Before the Little Sisters of the Poor were famous for challenging the HHS mandate, my daughter, Molly, volunteered at one of their homes for the aged. Her stories about the joy in that house so inspired me (An old folks’ home that is not depressing? People need to hear about this!) that I contacted them and set up this interview for Catholic Digest.
The Little Sisters of the Poor live a hidden life of service to the elderly poor. They have houses in 31 countries, and their foundress, Jeanne Jugan, was canonized by Pope Benedict in 2009. Sister Mary Bernard, lsp, was a superior in various houses for 44 years. She spoke to Catholic Digest about the history, mission, and daily life of her community.
Who are the Little Sisters of the Poor?
The Little Sisters of the Poor is a religious congregation, tracing its origins to 1839 when a humble French peasant woman, Jeanne Jugan, brought an elderly blind, destitute, and sick woman named Anne Chauvin into her home on a winter night and cared for her with Christ-like love and compassion. In that post revolutionary period when the poor of France were reduced to begging, Jeanne opened her heart and home to even more needy elderly, first in St. Servan, then throughout France. In rapid succession, other young women joined her, and the Little Sisters opened homes across Europe and Great Britain. By 1868, they had arrived in the United States. We are currently on every continent.
What sort of care do you provide?
While each of our homes is unique in size and layout, all are comprised of several levels of care. These may include a nursing home, intermediate care, residential or assisted living, and/or independent living apartments.
What is unique about your Rule?
In addition to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, our sisters promise a fourth vow of hospitality. It calls us to live on-site, forming one family with the aged and those who assist us. Our sisters keep watch day and night with the dying. Our rule mandates poverty—in fact, in heart, and in spirituality, and maintains a tradition of begging. We place unconditional confidence in Divine Providence.
Describe a day in the life of one of the sisters working with the residents.
A Little Sister begins her day at 5:30 am with prayer, offering herself to God upon rising. Her day unfolds: meditation on Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, morning rounds to perform the details of “hospitality”—assisting and caring for the residents. Because we believe that it is Jesus whom we serve in each resident, we do so with much love. Often a smile or a listening ear is enough to cheer them, communicate the family spirit, and show them we care about them. With a chapel in every home, the Little Sisters and the residents who wish to join them participate in the Eucharistic Celebration, Rosary, weekly Holy Hours, etc. (Those of other faith persuasions are free to attend services in their own churches.) At different points during the day, there is time for personal prayer. For a Little Sister, prayer and the sacraments are the driving force of her dedication, constant availability, fraternal life with her Sisters, and creativity in making the residents happy. The Little Sister’s day winds down with Evening Prayer, supper, and recreation. Night Prayer is at 8:30 pm. Before retiring, she again makes rounds to check on frail and sick residents. She thanks God for the day, prays for a refreshing rest, and slips into bed. She may be on call in case of an emergency.
Describe the residents’ activities.
I have been in many homes where we had a very creative staff member skilled in ceramics and other crafts who could teach the residents new skills and stock the gift shop. Items ranged from knickknacks, crib sets, and dishes. In a couple of homes, there were volunteers who taught oil and watercolor painting. One resident in particular was able to produce floral paintings and landscapes of quality. The more able-bodied would help in the bake kitchen to prepare goodies for the holidays and fund-raisers. One lady told me that, up until a year ago, she was making doll clothes by the dozens. Here in DC, we have a resident who had been a tailor, and for many years after coming into the home, he was kept busy altering the residents’ clothing. We also have more typical activities like Bingo, pet visits, and outings to parks. As families do, we celebrate feast days and holidays.
Tell me a story that shows the beauty of your work.
Her eleven children promised they would never place Mary in a nursing home, but she developed Parkinson’s and needed more assistance. She became one of our residents—but an angry, unhappy one. When her family visited, Mary remained in stony silence, often with closed eyes. As her condition deteriorated, family members, supported by the Little Sisters, took turns keeping watch at her side. As death approached, Mary seemed to respond to each one’s personal message whispered in her ear. Peace fell over all. In the end all were present, reconciled, praying and singing with the sisters. Mary’s eldest son confided that nowhere else could this have happened.
Do you have a steady flow of vocations?
In recent years our US novitiate has received about four to six candidates annually. On June 1, in Queens Village, New York, six novices made first vows and five postulants entered the two-year novitiate program. There are novitiates in other countries as well: the Motherhouse in France, and houses in Ireland, Columbia, South America, Australia, Spain, Italy, Africa, India, and the Philippines.
Although we have contacts with young women through our volunteer program, church collections, and in our rounds collecting, we do not have the wider exposure of sisters serving in social programs and schools. So daily we beg the Lord of the Harvest to send us generous young women who will join us to love and serve the elderly and continue the mission of St. Jeanne Jugan.
What is a typical sister like?
We all wear the same simple habit: white for nurses and everyone during the summer and in hot countries. Otherwise, the habit is black with a light gray veil. Characteristic of a Little Sister is her smile, her intuitive spirit with the elderly, her love for her vocation, her readiness to go anywhere she is needed, and her willingness to sacrifice herself in doing what is asked. We come in different sizes, too—not all of us are “little”!
How does your tradition of begging help the poor?
By “collecting,” the Little Sisters receive donations of all kinds that support the homes materially. Collecting also affords the sisters opportunities to spread awareness of the need for care and respect for the elderly, affirming their dignity and right to life, and it testifies to our love for the elderly, in whom we see Jesus. We solicit volunteers, and we alert people to societal and governmental maneuvering that steers money in other directions while ignoring the elderly and their important role in the world.
In 2010, Pope Benedict visited your home in London and said that the wisdom of the aged is a blessing for society. He said, “Indeed the provision of care for the elderly should be considered not so much an act of generosity as the repayment of a debt of gratitude.” How do we volunteer?
If you would like to enrich your own life and the lives of the needy elderly through volunteering, contact the home nearest you. Individuals, families, and groups are welcome.
This article originally appeared in Catholic Digest, September 2013.