“Refuse God nothing … We must do all through love.”
This beautiful advice comes from a woman who gave her heart to serving God’s poor and subsequently changed the world: Her legacy is a worldwide congregation that carries on her service to the poor to this day: St. Jeanne Jugan.
Jeanne Jugan was born in Cancale in Britanny, France, on Oct. 25, 1792 and grew up in the middle of the violent atmosphere of the French Revolution. She was the sixth of eight children. The Jugans lived in poverty; her father was lost at sea when she was only four years old and her mother had to raise the children alone, teaching them catechism in secret because of religious persecution during that era.
Because of her circumstances, Jeanne had a limited education, taking a job as a shepherdess as a girl. At age 16, she worked as a kitchen maid to the Viscountess de la Choue, a wealthy Catholic woman who visited the poor. Jeanne accompanied her on these visits, and was inspired by her employer’s example. She soon began to feel deeply that God was calling her to serve his people. She declined marriage proposals, telling her family that she was being called to “a work which is not yet founded.”
When she was 25, Jeanne became an associate of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, also known as the Eudists. She learned about medicine and worked as a nurse in Saint-Servan for many years. When stricken with health issues of her own, she left nursing and worked as a servant for a fellow member of the Eudist third order. She and the fellow Eudist taught catechism to the local children.
However, Jeanne always felt that she could do more to serve God and the poor. In 1837, 45-year-old Jeanne, along with 72-year-old Francoise Aubert, and 17-year-old orphan Virginie Tredaniel, rented a cottage and formed a community dedicated to prayer, service and teaching. She became known as Sister Mary of the Cross.
The winter of 1839 was a turning point in Jeanne’s life. She took a blind, partially paralyzed woman who had nowhere else to turn into her home, giving her own bed to the woman. Soon, more people approached her for help; the numbers of needy grew so much that in 1842, she found an unused convent and converted it to a house to offer shelter to those in need. Her focus soon turned specifically to destitute elderly women; this was the birth of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
She established “Rule for Life” for her congregation; women in her community would have to spend time begging for the food, clothing and money necessary to continue their work with the poor. The begging was widely successful and made it possible for the congregation to open more homes to help the needy.
Jeanne’s reputation for aiding the poor had spread; by 1853, more than 500 women had joined the Little Sisters. Their work had spread beyond France into England and Europe. The congregation came to the United States in 1866.
A priest named Le Pailleur conspired to have Jeanne forced out of leadership in the congregation and have himself put in charge by a local bishop. She spent the last 27 years of her life serving the congregation in the simplest of ways. Many of the newer sisters did not even know that she was the actual foundress of the Little Sisters. In 1890, justice was served when LaPailleur was removed from his leadership role and Jeanne’s role as foundress was rightfully acknowledged, years after her death.
Jeanne died in 1879 and is buried at the Motherhouse at Saint-Pern. She was canonized Oct. 3, 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “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.”
The good works of the Little Sisters continue worldwide, now in 31 countries, with more than 2,300 members.
St. Jeanne Jugan’s Feast Day is Aug. 30.
She is the patron of the destitute elderly.
Read her biography at Franciscan Media here.
Learn more about the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States here.
Meet the Little Sisters of the Poor in the Diocese of Wilmington here.