Little Sisters rely on divine providence to serve elderly poor

| Susan Klemond | August 16, 2018 | 0 Comments

Little Sisters of the Poor in the Twin Cities work outside in this undated historical photo. Courtesy Little Sisters of the Poor

Religious community marking 150 years in United States

Jan Storms, 56, was pleased with her mother’s care at the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Holy Family Residence in St. Paul, but she wasn’t expecting to find other personal blessings at the nursing home.

Through divine providence — or God’s ultimate control and care, something familiar to the Little Sisters — the St. Odilia parishioner met one of the sisters after a visit with her mother last year, and the two have forged a deep friendship. 

Besides the joy she’s found in her spiritual friendship, Storms has seen other miracles at the home for the elderly, including residents returning to the faith, families reconciling and the sisters nurturing residents.

 “It’s more than a nursing home,” Storms said. “It really is like the person’s home.”

Since the Little Sisters of the Poor first arrived in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis 135 years ago, they have lived their congregation’s mission by caring for thousands of elderly poor as their family. This year, the Minnesota sisters are joining with sisters at 26 other U.S. homes to celebrate another milestone: the congregation’s 150th anniversary in the United States.

Sister Dorothy Struzinski (from right), Mother Maria Francis and Cindy Vindedahl, an employee of the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul, sort through fruits and vegetables at Wholesale Produce Supply in Minneapolis with help from Kyle Johnson in this 2015 file photo. The company is among many that donate to the Little Sisters to help feed the nursing home’s residents and help sustain the order’s mission. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

After the jubilee year kicks off on the Aug. 30 feast day of their foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, the sisters in St. Paul will celebrate during September with special liturgies, an open house, golf tournament and other events.

In 1883, six sisters arrived in Minnesota’s capital city at the request of the Diocese of St. Paul’s second bishop, Thomas Grace, and his coadjutor bishop, John Ireland, wearing long black cloaks with hoods that covered the tops of their white bonnets.

The sisters’ first U.S. “foundation” was in Brooklyn, New York, and more than a dozen were operating by the time of their Minnesota founding. Congress had recognized sisters’ ministry and authorized grants for more homes, where they cared for the elderly poor.

The sisters came to the archdiocese with little money but a desire to imitate St. Jeanne Jugan who began the ministry 44 years earlier in Saint-Servan, France, by offering her own bed to a blind, paralyzed widow. Minnesotans soon recognized the congregation’s work and welcomed them, said Mother Maria Francis, 63, the Little Sisters of the Poor’s St. Paul superior. 

“Someone else was looking out for them,” she said.  “When they came here they only had a dime. When people saw the work they did, they were very open and very charitably received the sisters.”

Linda Sitko, right, of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, dyes Easter eggs at the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul with resident Eleanor Matczynski, left, and Sister Amy Kaiser during a day of service March 23, 2016. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

The Minnesota sisters opened their first home in an old school building on property in St. Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood, which they purchased from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.  Soon the Little Sisters were caring for 20 residents. In 1889 they built a new home on the property to care for 200 elderly, and in 1903 they opened another in northeast Minneapolis. 

For decades, the sisters cared for residents, maintained the homes and sought donations without employees. Until about 1940, they made the neighborhood rounds collecting donations for the needs of the home in a horse-drawn wagon, Mother Maria Francis said. 

“Jeanne Jugan, in her early days, had a great belief that we’re not just begging, that it’s part of evangelization,” she said. “During the begging, we’re giving those who are giving a chance to offer charity.”

Benefactors have been generous, Mother Maria Francis said. During the Great Depression, they supported the sisters’ soup kitchen and homeless ministry. 

Early residents told the sisters stories about their Civil War service, Mother Maria Francis said. The sisters learned later that a criminal once donated embezzled funds. And before 1900, a tall sister who collected donations at logging camps around Duluth earned the nickname “Sister Lumberjack.”

In 1977, the sisters consolidated their two Twin Cities homes in the present one, located near downtown St. Paul, which was built to comply with new healthcare regulations. Eight sisters, who now wearing shorter, white or gray habits with veils, run the home, which has 73 licensed beds and 34 apartment residents, Mother Maria Francis said. 

Father Anton Lachner, third from right, poses with Scottish singer Susan Boyle, third from left, at the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence May 5, 2016, along with, from left, Sister Marguerite, staff member Amber Decheine, Sister Mary Chantal, Amy Egan and Sister Amy Kristine.

Some of the sisters are registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, while staff help with resident care, administration and other needs. The sisters continue to collect food and resources at markets, businesses and parishes, said Sister Michael Anthony Mugan, 73, who manages the sisters’ begging and community outreach. 

The sisters believe divine providence — often sought through prayers to St. Joseph — supplies miracles, such as an unexpected but needed delivery of 40 pies two years ago, complete last-minute provision for a resident and family picnic two years in a row, and a surprise donation a decade ago that paid for a bus.

“Jeanne Jugan always had this belief: God will provide the house and he will look after it,” Mother Maria Francis said. “It’s amazing some of the stories: When they were short of bread, they prayed to St. Joseph, or sometimes they put a potato in front of [a] St. Joseph [image].  This is how divine providence worked, and it’s still very active now.”

The sisters hope divine providence will also bring more vocations. Two young women are discerning whether to join the community, which is aging. “It’s not near what we need, but we’ve never been without,” Sister Michael said. 

The sisters usually have an admission waiting list for their residence, although they don’t advertise that they accept the poorest candidates, Sister Michael said. Retired priests and religious don’t receive preference, but the sisters try to help their family members in need, she added.

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 23, 2017, after attending oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell contraceptive mandate case. CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters

Collectively, the Little Sisters in the U.S. have made national headlines in recent years with their public opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that employers’ health plans provide free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs, all of which are contrary to Church teaching. Last fall, HHS issued a new rule exempting the sisters from the requirement to provide contraceptives to their employees, but they still face several legal challenges. 

Catholics have thanked the sisters for standing up for their beliefs, Mother Maria Francis said.

Local challenges include staff turnover and building-related concerns such as their recent replacement of heating and air conditioning pipes, and their next project is refurbishing the apartments.

Though Holy Family Residence is larger than St. Jeanne Jugan’s apartment in Saint-Servan, the Little Sisters are committed to bringing the elderly poor into their home and live as she did. They also trust God to provide for their family and thank him for daily miracles. 

“It’s cool that the sisters can live out their order and vows within the realm of taking care of these people who need care 24/7,” Storms said. “It’s like the residents are part of the sisters’ life and part of their vows and part of their lifestyle, not in addition to it.”

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