Little Sisters of the Poor Celebrate 150 Years in America

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PROVIDENCE — The Little Sisters of the Poor celebrated 150 years in America at a special Mass celebrated by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul last Saturday.

“Just as the first disciples, the apostles, changed the world I think we can truly say the Little Sisters of the Poor around the world and in our country and in our own diocese here have really changed the world for the better in their own spirituality, their holiness and their generosity in serving the poor and the elderly. They really have made a difference for lots of people,” Bishop Tobin told the Rhode Island Catholic.

The Little Sisters of the Poor was founded in France in 1839 by St. Jeanne Jugan. The order first arrived in the United States in 1868 in Brooklyn, reaching Rhode Island in 1881.

The Mass was held as part of a yearlong anniversary celebration running from 2018 through this year. The readings for last Saturday’s Mass were those for St. Jeanne Jugan’s feast day — Isaiah 58:6-11, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:14-18 and Matthew 5:1-12.

In his homily, Bishop Tobin alluded to the fact that it is also still the Easter season. He stressed that the resurrection of Christ is not just a historical event, but also a personal one in which believers come to know Jesus. The apostles are witnesses to the resurrection, as are Christians today — like the Little Sisters of the Poor, the bishop noted.

“It’s a very humbling experience to celebrate 150 years,” Sister Mercy Stella Theresa, Mother Superior of the St. Jeanne Jugan Residence in Pawtucket, told the Rhode Island Catholic. She described the day as a joyful one.

The event also marked Mother Superior’s departure from the group. Later this month she will be heading to Colorado for a new assignment.

The Little Sisters of the Poor have a long history in Pawtucket. They moved to the city in 1883 and resided in the Holy Trinity Home for nearly a century, before moving to their current building in 1979.

One of the current sisters, Sister Mary Agnes McPhillips, grew up one street down and one street over from the sisters’ home. She recalled trying to volunteer at the home with a friend when she was a young teenager.

“They sent us home because we were too young and too noisy,” Sister McPhillips said.

Sister McPhillips not only returned to volunteer but eventually entered the order, making her first profession of vows 60 years ago, on June 16, 1959.

“It shows us the goodness of God and that he’s always there to help us so that we can always be there to help the residents who are in need,” Sister McPhillips said, when asked about the meaning of the anniversary.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are assisted in their ministry by volunteer members of the Association of St. Jeanne Jugan. Each residence has an association connected to it.

“We call ourselves an extension of the sisters’ hearts and hands,” said Ellen Beauvais, a former coordinator for the Rhode Island association, which has 14 members.

The association’s members make an annual promise every May 1 to volunteer at the home.

“It’s a beautiful experience,” said John Gravel, the new coordinator for the association, which helped plan the anniversary Mass.

Beauvais said the anniversary celebration was a way for to “recognize just how wonderful they are.” Beauvais and Gravel noted that in addition to the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, the sisters also take a vow of hospitality.

“It’s a way to live God’s work,” Gravel said.

Gravel is personally grateful for the work the sisters do because his mother was a resident at their home in Pawtucket. “There’s not enough time in my life to repay the sisters for what they’ve done,” Gravel said.

In the tradition of its founder, each home has an officially designated sister who solicits donated items from the surrounding community. In Pawtucket, the begging sister is Sister Mary Vincent.

“I’m the beggar. I don’t mind being call the beggar. I love it because I feel like I’m telling Jeanne Jugan’s story. I feel like Jeanne Jugan has bequeathed her basket to me. I feel it’s a very humbling role because I walk in her footsteps in a very special way,” Sister Vincent said.