Caring for the Elderly - Inspired by our Faith
Born in Cancale, in Ille-et-Vilaine (France), in the village of Petites Croix, on October 25, 1792, Jeanne Jugan was baptized on the same day in the Church of Saint-Méen during the upheaval of the French Revolution. Her father, a sailor like most men from that area, was away in Newfoundland for the fishing season. Four years later, he was lost at sea. Her mother remained alone to raise her four children (four others died as infants). At the age of sixteen, Jeanne began helping her family by working as a kitchen maid in a manor near Cancale.
She stayed there until the age of twenty-five, and then left home for Saint Servan where she worked as a nurse’s aide at Le Rosais Hospital. When a young sailor asked her to marry him, she replied, “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet founded.”
Jeanne Jugan desired only to serve God and the poor – especially the weakest and the most destitute – faithful to the ideal of configuration to Jesus through Mary, that Saint John Eudes taught to the members of the Third Order of the Admirable Mother, an association that she joined around the age of twenty-five.
One winter’s evening in 1839, she opened her door and her heart to a blind, semi-paralysed elderly woman who had suddenly found herself alone. Jeanne gave up her own bed… This act committed her forever. A second elderly woman followed, then a third… In 1843, they numbered forty around Jeanne and her three young companions. These latter had chosen her as superior of their small association which would gradually develop into a true religious life.
However, Jeanne Jugan would soon be ousted from this responsibility and reduced to the simple activity of the collecting, a hard task which she herself had begun. She had been encouraged in this act of charity and sharing by the Brothers of Saint John of God. Jeanne replied to injustice with silence, gentleness and abandonment. Her faith and love helped her to discern God’s will for her and for her religious family.
As the years passed by, Jeanne Jugan was more and more shrouded in obscurity. The beginnings of her work were falsified. She was kept in the background for twenty-seven years (1852 to 1879), four at the Home in Rennes, and the last twenty-three years of her long life at La Tour Saint Joseph, the Motherhouse of the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor since 1856.
At the time of her death, on August 29, 1879, she was 86. Few Little Sisters knew that she was the foundress, but her influence on the young postulants and novices, whose life she shared during those twenty-seven years, proved to be decisive. During this prolonged contact, the initial charism was passed on, the spirit of the beginnings was transmitted.
Little by little, light was shed on the situation… In 1902, the truth began to emerge: Jeanne Jugan, Sister Mary of the Cross, who died in oblivion a quarter of a century earlier, was not the third Little Sister, as everyone had been led to believe, but the first, the Foundress!