Youngsters would consider anyone alive 130 years ago as antediluvian. Even for kids with a fifth-grade awareness of history, the 19th century is no more recent than the ninth. For older folk, though, someone alive in 1879 would have been a contemporary of their grandparents, and for them the link between then and now is easily discerned.1879 was the year Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Order known as the Little Sisters of the Poor died. Born into a poor family in a small fishing village in 1792 during the throes of the French Revolution, Jeanne was familiar with both poverty and piety. As a young woman she declined an offer of marriage for she believed that God had something else in mind for her, something as of yet unknown. Two decades later, after serving as a nurse and a domestic and still ignorant of God’s plans for her, Jeanne and two other women decided to live together in a life of prayer and charity. In 1839, at the age of 47, she encountered an aged, blind and infirm woman abandoned on the street, and brought her home to care for her. At last God’s plan for her was being revealed. In time as other elderly people were “rescued” other women joined this small group of dedicated, kind women, and in 1842 the new community was formally established.
Today “only” a few generations after St. Jeanne Jugan’s death (she was canonized in October, 2009), the Little Sisters of the Poor comprise over 2,700 sisters who reside in 32 countries on five continents. In over 200 homes they carry out their mission of service to the elderly poor. In such a relatively short span of time this is, indeed, an impressive growth in both their “family” and their ministry.
But, as notable is their parallel ministry. In addition to caring for the indigent elderly with dignity, respect and love, the Little Sisters of the Poor also accept evangelization as part of their charism. And, they evangelize by begging. Following the example of their foundress who met the needs of her charges with nothing more than a begging basket and trust in Providence, the Little Sisters today obtain daily support for their homes by constant petitioning. In doing so, they expose their donors to their compelling witness to the love of God. To give such witness is to evangelize.
To “safeguard” the purity of this parallel ministry, the Little Sisters eschew endowments for they believe any fixed income arrangements would compromise their total trust in Providence. This understanding is consistent with that of Jeanne Jugan who in 1865 significantly declined such an offer from a wealthy supporter who wanted to provide for the Order’s long term security. Her “daughters” share her courageous conviction that the unknown with God is more sure than the known without God.
Can the Kingdom be advanced on insecure paths? Ask the daughters of Jeanne Jugan.