Two biographies of women religious caught my eye as I waited to offer Mass recently at St. Charles Borromeo Church, my home parish in Woonsocket. Both histories narrate a religious sister’s spiritual search in 19th century France. Saint Marie Eugenie Milleret was the foundress of the Religious Sisters of the Assumption (think of the college in Worcester) who blended a rather strict contemplative life with an eager educational ministry. Saint Jeanne Jugan (think of the home in Pawtucket) founded, as Sister Mary of the Cross, the Little Sisters of the Poor who care for the elderly in need. Although these women had similar charisms, their chronicles could not be more diverse.
Anne-Eugenie Milleret was born in Metz, France in 1817 to wealthy parents, growing up in a chateau near Paris. When her father’s finances collapsed, the family estate was lost. Her parents separated and, at 13 years old, she moved to Paris with her mother whom she often accompanied while visiting needy families. Her mother died when Anne-Eugénie was 15 years old. She spent the remainder of her teenage years between two families, one quite secular; the other quite pious. At her First Communion at age 12, Anne-Eugenie enjoyed a life-changing mystical experience of the presence of God about which she often spoke. Young adulthood put Anne-Eugenie in touch with the shining lights of nineteenth century France. She heard Dominican Father Lacordaire preach a mission at Notre Dame Basilica. She relished the controversial ideas of Father Lamennais. Again at her Confirmation, Anne-Eugenie’s conversion to Christ deepened. Encouraged by her spiritual guides, Fathers Combalot and d’Alzon, in 1839 at the age of 22, with four young companions, Anne-Eugenie Milleret founded the Religious of the Assumption. They combined an educational ministry with a rather intense liturgical life, reciting the full Divine Office every day. She was fortunate to have much priestly support. Over the years, Mother Marie-Eugénie founded thirty religious communities in nine countries. In 1898, Mother Marie-Eugénie died at the age of 80. The archbishop of Rheims offered her funeral Mass in a full church.
Jeanne Jugan was born in 1792 in a fishing village in Brittany. She was the sixth of eight children. Her fisherman father was lost at sea when Jeanne was four years old. During the chaos after the French Revolution and the turmoil of the Bonaparte years, the family literally lived from hand to mouth. Jeanne had a firm religious appreciation and some domestic skills but little formal education. While employed as a maid to a viscountess, Jeanne would accompany the lady on her rounds aiding the sick and the poor. Jeanne was greatly influence by the spirituality of St. John Eudes, joining his third order as an associate. She worked as a nurse and then again as a servant to another devout woman with whom she taught catechism and continued to work with the poor. In 1837, Jeanne Jugan along with an elderly woman and a teenager began a formal ministry of prayer, instruction and assistance to the poor. Jeanne regularly accepted poor elderly women into the group’s small home, offering them her own bed. As more needy women were welcomed, Jeanne managed to find larger quarters. While Jeanne’s colleagues tended to the needs of the house, Jeanne herself walked all over France for decades begging food, clothing and money for the poor women in their care. By 1850, over 100 women had joined the fledgling ministry. By 1879, 2,400 sisters were located in Europe and America. Quite sadly Jeanne Jugan was ordered by her diocesan superiors into a life of retirement and obscurity for her final 27 years, her role as foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor completely obscured. Her humility in dealing with this affront to her spiritual insights and her organizational abilities was, and is, astounding. She never complained. Even her death in 1879 at the age of 86 was not publically announced.
These two nineteenth century women understood well this Sunday’s psalm: “For he shall rescue the poor when they cry out, and the afflicted when they have no one to help them. He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor; the lives of the poor he shall save.” Practical concern for the disadvantaged has always enlivened Christianity. The meal sites, homeless shelters, heating assistance, nursing homes, counselling centers, elder care and problem pregnancy ministries maintained by our diocese, our parishes, our religious communities and our laity arise from the same charisms that invigorated Mother Marie-Eugenie and Mother Marie of the Cross two centuries ago.