Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor, participates in activities with residents during an Aug. 30 celebration on the feast day of the order's foundress. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor, participates in activities with residents during an Aug. 30 celebration on the feast day of the order's foundress. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

One hundred and fifty years to the date of when seven Little Sisters of the Poor stepped on a ship to set sail to the United States, the residents and sisters of the Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington gathered for a party on Aug. 30 to celebrate the feast day of their foundress and kick off the celebration of their 150th anniversary year.

St. Jeanne Jugan founded the Little Sisters of the Poor in France in 1839 after opening her home to an elderly, blind, paralyzed woman. From that day on, she dedicated her life to caring for the elderly poor, which the sisters still do today.

To celebrate the anniversary year, the Little Sisters made three copies of a tapestry image of St. Jeanne Jugan – one for each province here. On their way to the United States, the tapestries stopped at historical sites, such as St. Jeanne Jugan’s small apartment in France, the cottage where she was born, and the chapel where she used to pray. The tapestry will rotate between the different houses in each province, so that throughout the year each house will have it when they host their big celebration.

During the Aug. 30 kickoff party, the sisters and residents played games that reviewed some of the history of the Little Sisters, such as who was president in 1868 (Ulysses S. Grant), who was pope that year (Pius IX) and the name of the ship that carried the sisters here (Napoleon III).

As they enjoyed their Clafoutis, a traditional French dessert, a few of the residents reflected on what they appreciated about living at the Jeanne Jugan Residence.

Susan Norton recalled how she had visited several different places to live, but after visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor and experiencing their joy, “there was no possibility of anything else.”

“It has a family feel to it. There is a general tendency for everyone to take an interest in the residents they know, and even the ones they don’t know,” said Norton, adding, “And their custard is really, really good.”

Msgr. Joaquín Bazán, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, pointed out that the sisters take four vows, with the last one being hospitality, “and they keep it.”

“I’ve often said to them, if I’m half as good as one of them, I’ll go straight to Heaven,” he said.

Carl Bergquist said he enjoys living there because of how many activities they offer, and because they have Mass twice a day.

“This is a beautiful place to be,” he said.

Sister Constance Veit said learning how the original sisters set off to a new country with barely anything and little knowledge of the language or culture has served “to enliven my trust in Divine Providence in realizing how much the sisters trusted in God.”

“They did their best and counted on God to do the rest,” she said. “In the fairly dark times we are now in, that’s a good reminder to me.”

The second thing the anniversary has reminded her of is the radical nature of the work that the sisters do, both at the time when their congregation was founded in the United States and in the present moment.

The Little Sisters of the Poor arrived in the United States during a difficult time, just after the conclusion of the Civil War. At the time, homes for the elderly were just starting to emerge, but they were founded by different ethnic or religious groups to take care of their own population. Before that, those who couldn’t care for themselves were sent to poorhouses, which had terrible conditions.

“When our sisters came, they took in any old person who needs help – no matter their race or religion; how handicapped or disadvantaged,” said Sister Constance.

The sisters were first welcomed and accepted as strangers by people of different backgrounds, and then they were able to care for people of similarly diverse backgrounds, Sister Constance said, adding that this has showed her, “it really can work. We really can get along.”

This is what the sisters continue to do, taking in people of all backgrounds, only requiring that they are poor and above the age of 65.

“Everyone finds a way to live together and work together,” said Sister Constance.

In order to complete their work and sustain themselves, the sisters rely on donations from others. When they first arrived, they would go out every day to get the leftovers from places like restaurants and meat markets, and then bring home what they received to figure out what to make with those ingredients.

Today, they operate upon a similar system, although their relationship with the community is long established.  Sister Jeanne Véonique is the “begging sister,” which means it is her responsibility to go out to places like farmers markets, food banks, and churches to ask for these donations. Through her work, she said she is able to see clearly “how providence has supported us, keeping the congregation going.”

“I see miracles every day,” she said, referring to the generosity she receives, such as big events that offer them leftover food or stores who give them hundreds of pounds of meat.

“It’s an awesome feeling to imagine 150 years,” she said. “We’ve come a long way…it’s beautiful that we’ve persevered.”