By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
“Be kind, especially with the infirm. Love them well … Oh yes! Be kind. It is a great grace God is giving you. In serving the aged, it is he himself whom you are serving.” – St. Jeanne Jugan, Foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
KANSAS CITY — Walk through the doors of the Jeanne Jugan Center of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the first thing you notice is the peace. Residents, visitors, staff and volunteers cheerfully greet you whether they know you or not. Since arriving in Kansas City in 1882, the white-habited Little Sisters have established a palpable culture of love, kindness and care for the elderly and infirm. You can almost breathe it in as you walk through the halls.
That was what drew Marcella Benedict, then a widow in her 80s, to the home. According to her daughter, Barb Deane, Marcella was still fairly active when she moved in: still drove her own car during the day, quilted and saw her three children and friends often. Osteoporosis, however, was making inroads, and she decided to move to the Jeanne Jugan Center. Barb said the whole experience of her mother’s living and dying at the Center “was terrific.” Her brothers Tom and Jim and his wife Cece, joined Barb in attending Mass in the Center’s chapel, and then stayed to visit and have lunch with their mother on many Sundays.
Marcella had her own room on the first floor, but as time passed, she developed additional health issues, including gall bladder problems and macular degeneration, and could no longer live independently. She moved through the Center’s different care levels, first to assisted living and later to skilled nursing. Through the years, Deane recalled, her mother received unfailing “whole-person care,” personal, medical and spiritual. “The Sisters, staff, volunteers, everyone was always kind and respectful to Mom,” she said. And when death grew imminent, “the Sisters, the medical supervisor and staff did a wonderful job of preparing us.”
Little Sister Beatrice Mary Scully said “we truly believe in the presence of God in each person,” and when God calls a resident home, “it’s a precious experience.” She added that in the more than 130 years the Little Sisters of the Poor have been a presence in Kansas City, the Sisters have “had the privilege of accompanying 5,500 local elders on their journey home to God.”
The residents are elderly, often dealing with some physical disability or illness, and the close of life and return to God is treated with respect, dignity and caring. That is part of the charism, the special mission of the the Little Sisters of the Poor, to serve the aged, the infirm and the poor.
Marcella enjoyed a “high quality of life” at the Jeanne Jugan Center “because of the care she received,” Barb Deane said. “Words are inadequate to describe it. The kindness, the love and the respect shown to each resident, as well as the medical and spiritual care, relieve the anxieties of the families. Every day Mom was clean, groomed, makeup and nails done, earrings on. There was no fear about the end of life. It was an absolute blessing.”
Ella Howse, 65, a nursing assistant at the Kansas City home for more than 30 years, has fond memories of Marcella. “She was a good little lady,” she said, “and sharp. She loved cats, so I called her Cat Lady!”
She said Marcella was a “dedicated Catholic of the old school. But she could tease the Sisters and staff! She loved makeup and lipstick. She looked so cute! That’s the key to making them happy; treat each person with love and respect. Don’t forget, they had a life: work, husbands, wives, children and maybe grandchildren, before they came here.”
Barb described her mother’s last days: “Mom came from farm people. Her church and faith got her through things in life. She said the Rosary daily. So as she grew weaker, the Sisters arranged for one of them to always be with her, praying with her, holding her hand, watching over her.”
Sister Beatrice agreed. “We watch and pray day and night when death is imminent. We greatly encourage families to be there with residents at the end of life and we’re always available for them at this time. When death is near we alert the chaplain.” She smiled. “Now, our watching and praying doesn’t always end in death. We get surprises and a resident rallies.”
Ella said each sister stays an hour or more, singing and praying near the resident, “There’s peaceful music playing, a rosary in their hands, and nice, pretty sheets on the bed. The family is made to feel like they’re at home. The Sisters and all of us get to know them. We cry with them. We become like family.” She added, “Marcella knew she was dying and she was at peace with herself. So it was peaceful.”
Barb recalled that as her mother neared death, she heard one of the Sisters say, “’Call the Sisters.’ I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I was getting a sense of absolute peace, a letting go, in a good way. Sisters began gathering in her room, surrounding us. They began singing. I understand that is part of the ritual, the sisters gather to sing the dying person to God and to heaven. It was a Latin hymn to the Blessed Virgin. I felt a sense of release. I could let Mom go.”
Sister Beatrice explained the hymn was the “’Salve Regina, Hail Holy Queen.’ The wording is a powerful prayer to Our Lady for her intercession. We sing it at every death of a resident, confiding their soul to the Blessed Mother in those last moments. As Jesus said to Peter, James and John when he found them asleep while he was in agony the night of his betrayal, ‘Could you not stay awake one hour and watch with me?’ Daily, we each take an hour to watch with the resident, while at night one Sister watches. Each Sister says a different prayer or sings her own hymn to the resident to show her highest esteem for the human life. It has nothing to do with us. The beginning and the end of life is in God’s sacred domain.”
She said that as a resident nears death, other residents stop by to talk to them, sing with them or simply stroke their hands. Often they witness other’s deaths. It gives them a sense of security and peace: they know they won’t be abandoned, left to die alone.”
Barb said the message of the Little Sisters of the Poor is always the same: “They are here to serve folks regardless of their station in life. They serve them kindly, lovingly and cheerfully until the end. Life is a journey and the next part of that journey is to meet God. The Little Sisters will be with a resident and their family as they end one journey and begin the next. The end of Mom’s life was a gift to her and to the rest of us. My memory of her passing is so beautiful!”