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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Jeanne Jugan

April 6, 2021 saints No Comments


“The Seventh Commandment implies the obligation of assisting the poor and needy as far as we are able. . . . Our Lord declares the omission of alms deeds will be punished by eternal damnation (Matt. 25:46). . . . For many persons, without their own fault, are pitiably destitute, e.g. orphans, widows, the sick and disabled, the deformed, the insane, and the like” —The Gospels and Epistles of the Sundays and Feasts with Outlines for Sermons.
To care for the sick is a corporal work of mercy. Officially St. John is the patron saint of caregivers, for Christ handed him His Mother’s care when they stood at the foot of the cross, watching Him die. But St. Jeanne Jugan, whose name is virtually unknown, we shall call the unofficial saint of caregivers, for it was she who started the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Sr. Mary of the Cross, LSP, as she came to be known, was born in 1792, during the French Revolution. Her home was but a poor fishing village in France, but one day the order she founded there would exist in 30 countries around the world. Back home, priests were still being arrested and deported, and so her mother saw that she and her seven siblings learned their faith in secret.
Of all those executed during the Terror, more clergy were executed proportionately than any other group. Jeanne’s father died at sea when she was only four, leaving his widow to raise the family.
The second youngest, she learned, as many of her contemporaries did, how to spin and knit, though she could barely read and write. But at age 16 she was taken into the service of the Viscountess de la Choue, another Catholic. The countess would visit the poverty-stricken and sickly and take Jeanne with her.
In caring for these in whom she saw Christ, Jeanne found her vocation. Though she had chances to marry, she left them behind, knowing that she had found her true calling.
When she reached the age of 25, she joined the Associate of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, which was founded by St. John Eudes (Eudists). In this capacity she would work many years in the hospital, until her own health no longer permitted her to do so. When the physical labor was too hard, she became instead a “mere servant” of the Eudist Third Order, joining her superior in teaching catechism to children and continuing to help the poor.
But it was at age 45 that she reached spiritual maturity. Joining with two other women, one 72 years of age and one 17, in 1837, they formed a community. Two years later she found herself with a woman who was blind, partly paralyzed, and in need of care. She carried her home. One soon became two and so on, until after three more years they had ten women. This was the humble beginning of the Little Sisters of the Poor. By 1850, one hundred women had joined the congregation, started so humbly with a homeless woman sleeping in Jeanne’s own bed.
She also established a Rule to follow, which included time begging for the poor. Eventually, they had so many destitute women that in 1842 they moved to a disused convent, converted to house these poor.
Success can bring attention of the wrong sort, too. The bishop took notice and replaced Jeanne with Abbé Auguste le Pailleur as superior general. For the next 27 years, she remained a humble member of the community, begging for food. The majority did not even know she had founded the order. Sr. Mary of the Cross was fond of saying, “The poor are our Lord.” This sounds not unlike Mother Teresa, who felt that in loving her neighbor, beggar or rich man, she was smiling and embracing Christ.
By the time Jeanne passed away at age 86, August 29, 1879, the movement had exploded to 24,000 Sisters. The community gained papal approval and today Jeanne Jugan is invoked on behalf of the elderly and destitute; her feast is August 30. As the future saint used to say, “Take good care of the aged, Sister, for in them you are caring for Christ Himself.”
Fast forward to 1982, when she would be beatified by Pope St. John Paul II and then canonized in 2009 by now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The miracle that had brought about her last step of sainthood was the curing of Dr. Edward Gatz, Omaha, Neb., from cancer. At the time his cancer was discovered, it was stage three and he would have been lucky to live six months. Their priest recommended they pray to Jeanne Jugan, a name unknown to them at that time. And when his disability insurance became skeptical after two years that he was still alive, they wanted the tumor reevaluated. But there was no doubt. It was aggressive cancer, but now the patient’s MRI and exams showed no trace whatsoever of the disease.
Both the doctor’s father and brother had died young of cancer, aged 39 and 56. Even his mother died of it aged 45. At 51, thanks to St. Jeanne Jugan, he was a walking miracle.
When Jeanne was canonized, Pope Benedict cited her example out as especially poignant for today:
“Jeanne Jugan focused upon the elderly a compassionate gaze drawn from her profound communion with God in her joyful, disinterested service, which she carried out with gentleness and humility of heart, desiring herself to be poor among the poor. Jeanne lived the mystery of love, peacefully accepting obscurity and self-emptying until her death. Her charism is ever timely while so many elderly people are suffering from numerous forms of poverty and solitude and are sometimes also abandoned by their families. 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” (October 11, 2009).
Many in our audience will be aware that during the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act was passed, with Health and Human Services mandating that all employers provide insurance coverage for contraception to their employees. This is an offense against Catholic consciences.
After multiple court rulings and two visits by the Sisters to the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2016 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters, that they should not be required to subsidize birth control. Additionally, in 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order directly mandating the HHS protect the Little Sisters and other religious nonprofits from the mandate.
One would have thought this was the end, but then the states of Pennsylvania, California, and others went after the Sisters again in court, ordering the Sisters to comply or pay millions in fines. Pennsylvania’s act was outrageous, given that not one person had been denied contraception and many other ways were easily available to obtain these drugs. The court battle continued again. With their case wending its way to the Supreme Court a third time, the Sisters won again. On July 8, 2020 the Sisters achieved justice. These chaste, abstinent nuns had no need of contraception. That wasn’t even the issue.
In fighting this seven-year battle, the Little Sisters helped to protect conscience rights for us all. The case stood on whether the Trump administration had the right to make moral and religious conscience exemptions, rather than forcing contraception coverage down the throats of all Americans. The final word? Freedom of religion prevailed, thanks be to God.

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