Most Catholics are familiar with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Likewise most Catholics know that she founded the Missionaries of Charity, cared for the sick and dying, and lived a life of poverty, sometimes begging in order to meet the needs of those she served. But there is another saint who lived a very similar life who is less well-knows: St. Jeanne Jugan, also known as St. Mary of the Cross. St. Mary of the Cross led a life dedicated to humble service and even made Charles Dickens cry!
So, who was she?
A fisherman’s daughter
Jeanne was born to a poor fisherman’s family in 1792 in Brittany, France only six years after another great saint of Brittany was born: St. John Vianney. Jeanne’s father perished at sea when she was only three or four years old and her mother struggled against poverty to raise her children in the perilous times surrounding the French Revolution. Too poor to attend school, and working from a young age, Jeanne cultivated a strong and personal faith. When as a young teenager she went to work for a wealthy family, she was given the opportunity to serve the poor.
In 1801, peace was proclaimed in France as Napoleon Bonapart allowed religious freedom in the region. It was in this newly free and religiously fervent atmosphere when Jeanne discovered her calling. Rejecting a marriage proposal, she wanted to serve the poor. In her words, “her desire was to be as humble as Jesus.” Jeanne began working at a hospital and then went to work for a wealthy and devout woman with whom Jeanne prayed, assisted at Mass often, and taught the local children their catechism. Together they cared for the poverty stricken sick and dying. Napoleon’s peace had brought Jeanne peace too: the peace that comes from discovering God’s will for one’s life.
A home for the elderly
According to the history of St. Mary of the Cross, it was on a winter night in 1839 that Jeanne encountered a poor and blind old woman. Jeanne was moved with charity towards her and brought her home to her own bed which she gladly gave to the woman. This proved to be yet another moment in Jeanne’s life when she recognized the call of God. Within just a few years Jeanne had purchased a run-down convent and turned it into a home for the elderly and dying. Never too proud, she became a beggar for her beloved poor.
A new congregation
Encouraged in her mission by a holy brother of St. John of God, Jeanne founded a congregation that is now known as the Little Sister of the Poor. Jeanne, now Sr. Mary of the Cross, saw her congregation spread across Europe and to America and Africa. Ever humble, when a young sister was chosen to be the Superior of the order, Sr. Mary of the Cross did not complain. In fact, when she was ordered to cease her travels and retire in one of her convents, the sisters there were unaware that she was the very founder of their order! At the time of her death the Little Sisters of the Poor numbered 2,400 Little Sisters in 177 homes on three continents! Shortly after her death the order expanded to Asia and Australia!
Sr. Mary of the Cross led a life dedicated to complete abandonment to the providence of God. It was the foundational principle for the Little Sisters of the Poor. This radical trust in God and His infinite goodness and her humble life of holiness actually brought Charles Dickens, yes, the Charles Dickens, to tears. “Once after meeting Jeanne Jugan, Charles Dickens said, “there is in this woman something so calm, and so holy, that in seeing her I know myself to be in the presence of a superior being. Her words went straight to my heart, so that my eyes, I know not how, filled with tears.”
A saint for our time especially
Even though she lived centuries ago, St. Mary of the Cross is very much a saint for our time. At her beatification Pope John Paul II said, “God could glorify no more humble a servant than she.” Pope Benedict XVI said of her that her canonization would, ““show once again how living faith is prodigious in good works, and how sanctity is a healing balm for the wounds of humankind.” And according to one of her sisters, Sr. Saint Albert, “She once said to me, “I’m going to tell you three thoughts; if you make them part of your life, you will become a great saint: the just man lives by faith; charity covers a multitude of sins, and she who keeps guard over her tongue keeps guard over her soul.” I have very often thought over her wise advice.”
May we all heed Sr. Mary of the Cross’s advice and may she pray for us!