THE POOR/ With obedience, a way to sanctity
On Sunday, October 11, 2009, the Church canonized five new saints. Far and away the most famous is St. Damien, the priest who gave his life to serve leprosy patients quarantined on Molokai in Hawaii. Most reporting did not mention the names of the four others who were canonized with St. Damien, but there was one among them, St. Jeanne Jugan, who has been called " Mother Teresa before Mother Teresa” (Dr. Edward Gatz), and in her poverty and compassion, Eloi Leclerc compared her to St. Francis himself.
Who was this woman that even her fame seems hidden from notice?
"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field" (Matthew 13:44 NAB).
Generations of scholars have read these words of Jesus and asked, "Why does he hide the treasure once he's found it?" There have been various answers, but perhaps the life of Jeanne Jugan provides the fullest and most satisfying answer.
Born in 1792, three years after the French Revolution, in Cancale, a small fishing village on the rough and windy coast of Brittany in France, the first "secret" of her life was the illegal catechesis she received from members of a lay order founded by St. John Eudes (she later joined this order). At age 18, she received two marriage proposals, which she turned down, explaining to her mother, "God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work, which he has not yet founded." This certainty in the Unknown would form an essential support for the work she would accomplish during the remainder of her life.
By the time Jeanne Jugan had reached age 47, a friendship had formed between herself and two other women, and the three moved into a small apartment together in 1839, so that they could lead a life of prayer and dedication to God. Shortly thereafter, as Jeanne was returning home one winter night, she met an elderly blind widow named Anne Chauvin. Moved with pity, Jeanne lifted Chauvin and carried the older woman over her shoulder and brought her up the stairs to the apartment. That night Chauvin slept in Jeanne's bed while Jeanne went to sleep in the attic. At the time, Jeanne was working as a maid for Monsieur Leroy at Saint-Servan. When Jeanne told him that she wanted to devote the rest of her life to the poor, begging on their behalf from door to door, he asked her who would respond to her requests. "People like you," she replied. He laughed at her but then gave her 3000 francs. Soon other elderly poor had arrived at the apartment, and Jeanne spent days on end begging in order to support the poor in her care. She would go out into the town with a basket over her arm, persistently knocking on doors, and with gentleness and love, she would accept even the smallest donation with gratitude. When she was slapped in the face by a man who refused her, she replied, “Thank you. That was for me. Now please give me something for my poor.”
From these small beginnings, other generous young women joined Jeanne; soon a new and larger house was needed. During these years of difficult and fruitful labor, Jeanne was recognized for her service. In 1845 the French Academy awarded Jeanne the Montyon Prize "for outstanding meritorious activity." And the Freemasons conferred a gold medal on her. She had this gold medal melted down and made into a chalice to be used at Mass.
In the meantime, two of Jeanne's friends had a spiritual adviser, Fr. Auguste le Pailleur, who began to advise the small group of women about various aspects of their life. In 1841, Jeanne Jugan was elected Mother General of the small congregation. But then, in December of 1843, Fr. le Pailleur, on his own authority, annulled a second election that again unanimously named Jeanne Jugan Mother General; soon after, he named himself Father General and gave Jeanne the task of begging. Not content with the possibility that Jeanne should receive any recognition, Fr. le Pailleur then ordered Jeanne to halt all her interactions with donors, assigned her the rank of novice, and sent her to the new Motherhouse at La Tour St. Joseph's in Saint Pern to live with the novices. Jeanne Jugan's biographer, Paul Milcent, wrote, in Humble So As to Love More: “The Abbé le Pailleur’s behavior has something odd about it, pointing to some kind of psychological disturbance. He was determined, even at the cost of falsifying the truth, to concentrate power and fame in his own person.”
After moving to La Tour St. Joseph, Jeanne Jugan lived for 23 years in obscurity, hidden away, her work stolen from her. The novices, among whom Jeanne lived, had no inkling as to her identity or role in the founding of the order they had joined. This period of the saint's life most fascinated the friar and author, Eloi Leclerc. In his spiritual biography of Jeanne Jugan, The Desert and the Rose, he explores the hidden life she led in complete obedience to Fr. Pailleur, despite his injustice. When a novice might ask her about a rumor she'd heard, Jeanne would reply, "They’ll talk to you about me. Don’t pay any attention. Our good Lord knows the whole story." We who thirst for justice are confounded by her attitude. Why didn't she defend herself, fight for the right to a holy work that God himself had begun in her? What we have from her instead is a long silence. Leclerc, having studied accounts given by those who spent these 23 years with her, concludes that she expressed no bitterness but rather accepted that the "unknown" work that God had first given to her had changed to become a hidden work upon her, within her person. Thus she retired willingly , until her death, at age 86 on the feast of St. Augustine. Rather than disturb the pomp and celebration of his feast day, Fr. le Pailleur postponed the announcement of her death; and in a circular letter he set two days later, he made no mention of Jeanne Jugan.