Born on Oct. 25, 1792 in a port city of the French region of Brittany, Jeanne Jugan grew up during the political and religious upheavals of the French Revolution. When Jeanne was three and a half years old, her father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. Her widowed mother was hard pressed to raise her eight children alone; four died young. At the age of 15 or 16, Jeanne became a kitchen maid for a family that not only cared for its own members, but also served poor, elderly people nearby. Ten years later, Jeanne became a nurse at the hospital in Le Rosais.
Jeanne worked as a shepherdess, and later as a domestic servant. At age 18, and again six years later, she declined two marriage proposals from the same man. She told her mother that God had other plans, and was calling her to “a work which is not yet founded.”
At age 25, the young woman joined the Third Order of St. John Eudes, a religious association for laypersons founded during the 17th century. Jeanne worked as a nurse in the town of Saint-Servan for six years, but had to leave her position due to health troubles. Afterward she worked for 12 years as the servant of a fellow member of the third order, until the woman’s death in 1835.
In 1837, the forty-five year old Jeanne and a seventy-two year old woman named Francoise Aubert rented part of a humble cottage. They were joined by Virginie Tredaniel, a seventeen year old orphan and the three formed a community of prayer. They taught catechism and assisted the poor. Whatever they had left over from their earnings, they gave to the poor.
At age 47, with the approval of Francoise and Virginie, Jeanne turned her attention to the most pitiful of the poor-abandoned old ladies. In 1839, she brought home a blind widow named Anne Chauvin, an elderly woman who was blind, partially paralyzed, and had no one to care for her. Jeanne gave up her own bed to provide sleeping quarters for their guest. Henceforth, she was to share intimately in the sufferings of the poor, even physically, considering herself one of them. She soon took in two more old women in need of help, and by 1841 she had rented a room to provide housing for a dozen elderly people. The following year, she acquired an unused convent building that could house 40 of them. This characteristic is expressed in the name that eventually developed for Jeanne’s charitable work: The Little Sisters of the Poor. As the number of guests grew, so also did her little community. Jeanne wrote a somple rule for them and herself. Putting aside personal pride, theLittle Sisters daily went out door to door asking for food, clothing and money.
During the 1840s, many other young women joined Jeanne in her mission of service to the elderly poor. By begging in the streets, the foundress was able to establish four more homes for their beneficiaries by the end of the decade. By 1850, over 100 women had joined the congregation that had become known as the Little Sisters of the Poor.
However, Jeanne Jugan – known in religious life as Sister Mary of the Cross – had been forced out of her leadership role by Father Auguste Le Pailleur, the priest who had been appointed superior general of the congregation. In an apparent effort to suppress her true role as foundress, the superior general ordered her into retirement and a life of obscurity for 27 years.
Jeanne Jugan saw Christ in what Saint Teresa of Calcutta would describe as his “distressing disguises.” With great confidence in God’s providence and the intercession of Saint Joseph, she begged willingly for the many homes that she opened, relying on the good example of the Sisters and the generosity of benefactors who knew the good that the Sisters were doing. They now work in 30 countries. “With the eye of faith, we must see Jesus in our old people—for they are God’s mouthpiece,” Jeanne once said. No matter what the difficulties, she was always able to praise God and move ahead.
In 1879 Jeanne was eighty-seven. During these years, she served the order through her prayers and by accepting the trial permitted by God. At this time the community she had founded had 2,400 Little Sisters and had spread across Europe and across the Ocean. Toward the end of August, she was given the Last Sacraments. Her last words were, “O Mary, my dear Mother, come to me. You know I love you and how I long to see You!” After her peaceful death, Jeanne was buried in the graveyard at the motherhouse. She was beatified in Rome on October 3, 1982.