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June 21, 2009

Founder headed to sainthood Little Sisters of the Poor ‘thrilled’ about canonization

By Kristin Peterson


The Little Sisters of the Poor in the Chicago area and worldwide are thrilled about the upcoming canonization of their founder, Blessed Jeanne Jugan, on Oct. 11. Pope John Paul II beatified Jugan in 1982, and Pope Benedict XVI gave final approval for her canonization on Feb. 21.

“It was a joy and excitement that could not be put into words,” said Sister Maureen Courtney about the announcement of the canonization. Courtney is one of the Little Sisters of the Poor who lives at St. Mary’s Home in Lincoln Park.

As a young person in France in the early 19th century, Blessed Jeanne Jugan felt a call to serve God but she didn’t know in what way. Jugan realized her calling when she recognized the presence of Jesus in an elderly, blind and infirm woman who needed to be cared for. As Jugan cared for this elderly woman, more needy old women arrived at her doorstep.

Jugan was joined by a small group of young women who wanted to help care for the elderly people, and in 1839, the Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor was born.

Today the sisters do the same work, caring for the poor elderly at homes throughout the United States and the world. The Little Sisters of the Poor came to Chicago in 1876 and ran three homes at one time. Now they run St. Mary’s Home on Lakewood Avenue and St. Joseph’s Home in Palatine.

At the home in Chicago there are 76 nursing beds and 58 independent living apartments, and 14 sisters are a part of that community. At the Palatine home, there are 67 nursing beds and 34 independent living apartments. Sixteen sisters live in that community.

“We consider our home as family- like,” explained Courtney. The sisters are joined by lay staff members and volunteers to care for the elderly, and they all form a “little family.”

Vow of hospitality

In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Little Sisters of the Poor take a fourth vow of hospitality to care for the aged poor. “The people are cared for as we would treat Christ,” Courtney said.

The family atmosphere is apparent when you visit St. Mary’s Home in Chicago. Everyone greets each other with a smile in the hallways, and the residents are known by name. Each of the rooms has its own unique touch since the residents are able to bring some of their own furniture, framed photos, decorations, quilts and other items from home.

Several events are planned each week for the residents to stay active and to spend time with each other. There are celebrations for birthdays and holidays, Masses and religious services, craft-making activities and outdoor picnics.

To support the work that they do, the Little Sisters of the Poor continue the tradition that Jugan started — they beg for money. The sisters today get some money from Medicaid, but they still need to go to businesses, churches, organizations and other places to ask for money.

Still needed

With more people living longer and limited healthcare resources, the work that the Little Sisters of the Poor do is just as relevant today as it was 170 years ago.

“We are following Christ by caring for the aged,” Courtney said. “You have to take care of someone until God wants them.”

Joan Thiry has lived in the independent living apartments connected to St. Mary’s home for six years. “I appreciate enormously what the Little Sisters of the Poor do. They don’t let people die alone,” she said.

Since moving to the apartments, Thiry has been reading about the life of Blessed Jeanne. She is now doing whatever she can to spread the word about Jugan’s life.

“She is the absolute right saint of this time because of her concern for the elderly,” Thiry said. “Her life helps me to help the elderly poor not only here but anywhere I possibly can.”

There will always be older people who cannot afford proper care, and the Little Sisters of the Poor will carry on Jugan’s work.

“I am confident that this work is going to continue, but we need to pray for vocations,” said Courtney. “We do have some vocations but not as many as before. We know that we need more women to follow us.”

While Jugan’s work began by simply caring for one poor elderly woman, it has now grown to caring for poor elderly people throughout the world.

“What she did in her life is continuing today,” Courtney said. “Her passion and her example are bearing fruit today.”