Little Sisters mark 150 years of loving care of elderly poor in Washington

Little Sisters mark 150 years of loving care of elderly poor in Washington

WASHINGTON – Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory celebrated a Mass Aug. 14
to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival in Washington of
the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order whose service to the
elderly poor in the nation’s capital began just after the Civil War and
continues in the digital age.

“Arriving here in the United States 150 years ago from
France, most had to learn English and American customs and ways,” Cardinal
Gregory said in his homily during the Mass celebrated in the chapel of
the Little Sisters’ Jeanne Jugan Residence in Northeast Washington.

When they arrived in Washington, they “found hundreds if not
thousands of neglected poor people,” he said. “They went right to
work and quite successfully to become sisters of these forgotten
individuals. They continue to do so 150 years later.”

The cardinal noted the religious order
chose Little Sisters as its name.

“They are and choose to be servant relatives to the countless
people in our community –  and other such
communities throughout the globe – who are needy, neglected, poor, elderly and
often alone,” he said, adding that as Little Sisters, they
become “younger sisters and relatives of those that they care
for with such dedication.”

“They care for the elderly laity and clergy with
a little sister’s compassionate heart,” he said, and “they
have won the hearts of people” not only in the District of Columbia,
Maryland and Virginia “but also throughout our nation and beyond.”

Washington’s archbishop praised
the Little Sisters as examples of Jesus’s teaching in that day’s
Gospel reading from Luke, that “those who listen to God’s word and try to
live by that word are dear to the heart of Christ.”

The congregation at the Mass
included Little Sisters wearing their white habits, and elderly
residents who used wheelchairs or walkers to get to the chapel, and who sat and
prayed in alternating pews.

Following COVID-19 safety guidelines for public gatherings in the
District of Columbia, the sisters and residents wore face masks at
the Mass.

According to the Little Sisters’ website, the order
traces its beginning to a winter night in 1839, when their French foundress,
St. Jeanne Jugan, carried an elderly, blind and infirm woman home on a winter
night, climbing the stairs to her small apartment and giving up her own bed to
the woman who had no one to care for her.

Soon other women joined her work in caring for the elderly poor,
and by 1850, the congregation had 100 sisters providing that

St. Jeanne Jugan, who died in 1879, was beatified by St. John
Paul II in 1982 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

Just 29 years after their order began with that simple, loving
act of charity, the Little Sisters established their first home
for the elderly in the United States, in 1868 in Brooklyn, New York. Three
years later in 1871, the Little Sisters arrived in Washington.

“I marvel at that courage and their trust in providence.
They basically arrived with nothing,” said Sister Constance Veit,
a Little Sister of the Poor who does communications work for the
order and lives at the Jeanne Jugan Residence.

The Little Sisters of the Poor – who take a vow of
hospitality, consecrating themselves to the service of the elderly poor – themselves
experienced hospitality upon arriving in Washington.

In an interview with the Catholic Standard, Washington’s
archdiocesan newspaper, before Mass, Sister Constance told how the
first Little Sisters in Washington were invited by the pastor of
St. Patrick’s Church, Father Jacob Walter, to begin their home for the aged in
his parish.

Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and women from that
parish furnished a house for the sisters to use near the church, and
had a fire burning, the kitchen full of provisions and served
the sisters their first meal.

“Washington stood out for how graciously we were
welcomed,” Sister Constance said.

In 1873, Father Walter blessed a new home built for
the Little Sisters, and “by 1885, we could accommodate 150
residents,” Sister Loraine Marie Clare Maguire, provincial of
the Little Sisters’ Baltimore Province.

“Stables were built and horses, a cow, some pigs and
chickens along with a vegetable garden helped provide for the needs of our
growing family,” she said in a talk after Communion at
the anniversary Mass.

Today “we surely don’t have these same kinds of commodities
today, but we certainly have very generous and loyal benefactors who have
continued to support the mission of the Little Sisters in caring
for the elderly into 2021,” Sister Loraine said.

In 1982, the Little Sisters moved to their present
facility near The Catholic University of America and named it for their foundress.

Currently, it serves 64 residents, including at its St. Joseph
Villa, a wing of 22 low-income apartments for seniors who are still independent
in meeting their daily needs. Twelve Little Sisters live and
serve at the residence.

About 1,900 Little Sisters of the Poor serve in 31
countries around the world, including at 22 homes in the United States.

At the anniversary Mass, a pilgrim banner depicting St.
Jeanne Jugan was displayed near the altar. A small statue and a relic of the
saint were placed near the chapel’s lectern.

In her interview before the Mass, Sister Constance noted the
challenges the pandemic has presented for the Little Sisters and
their elderly residents in Washington.

Strict safety protocols adopted at the Jeanne Jugan Residence
included the initial period of lockdown, when the residents had to stay in
their rooms, and for many months, they couldn’t see their families directly.

Now family members can visit, after having their temperatures
checked at the entrance and answering questions to ensure they are not
exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms.

“We did have deaths from COVID in the beginning,”
Sister Constance said, noting residents “do miss some friends who they’ve
lost” from that disease and other causes. “The past year and one-half
has been really tough on everyone.”

The residents, some of whom lived through the Great Depression
and World War II, offered an inspiring example amid the restrictions, she said.

“They’re quite resilient. They didn’t complain. They take
things as they come … and make the best of it,” she said. “It’s
really edifying. … They’ve been really good sports.”

Sister Constance added, “What has always made our ministry
so special is as Little Sisters of the Poor, we have always
welcomed the elderly into our hearts and homes. … They really become family
to us.”

– – –

Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, archdiocesan
newspaper of Washington.

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