Little Sisters founder to be canonized

Jeanne Jugan, born in 1792 to a fisherman in France, treated elderly poor as her own family. Today, Little Sisters of the Poor continue her work.


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Sister Mary Vincent Mannion's white habit gleamed in the sunlit halls of the Brighton Heights home for the aged run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

She walked past residents who were Wii bowling while she redded up for their celebrations today, when Pope Benedict XVI will canonize the founder of her order. St. Jeanne Jugan, who died in 1879, was a French fisherman's daughter who took care of the elderly poor. Nineteen representatives of the Pittsburgh home, including one of the famous "begging sisters" who ask merchants for goods, are in Rome for the ceremony.

The sisters who beg are better known than the James P. Wall Memorial Home itself, which many people assume is for aging nuns. It's not, and its residents don't even have to be Catholic.

The sole requirements are to be older than age 60 -- most residents arrive in their 80s -- and in financial need. Residents pay what they can afford. There are long waiting lists for the apartments, assisted living and nursing units.

In the chapel is a stained glass window of St. Jeanne cradling an elderly woman in her arms. Beneath are her words, "The poor are our Lord." The sisters teach all staff members and volunteers to treat residents as they would Jesus himself. When in doubt, they ask "What would Jeanne Jugan do?"

"We've been praying for more than 50 years that the church would recognize her as someone to be put up as a model," said Sister Mary Vincent, a Homestead native who entered the order from Sacred Heart High School in 1952.

"Her whole idea of the importance of family, and her respect for life, is so needed in today's world. I think that is why she's being canonized at this point."

St. Jeanne was born on the Breton coast in 1792, when the French Revolution had closed churches. Nevertheless, her family's faith was strong. She eked out a living as a domestic servant and nurse.

In 1839, when she was 47, she encountered an elderly, blind homeless woman. St. Jeanne took her home and treated her as an honored family member. Soon everyone in her village was asking her to take in indigent old people.

When she could no longer feed them, one of her guests offered to go out begging. St. Jeanne replied that she would beg on their behalf. Other women joined her, and they became an order that spread to every continent but Antarctica.

The miracle that sealed her sainthood was the inexplicable recovery of a retired Nebraska doctor from terminal cancer in 1989, after he and his wife had prayed for her intercession.

St. Jeanne was still alive when five sisters came to Pittsburgh in 1872. Their current home, on 17 acres off Benton Avenue with spectacular views of the Ohio River Valley, had belonged to tin magnate James Wall and his wife Catherine, who left it to the sisters in 1923.

Today, nine sisters, along with about 100 employees and 85 volunteers, serve 88 residents -- some in independent living apartments, some in assisted living and others in two levels of nursing care. While the sisters occupy a simple convent on the top floor, the residents enjoy a veritable cruise ship on land.

Behind the plain brick outer walls, the hallways are lined with artwork, the furniture is tasteful and every amenity, from Wii to music therapy, is available to the residents.

Machiko Seto, 80, once worked as a cook for Catholic priests. When she no longer could afford the senior high-rise where she lived in Bethel Park, the manager told her about the Little Sisters home.

"I'm very poor, but I live richly here," said Ms. Seto, who is in Rome today with other residents, volunteers and one sister from the home. The residents held craft sales and spaghetti dinners to raise money for the trip.

Karen Kutzer is a consultant who was brought in to raise $15 million for recent renovations that added the independent living units, updated the nursing floors and added services that included a dental suite and computer room. She was astounded that the Little Sisters have no endowment -- by choice.

"Jeanne Jugan's whole idea was that you can count on God, on the loving care of a father for the poor," Sister Mary Vincent said. "To get endowments is to get yourself so secure that you don't need God any more."

Despite the worst recession since the Great Depression, the sisters have raised all but $1 million of the money needed for the renovations. But even with an array of wealthy donors, Little Sisters still walk the Strip District, begging food and other goods for the residents.

"We are poor people taking care of poor people, and we don't think we're above anybody else," Sister Mary Vincent said.

"I'm the administrator, but I don't feel like I'm in charge. God is in charge, and that is what keeps me going. I tell him, 'This is your house. Take care of this situation or that situation.' And he does. He's close to us. That is the center of our life, and everything else flows from that."

Despite the professional staff, the nine sisters are on call around the clock for the residents.

Sister Mary Vincent met the Little Sisters because a high school club she belonged to served Sunday dinners to the residents. She felt a call to be a sister and chose the order over others because she thought the Little Sisters needed her help. She laughs at that now.

"Who of us is really needed when it's God's work?" she said. "But beyond a doubt it was a call from God. I've always been happy."

Anne Brennen and her husband Jack, a retired bus driver, loved the spirit of the home so much that for 20 years they came daily from their North Side home to volunteer. She was awed by the way the sisters treated indigent residents. Difficult people were loved, frail people were helped to dress nicely -- no one wanders about in night clothes -- and all were encouraged to be active, creative and to enjoy life.

Four years ago, Mr. Brennen was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When the sisters saw Mrs. Brennen struggle to care for him, they invited the couple to move in. He died two months later. She now has one of 40 new apartments for independent living, with a full kitchen and a walk-in closet.

"This is the crown jewel of nursing homes. I have been to many, and nothing compares," said Mrs. Brennen, 81.

In the infirmaries, nurses' stations are tucked out of sight. At their center is a homey kitchen, its counters laden with baked goods and fruit obtained from the sisters' begging. A huge window with a view of Mount Washington lights a dining area where all but the sickest patients eat at tables adorned with linens and flowers.

"If you can't feed yourself, there is always someone to feed you," said Nena Kochman, 87, formerly of Bethel Park, who moved in two years ago. She lives in an apartment and volunteers on the nursing floors.

"By the grace of God I am here, and I love it. I always said there are angels on Earth, and these sisters are my angels," she said.

There is a medical suite for the visiting doctor, a physical therapy room, and the new dental suite. A beauty parlor is open three days a week. A resident garden club grows vegetables in a courtyard, and a greenhouse is under construction. Downstairs is a ceramic studio and a well-stocked arts and crafts room.

Care extends past death. If residents request it, they are laid out in an in-house funeral parlor after they have died.

"When someone is dying, all of the sisters go and stay in the room with them, praying for them as they breathe their last," said Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, whose father lives there. The bishop also is in Rome today for St. Jeanne's canonization.

"I have always been inspired by their love and their care and their deep faith," he said of the Little Sisters. "They deserve so much thanks from all of us."

The order has more than 2,700 sisters caring for 13,000 residents in 202 homes worldwide. Sisters can be sent all over the world. Sister Mary Vincent, whose earlier assignments included New Orleans, renewed her connection with the city after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Little Sisters home there.

A Pittsburgh donor sent his corporate jet to shuttle the evacuees to other Little Sisters homes, including Pittsburgh, following the insistence of St. Jeanne that residents are family.

"In a true family, there is love and respect," Sister Mary Vincent said.

The Little Sisters of the Poor perhaps are best known as a mythical football team, as in "they couldn't beat the Little Sisters of the Poor." Sister Mary Vincent says that's true, even of her beloved Steelers. Nothing against the Steelers, she said, but the Little Sisters' coach is infallible.

"My side will win. I've got a higher power working for me -- although many times I've prayed for them," she said of the Steelers, laughing merrily.


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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