his own spiritual daughter to be the superior. Over the next several years, he would systematically reduce Jeanne's role in the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Although she would remain in the Little Sister of the Poor, essentially, Jeanne was swept into a remote corner of the order she had founded and nurtured with her hard work and fervent prayers. Instead, of serving the order as its principle founder and guide, Jeanne lived in obscurity and was not involved in any of the order's decision making. Even more disconcerting was that she was not acknowledged privately or publicly by Fr. La Pailleur as the foundress. Instead, the priest took complete credit for the order and tried to erase any of the order's history which involved Jeanne.
In 1856, the motherhouse was moved to Saint-Pern, and Jeanne was forced to live there in retirement and continued obscurity among the novices and postulants. She was called by her religious name of Sr. Mary of the Cross and never referred to as Jeanne Jugan lest the secret be revealed. She accepted this injustice without complaint and lived a life of prayer and service to the other sisters never revealing the truth of her role as the foundress of the order. At her death on August 29, 1879, few of the Little Sisters, despite many having encountered her, were aware that the real foundress had died.
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A Surprising Response
Jeanne herself took this years-long blow in obedience and silence. Although many of us would have had a different reaction, she was not bitter. She saw it as God calling her to remain with Him. And, she never stopped praying for the work and for the sisters, and yes, for Fr. La Pailleur. Jeanne offered up her suffering and mistreatment for service to the poor. Her heart and mission had been to serve the poor, and that was what had motivated her to begin the order. However, over the last twenty-three years of her life, she was even prevented from directly serving the poor through her forced retirement.
After her death, in 1890, the truth was revealed and Fr. La Pailleur was investigated and subsequently removed from his position. Eventually, the Little Sisters of the Poor rightfully recognized that Jeanne Jugan was the foundress. And, in 2009, she was canonized St. Jeanne Jugan by Pope Benedict XVI.
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Feast Day (Memorial): August 29th