The Powerful Witness of St. Jeanne Jugan, Foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor

Imagine for a moment that all of your life’s work was stolen by someone else. You spent years living in poverty, begging for alms, and serving the poorest among the elderly. There were immense sacrifices, charitable works, and fervent prayers offered in order to build up a new religious community. You were once in the public spotlight and admired by a great many people. Then, at the height of this accomplishment, it was all taken away. You were stripped of your leadership position and all memory of your founding role was erased by the priest tasked with helping in your mission. This was exactly what happened to St. Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

St. Jeanne Jugan was born in Cencale, France on October 25, 1792. Her father was lost at sea when she was nearly 4 years old. Her mother had to make ends meet by doing menial tasks. St. Jeanne spent her early childhood tending to their small herd of cattle on the coast near Mont-Saint-Michel. It was these early years of solitude among the cattle, breathing in the sea breeze, that would prepare her for a solitary existence in deep, intimate union with Christ on the Cross later in life.

She gave her life completely to God at an early age, and upon turning down a marriage proposal, stated: “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work that is still unknown…” After years of working as a maid, she eventually became a nursing aide. Exhaustion forced her to look for other ways to serve the poor. At 47 years of age, St. Jeanne began serving the infirm among the elderly, along with two other women in a rented flat.

The initial work with the impoverished elderly was intense. It led to the creation of a new religious congregation. The first few years working and founding the new congregation required everything St. Jeanne could give of herself:

On the face of it, all this foundress’s activities are crowded into the space of three to four years. For those few years, she is and does everything. Everything begins with and from her: not only the first foundation, but those immediately born from it. If one begins to wilt, Jeanne Jugan is sent, Jeanne Jugan rushes to the rescue. She is the one to whom everyone turns; she is the one whom the public know and admire. But soon, her true role stops being an official one. And then, suddenly, she disappears. For the remaining quarter of a century of her life, she is nothing to anyone, not even to her own congregation. Miraculously forgotten, you might say…. Forgotten for a quarter of a century.

—Gabriel-Marie Garrone, Poor in Spirit: The Spirituality of Jeanne Jugan, 12-13.

St. Jeanne Jugan was elected superior of the small association in May 1842. Her spiritual guide during the process, Father Auguste Le Pailleur, curate of the parish of Saint-Servan, was present. The association drew up a rule, inspired by the Rule of the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God. They adopted the name “Servants of the Poor” at this time. 

All of this was forgotten over a year later when Fr. Le Pailleur annulled the re-election of St. Jeanne as superior and he put Marie Jamet in her place. A short while later the name was changed from “Servants of the Poor” to “Sisters of the Poor” and eventually became “Little Sisters of the Poor.” St. Jeanne continued her work obediently serving the poor and her fellow sisters and superior. She was awarded the Montyon Prize and her work was covered by the press for the next few years. The congregation spread to other countries in Europe.

In 1852, St. Jeanne was recalled to Rennes, where she was ordered to cease all activity for the congregation and to cut ties with benefactors. The superior and Fr. Le Pailleur ran the congregation with no input from her. She was forced out. A short while later, she was sent to the estate of La Tour Saint-Joseph in 1956, where the motherhouse and novitiate would be. It was here that she lived in obscurity among the novices and postulants where all memories of her founding activities, sacrifices, and successes were wiped out by those in power.

St. Jeanne spent her days in prayer and service to the postulants and novices. Bishops, priests, dignitaries, and other guests to the house were unaware of her indispensable role in building up the congregation. She silently stood in the back as the history of the order was celebrated, with no acknowledgment of her part. She peacefully pointed out to Fr. Le Pailleur that he had stolen her life’s work, but she does so with the spirit of detachment that characterizes the saints. She freely and gladly gave it to him, rather than clinging to it for herself. Her work belonged to Christ alone.

These years of obscurity were not easy for St. Jeanne. They were her ultimate cross. The separation from her beloved poor was a particular agony for her. She wanted to be called by her religious name, St. Mary of the Cross. It was during these years that she would live the silence of Our Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross in union with Her Crucified Savior. She lived the silence of the Cross in order that her union with Our Lord would be made complete. Her interior mortifications and sufferings produced tremendous spiritual fruit for the Little Sisters of the Poor.

All of us have experienced in small or big ways this setting aside by others. We may have had worldly successes, acclaim, and esteem, only to find ourselves cast out a short while later. Relationships that were once of great importance are set aside in favor of newer ones. Our sacrifices and charity for the Church quickly give way to the powerful desires of others and we are forgotten or forced out. 

This is the reality of a fallen world. It is what we do in these moments of our lives that help shape us into the saints we are called to be. St. Jeanne Jugan offers us an example. We are to become silent, like Christ before Pilate. We are to embrace the silence of the Cross. This is the path to true freedom.

God’s ways are not our own. There are certain souls he sets aside for Himself who are called to attain high levels of spiritual union with Him. The only way this mystical union can take place is through the path of silence. This silence is often brought about only when God allows everything to be taken from us. We lose all worldly success and power. Friends, family, co-workers, and clergy turn away from us or betray us. We are forgotten and alone. We are at the foot of the Cross, and ultimately, we are nailed to the Cross with Jesus.

It is in these moments when the greatest graces are poured into our lives if we will endure and suffer patiently through the immense interior mortifications required of us. St. Jeanne once told a sister: “She who holds her tongue keeps her soul.” How difficult this is for all of us to accomplish. We want to retaliate against injustice and betrayal. Instead, St. Jeanne and countless saints show us another way. They show us the way of Christ. Our salvation is in His hands, not the hands of others, no matter how much power they seek to wield over us.

In an age of incessant noise, anger, retaliation, power, and cancel culture, St. Jeanne Jugan shows us the way. It is the way of silence and self-forgetfulness. To forgive those who would cast us aside and those who steal what we have accomplished. She shows us that our ultimate home is not here. Preparation for eternity must take place in silence where we enter into union with the Most Holy Trinity. St. Jeanne Jugan shows us the silence of the Cross and an abandonment to all He asks of us, even if everything comes crashing down around us. We are the most free when we cling to nothing in this life and we turn to God in our emptiness. He is all we truly need.

image: photo of St. Jeanne Jugan by Marie Jamet / Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By

Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate with an M.A. in Theology with an emphasis in philosophy.  Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths (www.swimmingthedepths.com).

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