Humble Friend of the Poor
by Sandra Miesel
Though overlooked by many during her lifetime, Jeanne Jugan—now St. Marie de la Croix—founded an order that cares for thousands of the poor and sick around the globe today.
Saints are supposed to be humble. Few have been as quietly humble as Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who was canonized by Benedict XVI on October 11 as St. Marie de la Croix. Through humility she achieved what T.S. Eliot called
“A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything.)”
That simplicity lives on today in Jeanne’s religious daughters, who serve the elderly poor throughout the world.
Jeanne was a poor fisherman’s daughter, born at Cancale in Brittany on October 25, 1792, during the French Revolution. Her parish priest, who had conformed to the Revolutionary regime, left the village within a few years. Women kept the faith alive through private instruction. They defiantly continued their pilgrimages to pray for the safety of their men at sea. After Napoleon made peace with the Church in 1802, Mass returned and Jeanne was able to receive the sacraments.
Jeanne’s father drowned before she was four years old. Her mother scrabbled hard to keep her four children alive. Breton women were famously hardy and used to giving each other mutual support. Jeanne did her part by watching cows, spinning, and knitting. By age 15, she went out to work as a kitchen maid at a country estate. The kindly lady of the manor took Jeanne along when distributing food to the poor. This apprenticeship in discreet giving would prove invaluable to her in later years.
In 1816, Jeanne attended a huge parish mission, part of a national re-evangelization effort begun after the Revolution. During the program, she felt the stirrings of a divine call that would not soon take form. “God wants me for himself,” she told her family. “He is keeping me for a work as yet unknown, for a work which is not yet founded.” Jeanne rejected a patient suitor and chose celibacy. The following year, she left home for employment at a hospital in the nearby town of Saint-Servran.
The Revolution and Napoleon’s wars had taken a heavy toll on France. Beside social upheaval and military casualties, unemployment and famine drove hordes of beggars across the countryside. Old forms of relief for the poor—religious, civic, and private—were overwhelmed. In Saint-Servan, where four persons out of 10 were destitute, the town government tried to limit alms to licensed local beggars. The under-funded institution where Jeanne worked for the next six years was a refuge of last resort, not a place to get well. Although she learned rudimentary nursing skills there, her own health broke under the strain.
Fortunately, an older friend took Jeanne on as a maid and companion, allowing her time and rest to restore her strength. Both women belonged to the Society of the Heart of the Admirable Mother, a Third Order for laywomen founded by St. John Eudes, the great home missionary of 17th century France. Jeanne and her friend followed a regular schedule of prayer and taught catechism to parish children. After her friend died, Jeanne found a new roommate and supported herself as a maid, laundress, and nurse.
In 1839, 25 years after her initial call, Jeanne found her life’s work when she gave up her own bed to a homeless old blind woman. A second elderly guest and a young orphan soon joined them. Jeanne gave up her day-jobs to help support the household by begging. (The residents themselves also spun and knitted goods to sell.) Within two years, they had moved to larger quarters and were caring for 12 “good women.” To better meet the never-ending need, Jeanne and three young friends established a pious association called Servants of the Poor in 1842. They purchased their first residence that year and attracted favorable notice from their bishop.
Cheerful, discreet, and persistent, Jeanne had a charism for begging, despite her initial reluctance to do it. “She collected by praising God,” one observer recalled. Turned away, slapped, or even shoved down stairs, she managed to keep her begging basket full. Jeanne was not simply helping the poor—she made herself one of them. The whole town was drawn into collaboration, giving money, goods, and labor to the ever-growing enterprise. Whether the need was firewood or butter, donations had a way of materializing exactly when required.
As Jeanne and her companions were evolving into a religious community, they received valuable encouragement from a male nursing order, the Brothers of St. John of God, and from a local secular priest, Father Augustin Le Pailleur. But in 1843, shortly after the women had elected Jeanne their superior for the second time, Father Le Pailleur abruptly annulled the election and installed a younger woman of his own choosing in her place. Forty years later, he was still claiming credit for founding the community himself—under the sudden inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Jeanne submitted. She never denied Father Le Pailleur’s version of history, then or later. The name she took under private vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and hospitality as a “Sister of the Poor” the following year was Marie de la Croix, a reflection as well as a prophecy of her life.
But as far as the public knew, Jeanne was still in charge. Local dignitaries—prodded by Father Le Pailleur—brought her to the attention of the French Academy, which awarded “Mlle. Jeanne Jugan” a prize of 3,000 francs for her good deeds. Even the usually anti-clerical Freemasons sent her a gold medal, which Jeanne had melted down and turned into a chalice for the sisters’ chapel.
“The little work” flourished. Within a decade, there were 15 foundations from Brittany to Paris to London served by more than 300 sisters. Jeanne walked everywhere across northern France, ringing doorbells for God and her beloved poor. The mention of her name could open the tightest purse. Her community, now called the Little Sisters of the Poor, received episcopal approval as a religious congregation on May 29, 1852.
No sooner was this done than Father Le Pailleur ordered Jeanne off the roads and into the motherhouse for the remainder of her life. As Father Superior-General of the community, he wanted Jeanne safely hidden away while he polished his self-aggrandizing falsehoods about the foundation.
Meanwhile, Jeanne spent her days quietly living among the postulants and novices at the congregation’s motherhouse, La Tour de Saint-Joseph, in the countryside outside Rennes, Brittany. Her steady kindness, joy, and simplicity, her unshakeable sense of “littleness before God” and gratitude for his blessings, seeped into the hearts of her young colleagues. Jeanne Jugan melted away completely into Sr. Marie de la Croix. She had been “grafted onto the Cross.” Only once did her superiors consult her, over the question of accepting endowments. They accepted her advice to rely on God’s Providence alone. It was a tacit admission that she was the guardian of the community’s true spirit. Corporate poverty was duly written into the Rule, which was approved by Pope Leo XIII on March 1, 1879.
In her final years, Sr. Marie de la Croix had gone blind: “Now all I can see is God.” She died, apparently of a heart attack, on August 28, 1879. No immediate public announcement was made, perhaps because it would disrupt the celebration of Father Le Pailleur’s patron saint’s day, the feast of St. Augustine.
Nevertheless, truth did prevail. At the request of the Mother General of the Little Sisters, a Vatican investigation in 1890 uncovered the truth about Father Le Pailleur and sent the overweening cleric to his own exile in a Roman convent. Once Jeanne Jugan was rightfully acknowledged as the real foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, her reputation for sanctity spread in ever-widening arcs. After a diocesan investigation in 1935, the cause for her canonization was formally introduced in Rome in 1970. She was declared Venerable in 1979 and beatified in 1982. Jeanne’s canonization was authorized this spring after an Omaha man’s cure of metastasized cancer of the esophagus was declared miraculous. As Pope John Paul II declared at her beatification: “God could glorify no more humble a servant than she!”
Published originally in the Catholic World Report.
My article on St Jeanne, is found here...
St Jeanne Pray for us.
Dieu le Roy,