In 1837 Jeanne
Jugan and two companions decided to move into a two-room
apartment on Center Street and lead a life of prayer and
dedication to God. Jeanne had always been sensitive to the
things of God, and she saw him reflected in the numberless
faces of the poor of France.
One day she
encountered Anne Chauvin, a blind old widow with no one to
look after her, and decided to bring her home. Since the
apartment was on the second floor, Jeanne had to physically
carry her up the narrow stairs. Jeanne gave her bed to Anne
and moved into the loft.
Before long she
took in another old woman, and Jeanne and her two companions
had to work to support and feed themselves and two others.
They would often stay up late at night mending and washing
clothes and get up early each morning to care for the women
in their charge.
Often on Sundays
the three of them would go for a walk together along the
seashore, stopping at a favorite cleft in the rocks to talk
about God, their lives, and their plans for the future.
They would also
discuss these matters with a young priest who had recently
arrived to the parish. Fr le Pailleur was immediately
interested in the work and gave it his full approval. A very
capable, sometimes daring, and often ingenious man, he too
had aspirations to help the poor; he felt compelled to
support this work which held so much promise.
Visiting them at
their home, he met with the three of them, and together they
resolved to create a charitable association. Jeanne was
delighted with the help promised by this young priest who
approved of their mad plan. In very little time they were
taking in more and more people, urged on by the desire to
share the poverty and distress of those whom they sought to
help and to alleviate their plight as much as possible.
Less than three
years after this foundation, Jeanne and her companions moved
down the street into their first house. Their new home was
spacious, built around a courtyard large enough to make a
proper dormitory. That same day six more women joined the
group; many more would soon follow.
To support this
growth, Jeanne devoted herself to begging. One young visitor
to the new house wrote, "I saw Jeanne Jugan. She greeted me
and my grandmother with a kind smile as she was preparing to
go out collecting. Over her arm she put her basket, already
such a well-known sight all over town. The old women called
her Sister Jeanne. ‘Sister Jeanne,’ they would say, ‘do our
job properly for us. Collect for us.’ Jeanne would lean over
them and listen to a few more whispered instructions; she
smiled at them. She left them promptly, for she did things
quickly, yet she never gave the impression of hurrying or
One day she rang
the doorbell of a rich man notorious for his miserliness and
persuaded him to donate a sizable gift. The next day she
called again; at this he became very angry. She simply
smiled and said, "Sir, my poor were hungry yesterday, they
are hungry again today, and tomorrow they will be hungry
too." The man became a regular benefactor of Jeanne’s works.
occasion Jeanne went to beg from a local ship owner, a fiery
man given to violent fits of passion. Jeanne was the only
person who knew how to manage his explosive temper. One time
he was overseeing the unloading of one of his ships. Among
the cargo were some small but enormously valuable bags
filled with gold ingots. As the cargo was being unloaded one
of these bags dropped into the water, provoking one of the
man’s characteristic eruptions. Just at this moment Jeanne
came along seeking a donation from him. While still some
distance away, she saw that something was wrong and
approached to see if she could help. He immediately launched
into a tirade about what had happened. Promising to pray for
the recovery of the lost money, Jeanne continued on her way.
The bag was
eventually recovered, and when Jeanne passed by a short time
later she remarked, "I told you God would recover your
The man looked
almost sheepish for a moment, but he quickly regained his
customary brusque demeanor. "Here," he growled. "Take the
bag. This is for your little old folks."
Each year the
prestigious Montyon Award was presented by the French
Academy to a poor French man or woman who performed
outstanding public service. Some of Jeanne’s friends decided
to submit her name as a candidate for the award. They
prepared a brief memorial and presented it to the Academy
for consideration. Several months later her friends were
informed that Jeanne Jugan had been awarded the first prize,
a total of three thousand francs. The money arrived just in
time to pay for the new roof and some furniture which she
realized she could use this award to advertise her work to
the civil authorities. As one unexpected result of this
publicity, she received a large gold medal as an award from
the local Masonic Lodge. She promptly had it melted down and
used the gold for a chalice.
The little group
continued to grow, and on December 8, 1842, the first
"sisters" took a vow of obedience, thus establishing the
Little Sisters of the Poor. In their first election, Jeanne
Jugan was chosen as Mother Superior. However, two weeks
later Fr le Pailleur called a surprise meeting. He nullified
the election and named the timid twenty-three year old Marie
Jamet in Jeanne’s place.
later, Fr le Pailleur drafted the definitive constitution of
the institute with the help of another priest who had
assisted Jeanne from the beginning. In the document, Fr le
Pailleur carefully assured that the office of Father
Superior General be given absolute authority over the
congregation. The next year, the constitution was approved,
and the Little Sisters of the Poor became a recognized
congregation within the Church. The bishop was present when
twenty-four postulants received their uniform and seventeen
novices professed vows.
Fr le Pailleur
had every reason to be satisfied. He had now secured the
office of Father Superior General of the congregation, and
consequently he had full authority. At this point, he made
an important decision.
into his office, he told her she was to retire to the mother
house. He ordered her to cut off all connection with her
benefactors and friends and to no longer go out begging. She
was to devote herself entirely to prayer and overseeing the
manual work of the postulants. In everything, Jeanne obeyed
with complete submission.
Gradually, Fr le
Pailleur began to insinuate that he had always been the
driving force behind the congregation. The story gradually
spread that he had begun this work by recruiting two other
sisters before encountering Jeanne Jugan. When he saw her
talent for fundraising, he immediately set her to work
begging for the sisters and the elderly in their charge. To
bolster this story, he placed a plaque outside their first
home which read, "Here Fr le Pailleur, founder of the
Congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, began his
work by helping a poor blind woman. He entrusted her to his
two spiritual daughters to take her into the attic of this
house where Jeanne Jugan was living. To their number, the
founder soon added Jeanne Jugan, who discharged her duty of
collecting with admirable devotion."
As the Little
Sisters continued to grow and spread across the French
countryside, journalists began to report this story, lending
it still more credibility. Even the new novices were taught
that Fr le Pailleur was the founder of the congregation. For
all those who had known Jeanne in the early years, this
caused some confusion.
He became ever
more inflated with pride, demanding the most exaggerated
signs of respect and flattery from the sisters; if they met
him going for a walk they had to kiss his feet and ask for
his blessing. Even his admirers became disquieted by the
obedience, Jeanne did nothing to dispel these falsehoods.
Some postulants who had heard that Jeanne was the founder
kept trying to get the whole story from her. Knowing the
version of the story taught in the novitiate, Jeanne would
say evasively, "They’ll tell you all about that in the
novitiate." Then she would add, "Later, you’ll know all
On one occasion,
Jeanne, with her head in her hands, groaned, "They have
stolen my work from me!" She later repeated these words
jokingly to Fr le Pailleur, adding, "But I willingly give it
"I Am Not
the First Little Sister"
As the years
went by, the witnesses began to pass away one by one.
Eventually Jeanne herself died, twenty-seven years after
being confined to the mother house. Rumors of the injustice
ultimately reached Rome, where they raised some eyebrows. An
apostolic inquiry was begun.
In 1890, Fr le
Pailleur was summoned to Rome, eleven years after Jeanne
Jugan had passed away. He spent his last five years in a
convent, relieved of his office as Father Superior General.
The new chaplain
at the mother house began to conduct a historical
investigation into the origins of the congregation. He
interviewed the founding sisters who were still alive and
began to reconstruct the true story of the foundation. The
most important document of the inquiry was the memorial for
the Academy Award, written in Fr le Pailleur’s handwriting,
which named Jeanne Jugan as the founder.
Marie Jamet, the
Mother Superior whom Fr le Pailleur had named to replace
Jeanne, lived to see the conclusion. "I am not the first
Little Sister, nor the founder of the work," she testified.
"Jeanne Jugan was the first one and the founder of the
Little Sisters of the Poor." On her death bed she said, "I
am not the first one but I was told to act as though I
From that point
on, Jeanne Jugan would be called "Founder of the Little
Sisters of the Poor." From God’s point of view, those
twenty-seven years of silent faith had proven to be the most
fruitful of her life.