Cancale, France – 25th October 1792
Jeanne Jugan was born on October 25th, 1792 in Cancale, a fishing port in Brittany, France. Her father was away absent at the time, as he had sailed six months earlier for the fishing season in Newfoundland.
Jeanne, her brother and two sisters learned from their mother how to live poverty with faith and love for God. She began working at a young age to help her family. When a young sailor asked her to marry him, she refused saying “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet founded“
Jeanne probably didn’t realise the impact of these prophetic words…….. Many years were to pass before this this call became clear to her. In the meantime, she left Cancale for the nearby town of Saint Servan and became a nurse at Le Rosais Hospial, then a servant, however the desire remained only to serve the poor .
Saint Servan 1839
One winter’s evening, Jeanne opened her home and her heart to a half blind paralysed elderly woman who had suddenly found herself alone with no one to care for her. Jeanne gave up own bed for her. From then on, the door of her home remained open for the poor. Several young women joined her and chose her as superior of their small Association, which was developing into a community leading a true religious life.
The work developed quickly. More elderly women were brought to her doorstep. Jeanne and her companions cared for them as if they were their own grandmothers. Giving them the best place, they slept on the attic floor.
By 1841 the little family outgrew the small apartment and move into larger accommodation. With the advice and support of the Hospitaller Brothers of Saint John of God, Jeanne began collecting in the local community on behalf of her poor.
In 1842 the group moved into an even larger building—a nearby convent that had been vacated during the Revolution – and began to form a religious community, called the Servants of the Poor. Jeanne is elected superior. She and several others make a vow of obedience.
Re-elected as superior the next year, Jeanne is removed from office by a young priest appointed to advise the new community on December 23, 1843. Instead she is given the job of collecting . In early 1844 the group changes their name to Sisters of the Poor to better reflect their desire to truly be sisters to the elderly in the Lord’s name.
In 1845 Jeanne is awarded the Montyon Prize, a prestigious award given by the French Academy for meritorious work. The next year, she founds houses in Rennes and Dinan. Then Tours. Jeanne continues to beg on behalf of the poor.
In 1846, an English visitor, drawn by Jeanne’s reputation, went to visit her at Dinan. Impressed he wrote, “There is something so calm and saintly in this woman that, when I saw her I believed I was in the presence of a superior being” He went on “I told her that having covered France, she ought to come to England and teach us how to look after our own poor people“. She replied that, with God’s help she would do so if invited.
In 1847 the young Congregation holds its first General Chapter. Jeanne is not invited. In 1849, ten years after the first old woman was welcomed by Jeanne, the popular name Little Sisters of the Poor is definitively adopted.
By 1850 the Congregation numbers over 100 Little Sisters. The motherhouse and novitiate are established in Rennes, Jeanne is recalled there and placed in retirement, with no specific duties. Four years later she will move to the new motherhouse in Saint Pern, to remain there—hidden in the shadows—for the rest of her life.
The Congregation receives diocesan approval on May 29, 1852. It is recognized as a Pontifical Institute by Pope Pius XI on July 9, 1854. Pope Leo XIII approves the Constitutions of the Little Sisters of the Poor for a period of seven years on March 1, 1879. By then there are 2,400 Little Sisters in 9 countries. However, soon Jeanne would be unjustly deposed and from that time on she devoted herself totally to begging for the poor. She was encouraged in this by the Brothers of St John of God.
La Tour St Joseph 1852 -1879
In the Spring of 1856, Jeanne, along with a group of postulants and novices, moved to La Tour to Joseph, house. Jeanne lived her life hidden from the world until her death in 1879. However, her influence on the young postulants and novices was profound. She taught them to live by faith and to practice charity, she also passed on much practical advice on caring for the elderly poor.
Little by little, light was shed on the situation. In 1902, the truth began to emerge and Jeanne Jugan, known as Sister Mary of the Cross, who had died in quiet obscurity a quarter of a century before was not the third Little Sister, as everyone had been led to believe, but the foundress!
On 13th July 1979, the Church recognised the heroicity of Jeanne Jugan’s virtues. On 3rd October 1982, Pope John Paul ll proclaimed her Blessed and on 11th October 2009 on St Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed Jeanne Jugan to be a Saint!