Little Sisters’ sesquicentennial year, a Jubilee of life, love and vocations

Bishop Johnston accepts the gifts of bread and wine brought to him by a Little Sister of the Poor and a friend of the religious community during the Aug. 23 sesquicentennial Mass at St. John Francis Regis Church. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Across the United States, the Little Sisters of the Poor celebrated the order’s sesquicentennial anniversary of their arrival in the U.S., during the Jubilee Year 2018-19, which closed on Aug. 30.

Here in Kansas City, the Closing Mass of the Jubilee Year was held Aug. 23 at St. John Francis Regis Church, next door to the Jeanne Jugan Center, the Little Sister’s Home for the Elderly Poor. This had been a celebratory year for the Little Sisters, marking 137 years of caring for the elderly poor in Kansas City and 32 years at the Jeanne Jugan Center. A gala reception in the parish hall followed the Mass.

The Mass was celebrated by Bishop James Johnston Jr., with Father Sean McCaffery, pastor of St. Regis Parish, Father Nathan Rueb, Parochial Vicar of St. Andrew’s Parish, Fathers Philip Luebbert, chaplain and resident priests James Hart and Michael Gilgannon of the Jeanne Jugan Center, and Father Patrick Rush, concelebrating. The priests were assisted by deacons Robert Falke and Jim Olshefski.

In his homily, Bishop Johnston said the Little Sisters came to the United States in 1868, landing first in Brooklyn, New York. They have been in Kansas City 137 years, arriving in 1882, the same year the cornerstone of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was laid. He raised a laugh by quipping, “They’re as old as our Cathedral!”

The Diocese of Kansas City had been established a mere two years earlier by Bishop John J. Hogan. He invited the Little Sisters to come to Kansas City and they opened St. Alexis Home for the Poor in 1882, “serving the poor for the love of Christ ever since.” Thus, Bishop Johnston said, the Little Sisters had been caring for the elderly poor “pretty much the entire life of our diocese. … they have been a very important, significant part of our local Church history.”

He harkened back to the First Reading, selected for the Mass, from the Book of Ruth (1:1, 3 – 6, 14b – 16, 22). The familiar story of Naomi and Ruth, is “a remarkable story of vocation, an unlikely vocation … a remarkable story of friendship between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law.” The bishop recounted the story – Bethlehem residents Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, with their two sons, left Judea during a famine and moved to Moab. Elimelech died and “Naomi was left with her two sons who married Moabite women,” Orpah and Ruth. About 10 years later, the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, died, and Naomi was left alone but for her daughters-in-law. She then heard that the famine in Judea was over and made ready to return to Bethlehem. Orpah kissed her goodbye, but Ruth stayed. When Naomi tried to persuade her to go back to her people and her god, Ruth said, “Do not ask me … Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God.”

The bishop reminded the assembly that in Bethlehem Ruth met and fell in love with Boaz, and was the great-grandmother of King David, thus a multiple great-grandmother of Jesus Christ. “This unlikely woman, born a pagan, played a significant role in salvation. Like Ruth, the Little Sisters leave behind their families, their homelands – Mother Margaret Lennon is from Ireland – and spend their lives caring for the elderly poor for love of Jesus. The Little Sisters of the Poor have been great witnesses to love, in my life and in the life of this local Church. They exhibit, in a beautiful way, the teachings of the Gospel – ‘The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. And the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Saint Jeanne Jugan founded the Little Sisters of the Poor in Saint-Servan, France, in 1842, a mere 40 years before six sisters arrived in Kansas City at Bishop Hogan’s invitation to establish a home for the aged poor.

One bitter winter night in 1839, Jeanne, who was working as a nurse, 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. The congregation she soon founded to care for elderly, poor women formally adopted the name, Little Sisters of the Poor, in 1849.

The first group of Little Sisters arrived in Brooklyn, New York, in 1868.
By 1878, the Little Sisters had 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), was watching 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 Provincial 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.”

At the time of his invitation, Bishop Hogan was interested in purchasing a former orphanage and its land, 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. Nevertheless, he 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. Less than a week later, the first resident, 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, when it became time to seek another location. 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 Little Sisters-sponsored homes until a new home was built.

A 26-acre site was purchased at 87th and James A. Reed Road in southeast Kansas City, next to St. John Francis Regis Church and the Jeanne Jugan Center opened in 1986. The Center was dedicated March 19, 1987, the Feast of St. Joseph, their patron. Today 100 elderly men and women call the Jeanne Jugan Center home, whether it’s independent, assisted living or skilled nursing.

Today there are more than 200 homes for the elderly poor worldwide, including 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.

The Kansas City Little Sisters have lived that vocation, providing respectful, loving care for the living and being part of the final journeys of about 5,500 residents since Mary Caffery Lye entered St. Alexis Home in 1882.

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. According to the Administration for Community Living, a division of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, about one in every seven is an older American. 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. There were 81,896 persons age 100 and over in 2016. Older women outnumber older men at 27.5 million older women to 21.8 million older men. In 2017, 33% of older women were widows. Almost half of older women (45%) age 75 and over lived alone. The median income of older persons in 2016 was $31,618 for males and $18,380 for females. Social security was the major source of income for most of the older population.

About 70 percent of the elderly need help with daily personal activities, and the need increases as people age. Providing that help is the vocation of the Little Sisters. Their vow of hospitality is a promise to see and receive Christ in the residents and in their visitors. 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.”

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. The operating costs are augmented by begging, a tradition of the Little Sisters since 1841.

The Little Sisters believe that their mission is more urgently needed today than ever as the United States population rapidly ages, new models of elder care emerge and respect for the dignity of human life is challenged. And they look forward to many more years of serving Christ in the aged, infirm poor.


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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph