By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Saint Jeanne Jugan founded the Little Sisters of the Poor in Saint-Servan, France, in 1842, a mere 40 years before a group of sisters arrived in Kansas City to establish a home for the aged poor.
This year, 2012, is a celebratory year for the Little Sisters, marking 130 years of caring for the elderly poor in Kansas City and 25 years at the Jeanne Jugan Center.
The Little Sisters first arrived in the United States in 1868, and in less than 10 years founded more than a dozen homes for the elderly poor. In early 1880s Kansas City, Mo., John H. Hogan, founding bishop of both the Diocese of St. Joseph and the Diocese of Kansas City (the two dioceses merged in 1956), watched Kansas City grow and prophesized that one day it would be a great metropolis. He also saw the increasing numbers of the elderly poor. Bishop Hogan wrote to the mother superior of the Little Sisters of the Poor in the U.S., “… I … invite the Little Sisters of the Poor to come to Kansas City, for they seem to exercise the Providence of God assisting and caring for the poor by the alms of the rich and by this means draw down the blessing of God on the rich and the poor.”
Jeanne Jugan was born in Brittany, France, in 1792, the sixth of eight children of Joseph and Marie Jugan. When Jeanne was three and a half years old, her fisherman father drowned at sea, leaving his widow to raise her large family. The family was reduced to penury, and four of the children died young.
To help her mother, when Jeanne was about 16, she went to work as a kitchen maid for the Viscountess de la Choue, whose wealthy family cared for its own members and served the elderly poor living nearby. A decade later, Jeanne became a nurse at the hospital in Saint-Servan. She continued working at the hospital and lived quietly in an apartment until she was 47 years old.
One winter night in 1839, Jeanne saw Anne Chauvin, old, blind, and paralytic, all alone in the cold. Unable to ignore her, she carried the old woman on her back to her apartment and up the stairs to her own room and tucked her into bed.
Jeanne and a few companions began an association, and received more members and more old women to care for. The association adopted a religious rule based on the Third Order rule of St. John Eudes, founder of the Order of the Sisters of Charity of the Refuge. Impoverished old women were cared for as if they were the companions’ grandmothers.
In 1841, Jeanne had begun begging on behalf of her poor old women, sparing them the indignity of begging for themselves on the streets of Saint-Servan. She walked the roads of Brittany seeking alms. Knocking on doors of homes and shops, Jeanne asked for money, food, firewood, gifts in kind—whatever was needed for her elderly poor. She was recognized by the begging basket she carried.
Although in 1843, Jeanne was removed from her office by a young chaplain, Abbe Le Pailleur, and assigned to begging duty, she founded six more houses for the elderly by the end of 1849, all staffed by members of her congregation, which that year formally adopted the name, Little Sisters of the Poor. The Saint-Servan home was known as the House of the Cross and Jeanne became Mother Marie of the Cross.
By 1853 there were about 500 Little Sisters living and caring for the elderly poor in houses throughout France and in England.
The congregation received diocesan approval in 1852, the same year Jeanne was forced into retirement by the abbe. It was recognized as a Pontifical Institute by Pope Pius XI on July 9, 1854. In 1856, Jeanne was moved to the new motherhouse at Saint Pern, there to remain, hidden from view, until her death in 1879.
The Constitutions of the Little Sisters of the Poor were approved by Pope Leo XIII for a period of seven years in 1879. By then there were 2,400 Little Sisters in nine countries. Six months later, Jeanne died at the age of 86, still hidden in the motherhouse. Thanks to Abbe Le Pailleur who had removed her from office more than 30 years earlier, she was no longer recognized as the foundress of the Little Sisters. He had rewritten the history of the congregation naming himself as the founder. That would change.
The Holy See removed the abbe from office in 1890 and not long after restored Jeanne Jugan as the founder of the Order. Her cause for sainthood was opened in Rome in 1970, and she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Jeanne was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
Since 1882, when Bishop Hogan invited the Little Sisters of the Poor to Kansas City, they have lived the mission of Jeanne Jugan in caring for the elderly poor.
At the time he sent his invitation, Bishop Hogan was interested in purchasing a former orphanage and its land, which was just south of the city limits at 31st and Locust. His priority was the building of his cathedral so he didn’t have the funds to buy it. He was hopeful, however and asked the Provincial Mother Superior to visit. She traveled to Kansas City, saw the property, and told Bishop Hogan that if it could be bought, the Little Sisters would come establish a home for the elderly poor. Bishop Hogan was successful in purchasing the orphanage, with the assistance of the McGaye, Ladd and Small law firm, who later became benefactors of the Little Sisters.
On June 30, 1882, six Little Sisters of the Poor arrived in Kansas City, and settled into the home the bishop had purchased for them, naming it St. Alexis Home for the Poor. That same year, the Little Sisters established an overseas mission in Calcutta.
Less than a week after the Little Sisters moved in, the first resident of St. Alexis Home, Mary Caffery Lye, was admitted. Mrs. Lye was followed by 26 men and women over the course of the next six months.
St. Alexis was home to elderly residents until 1922. By then, the residents had outgrown the Home and, as the city wanted to extend Gillham Road south of 31st Street, it would cut right through the property. It was time to seek another location.
Sister Beatrice Scully, who works in the Jeanne Jugan Center development office, said the spark that kept the Little Sisters going was the Holy Spirit. “He instilled the flame of the Spirit in Saint Jeanne Jugan, as the congregation she founded was meant to go global, and continues to ignite that flame in the heart of every Little Sister of the Poor.”
The Little Sisters purchased land at 53rd and Highland Avenue, and construction began in Aug. 1922. The cornerstone was laid by Bishop Thomas Lillis in 1923. Residents began moving in that December.
For almost 60 years, the Little Sisters cared for the elderly poor at the Highland Avenue home. Then, taking note of the aging facility coupled with neighborhood unrest, the administration of the Little Sisters decided they could not remain there. Residents were moved to other homes sponsored by the congregation until a new home would be built.
Twenty six acres were purchased at 87th and James A. Reed Road in southeast Kansas City, next to St. John Francis Regis Church. By the end of 1986, the first two residents returned and moved back in. The first building of the new facility, the Jeanne Jugan Center, was dedicated on March 19, 1987, the Feast of St. Joseph, their patron. Ground was broken that same day for an adjacent building housing 33 independent living apartments. The bell that called residents and Little Sisters to Mass and to prayer, presented to the Little Sisters in 1900 by supporters in the construction industry, is now mounted on a brick pedestal which frames the cornerstone from the Highland Ave. facility. The pedestal, surrounded by flowers and flowering trees, sits on a small island on the drive to the front entrance.
By the 1950s, 52 homes for the aged had been opened by the Little Sisters of the Poor across the United States. Then, during the 1960s, the Life Safety Code, first issued in 1913 and revised several times since, was revised again to address “construction, protection, and occupancy features necessary to minimize danger to life from fire, including smoke, fumes, or panic,” and, with the dawn of nursing home regulations, impelled the closing, merging, or rebuilding of nearly all the Little Sisters of the Poor sponsored homes in the U.S. Today there are more than 200 homes for the elderly poor worldwide, 30 homes in the United States and one in Canada.
Little Sisters of the Poor profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and a fourth vow, hospitality. The first three are offerings of all that they are and have — hearts, affections, personal talents and gifts, possessions and will.
Their vow of hospitality, Sister Beatrice explained, is a promise to see and receive Christ in the residents and their visitors. “We live with our mission, to care for the elderly poor with respect, love and dignity until God calls them home.”
The Little Sisters have lived that mission, providing respectful, loving care for the living and being part of the final journeys of almost 5,500 residents since Mary Caffery Lye entered St. Alexis Home in 1882.
Now, 130 years later, the Little Sisters of the Poor in Kansas City care for about 70 men and women with dignity and love at the Jeanne Jugan Center. St. Jeanne wrote that the Little Sisters were to “Be kind, especially with the infirm. Love them well … Oh yes! … It is a great grace God is giving you. In serving the aged, it is he himself you are serving.”
Sister Beatrice said much the same thing. “This is the work of God,” she said, “as well as a humanitarian effort. In these days, with the challenges we all live in, it is important for people to know that we are a 100 percent, unadulterated respect life vocation.”
She added that today, the Little Sisters struggle to keep their doors open every month. “We are confident that we will because God takes care of his poor. We want to continue for many years to help the elderly poor, and for that we count on our lay collaborators.”
That collaboration is most visible in the begging tradition of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Jeanne Jugan began it in 1841, begging for the old women under the care of her association, to spare them from having to beg for themselves. Although she walked the roads, carrying a basket and today’s begging sisters drive vans, the tradition is basically unchanged. Sister Christine Ng, the begging sister at the Jeanne Jugan Center, goes regularly to markets and businesses in the community to beg for the things the residents need to live with dignity and to help the sisters pay the bills.
Living with dignity has always been important to the elderly and since 1900, the number of Americans aged 65 and older has increased from 3.1 million to 40.4 million. At the rate the U.S. population is aging and living longer, it is expected that by 2030, one out of five Americans will be over age 65. Women generally outlive men by 13-14 years, and when widowed or single are especially vulnerable to poverty and elder abuse.
Currently, more than 1.3 million seniors live in homes or communities for the elderly in this country and as Baby Boomers age toward retirement, the number will increase. About 70 percent of the elderly need help with daily personal activities. Providing that help is the vocation of the Little Sisters. “We don’t want the elders left out,” Sister Beatrice said. “They may not be as productive as society views productivity, but their value is in the spirit.”
Sister Amy Kristine Kaiser, vocation coordinator at the Jeanne Jugan Center, said a vocation is really a desire to serve God. “God will use you,” she said, “for what he wants you to do. For instance, if He wants you to do something special with the Little Sisters of the Poor, your parish will be given the means to help you. For me the beauty of having a vocation as a Little Sister was to be ‘hands on’ for Christ.” Sister Beatrice added that there are currently 18 young women in formation at St. Ann’s Novitiate, in Queens Village, New York, named in honor of the grandmother of Jesus.
Talents, abilities and personalities are all taken into consideration when duties are assigned to the little Sisters. Sister Beatrice, a trained nurse, serves instead as the development coordinator for the Jeanne Jugan Center. Sister Monique Gallagher is an able administrator, and Sister Amy is “an exquisite hospitaller,” Sister Beatrice said, adding that the Holy Spirit guides the Little Sisters’ administration to use each sister’s uniqueness in the best way for the residents and for the Order. Mother Rose Marie Mayock, superior of the Jeanne Jugan Center, loves people and can talk with anyone. Her love of people and conversation, and her ability to listen is a special gift, Sister Beatrice said. Their vow of hospitality is a promise to see and receive Christ in the residents and in their visitors, she said.
Medicaid, the single largest source of long-term care financing in the U.S., provides health coverage to more than 4.6 million low-income seniors, nearly all of whom are also enrolled in Medicare. In order to qualify for admission to a Little Sisters sponsored home, a person must be 60 or older and Medicaid eligible or near it. Medicaid assures 43 percent of all nursing home care nationally. But, it only covers a little over half of regular operating costs of the Little Sisters homes for the elderly. Sister Christine augments it by begging, as did her predecessor, Sister Benedict Petry, who died in 2011.
Architect and fund raiser Becky Cotton received a phone call in 2005 from Benedictine Sister Anne Shepard, recommending she get involved with a capital campaign the Little Sisters in Kansas City had just opened. Cotton agreed to contact the Little Sisters as she knew the campaign chairman, Bob Reintjes. Since that phone call, she has engaged in many fund raising and organizational activities with the Little Sisters and has grown to love and respect them. “They are truly amazing women,” she said.
“Their mission is to care for the elderly poor and to address their needs respectfully. That will become a big issue as Baby Boomers age,” Cotton continued. Their hospitality, spirit, and joy continue to engage me and it shows in every Little Sister. You know, people may not be aware of the extent of the mission of the Little Sisters. They create a home for the elderly and they live with them and accompany them until their death. It took a confirmed miracle for Pope Benedict to canonize Jeanne Jugan, but the Little Sisters are engaged in daily miracles. Each Little Sister makes a difference in the daily lives of the residents.”
Cotton attended Catholic elementary and high school. “I’ve been around religious sisters, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the Sisters of Loretto, all my life. Each religious order has a distinct mission, a charism. The charism of the Little Sisters of the Poor is very important in today’s aging world, to care for the elderly poor.”
The Little Sisters in Kansas City plan several events celebrating their double anniversary this year, beginning with a Mass at 1:30 p.m., April 29 at St. John Francis Regis Church, next door to the Jeanne Jugan Center. The celebrant will be Father Richard Roach, pastor of the parish, and the choir will be the Benedictine College Choir from Atchison, Kan. A reception follows the Mass at the Jeanne Jugan Center.
Other anniversary events include Joan of Arc, a play presented by St. Rose Phillipine Duchesne parish May 4-6 at the Jeanne Jugan Center; a Summer festival June 3 and a Fall festival Nov. 11 and the “Of Saints and Miracles” Luncheon Oct. 30, honoring the Massman family. For more information, visit www.littlesistersofthepoorkansascity.org.