On October 11, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI canonized a nineteenth-century French nun by the name of Jeanne Jugan. I for one took no notice. In the news of the day, I read of the canonization of Damien of Molokai but completely overlooked this second new saint. How fitting, as it turned out.
A year later, a theologian friend commented that one of the greatest examples of humility and holiness she knew of was Jeanne Jugan. If I hadn’t read her biography, I should, my friend said. I was so touched by the emotion in her voice as she shared how Jeanne’s story had affected her that I immediately ordered the book. It was not a comfortable read.
Open Heart, Open Home. Jeanne Jugan was born in 1792 in western France during the turbulent years of the French Revolution. Raised in a faith-filled home, she grew into a prayerful woman who felt called to serve the poorest. For years, while working as a domestic servant, she volunteered with various charitable groups. But God had a specific mission for her, Jeanne believed—“a work which is not yet founded.”
In the winter of 1839, Jeanne brought home a blind and destitute old woman and began to care for her. Other abandoned men and women, some near death, soon followed—so many that Jeanne ended up sleeping in the attic. A couple of young women were also drawn to Jeanne; they helped to bathe, comfort, and feed the increasing number of residents.
Jeanne and her helpers shared a deepening life of prayer and a sense of calling from God. Before long, the bishop recognized them as a new religious community and appointed a respected priest, Fr. Auguste Le Pailleur, as their spiritual director. A superior was elected—Jeanne, of course. Now almost fifty years old, she had arrived at the life and mission of charity for which she had been prepared for decades.
“My Poor Are Hungry.” The Little Sisters of the Poor, as the community came to be called, expanded quickly, eventually moving into larger quarters to take in more of the destitute elderly. They had very little money, so Jeanne went door to door begging for help—“collecting,” she called it. She became a frequent sight as she walked the roads gathering food, clothing, household items, and sometimes a little money.
Jeanne’s gift for collecting was legendary. One rich man she called on made a contribution; when she showed up again the next day, he was angry. But she smiled and told him, “My poor were hungry yesterday. They are hungry again today. And they will be hungry tomorrow too.” The man gave again and promised to keep on giving. As one of Jeanne’s biographers wrote: “Thus, with a smile, she invited the rich to think again and discover their responsibilities.”
Jeanne saw her collecting as also benefitting the people she begged from—giving donors an opportunity for salvation, as they obeyed the commands of the gospel. In her view, it was their chance to give to Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Is It Right to Be Silent? Up to this point in Jeanne’s life, her example spoke to me both on a personal level and in my work as leader of a large charitable organization. But then her story took a turn that left me puzzled.
It happened in 1843, when Jeanne’s companions again elected her as their superior. This time, however, the spiritual director, Fr. Le Pailleur, nullified the election and appointed the youngest sister, only twenty-two, to take Jeanne’s place. As the congregation grew and spread over the next decade, Le Pailleur claimed to be its founder and rewrote its entire history. He put a stop to Jeanne’s collecting and sent her into early retirement at the new motherhouse, removed from her friends and supporters.
Jeanne accepted this situation without protest or bitterness and lived in obscurity for twenty-seven years. When she died, at the age of eighty-six, the inscription on her tombstone commemorated her simply as an early member of the order: “The Third Sister.” By that time, not a single sister knew the true identity of the joyful old nun who had worked in the kitchen and had always been full of loving counsel.
My friend was right. Jeanne is an incredible example of humility. But I wondered: why didn’t she take a stand against this appalling injustice? It wasn’t because she was afraid of conflict—in her begging for the poor, she seemed fearless. Once, when slapped by an irritable man, she gently replied, “Thank you, sir. That was for me. Now please give something for my poor.” And he did. No, Jeanne was no doormat.
To me, Jeanne’s silent and meek response seemed like passivity imposed by an oppressive clerical culture, not a model for our day. Aren’t we called to fight injustice? To take a prophetic stance and speak out against wrongdoing? How, then, had Jeanne been able to accept what had happened to her and live out her life with such love and joy?
For the Greater Good. As I thought about this, it dawned on me that Jeanne had sized up her situation realistically. A respected priest had removed her; complaining to him or to the bishop would only have created conflict and jeopardized the community’s future. Jeanne judged that accepting his decision would best benefit the community and its outreach to the poor. And so it came to be. At the time of her death, the Little Sisters of the Poor numbered 2,400 sisters in 5 countries.
What about Jeanne herself? Her heart was set on serving the poor out of love for God. Could she have done this as a Little Sister of the Poor if she had opposed the community’s spiritual director? Surely not. In her day, nuns were expected to comply absolutely with a superior’s orders; any protest would have been cited as evidence that Jeanne was unable to abide by her vow of obedience. She would have been removed from the community, powerless to make any contribution at all to its success.
But in her hidden life, Jeanne was able to contribute greatly. She was often noticed praying in the chapel; this was undoubtedly a great secret of the community’s success. Though barred from leadership, she took joy in the opportunities that were open to her. From her humble assignment in the kitchen, Jeanne encouraged and counseled the young sisters as surely as if she had been their superior or novice mistress. They remembered and passed on her sayings, which were simple but powerful because they came from her lived experience:
—My little ones, never forget that the poor are our Lord. In caring for the poor say to yourself: This is for my Jesus—what a great grace!
—Refuse God nothing. . . . We must do everything through love.
—What happiness for us, to be a Little Sister of the Poor!
Jeanne never went out collecting again, but she inspired the young sisters to take it on—to embrace the rejection that begging would entail and turn it into a path to humility and holiness. She instilled in them the spirituality of collecting for the poor. “When we are given a hostile reception,” she would say, “this is something good for us and something we can offer to God.” To this day, the Little Sisters still go out once a month collecting door to door.
A Hero of the Faith. Without anger or resentment, for the sake of her community and its mission, Jeanne was willing to be humiliated, discredited, and forgotten. But God did not allow her to fall into oblivion. Ten years after Jeanne’s death, the most recent head of the order heard stories from local townspeople and asked the Vatican to investigate. Fr. Le Pailleur’s deception was exposed, and he was sent away to do penance for his sins.
In light of all this, Jeanne no longer looked to me like an impotent victim. She looked more like those ancient martyrs singing hymns and praising God as they were being led to their deaths in the Coliseum. She didn’t have to accept execution, but she did have to accept the death of her aspirations. I began to see that the love and joy she manifested were signs of strength and fortitude, not the cringing of a weak, feeble woman.
Now Jeanne stood strong in my heart as an exemplar of heroic virtue. It was not custom or fear of conflict that defined her path; it was strength, wisdom, and, above all, love. Now I could admire and humbly relate.
May St. Jeanne Jugan be a model for us today and for many others for ages to come!
Jim Cavnar is president of Cross Catholic Outreach (www.crosscatholic.org).