Oct 9, 2009
Look in and see Christ’s chosen saint
In triumph wear hi Christ-like chain;
No fear lest he should swerve or faint
"His life is Crist, his death i gain."
John Keble, English poet (1792-1866)
(Substitute “Her” for “His” and you have Jeanne Jugan)
The Little Sisters of the Poor at Premnagar Old age Home, Bajjody will welcome the first saint of their Order as their founder, Jeanne Jugan, being canonized in Rome by Pope Benedict on October 11, 2009. The cherism (special mission) of these nuns is to take care of the poor old. These nuns beg for ‘nones’ – those poor old who cannot fend for themselves and have none of their families to love and care for them. The canonization of their founder is an apt occasion to go back to their founder and also review the work the Order has been doing. When one gets to know Jeanne’s work for the poor, she foreshadowed the work of Mother Teresa in another age and locale, without having the media focus which the latter had to reluctantly live with.
Old age homes are much in demand today. But, if you go to the one named Premnagar, at Bajjodi, on the highway between Nantoor Junction and Pumpwell Circle, you will be closely screened to check if you can pay. If you can, you are likely to be politely turned away, helpfully tipping you off about other old age homes in the city which admit senior citizens against donations and monthly payments. For, this old age home, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, does not accept donations or monthly payments in their 80-bed (40 each for men and women) hospice where the poor old, of all religions and castes, await their final exit.
There is another scenerio which many Mangaloreans may be familiar with. Two senior nuns, in their spotless white cassocks, make the rounds of the city, knocking at doors for donations for their old age home at Bajjodi. If they were not to do this, many of the residents of the old age home would have pestered Mangaloreans, at their doors and city streets, with wrinkled hands and haggard faces, in tattered clothes and unwashed bodies, for alms to survive for the day. This chore of begging for the potential beggars has been taken on themselves by the Little Sisters of the Poor nuns. For, begging for the needy has been the cherism of this religious congregation that was founded in the 18th century in France. It came to India, first to Calcutta, in 1882, to Bangalore in 1900 and to Mangalore in 1978 – now having 13 such hospices in India. But, why beg rather than collect donations and charge monthly fees – as is the normal route for managing such institutions? For an answer, we have to go back to the founder of the congregation – Jeanne Jugan, now a saint.
Jeanne was born on October 25, 1792 in a hamlet overlooking the bay of Cancale in Brittany, France. Those were turbulent days of French Revolution and beheading of King Louis XVI. Many churches and convents were closed and turned into fodder-stores for troops. This background as also the premature death of her father affected Jeanne. He was on a seven-month fishing expedition when she was born and from another fishing trip, when she was three and a half years, he never returned – lost at sea. Jeanne helped out with domestic work and, when she was about sixteen years, she got employed as a kitchen maid. Her madam was very kind to her and she ended up as a member of the family which was known for helping the poor. Jeanne used to visit indigent families or lonely old folk. There she learnt about sharing, about respect and tenderness, and how much tactfulness was necessary if one is not to humiliate those who are in need of help.
Being tall and pretty, Jeanne was asked in marriage by a sailor to whom she said: “Me? But there is nothing to like about me”. She told her mother: “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work as yet unknown, for a work which is not yet founded”. In retrospect, she found that work in caring for the poor and old and she ended up as a founder of a religious congregation which is now spread out on five Continents. The progress of her work was slow and steady. In 1817, at the age of 25, Jeanne left her native Cancale and went to Saint-Servant and took up a job as a nurse in a hospital for six years.
Jeanne got associated with Ms Lecoq, 20 years her senior, and continued her work of helping those in distress. Lecoq died in 1835, bequeathing her furniture and a small sum of money to Jeanne. She made friendship with Ms Fanchon, much older than her, and they jointly rented two rooms with lofts. These rooms became the starting points for a series of hospices for the poor old. When these rooms were full with the needy poor, Jeanne and Fanchon moved to the loft. (A painting of her carrying an old “guest” upstairs to the loft, reproduce alongside, reflects her caring work). Then they leased a former bar – a huge, low room with two attached smaller rooms. They replicated such accommodation is many towns in France and finally one in Britain.
How was Jeanne financing her expanding mission of mercy? She went around with a begging basket and sustained her several hospices for the poor old. As Paul Milcent, her biographer, notes: “Practical considerations lead her to do the begging herself: If she had allowed the good women (as she affectionately called them), to go the rounds of the town, as they used to before she had given them shelter, she would have exposed them to many evils, specially those of them who were given to drink. So, she respectfully asked each to give her the addresses of her benefactors and did the rounds herself instead.” She used to explain, ‘Well, Sir, the little aged woman won’t be coming any more. I shall be coming instead. Please be kind as to go on giving us your alms’ ”.
In 1844, the congregation of the Sisters of the Poor was formally established – with “Little” prefixed at a later date. In addition to the traditional three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, Sisters of the Poor added a fourth – hospitality. They worked on the basis of no regular income, insisting on owning only their convent and hospices. In 1865, a legacy of a tempting four thousand francs, bequeathed in the form of a regular income, had been left for the congregation. After much deliberation, with Jeanne opposing it, the legacy was rejected. This tradition continues to this day.
Jeanne died in August 1879. But her spirit lives on as reflected in the nuns of Premnagar going around with their begging bowls. They also go to the Bunder fish landing wharf where boat owners fill their buckets with fish. Once a week they go to the Central Market where vegetable vendors oblige them. Many come to the old age home with sponsored meals and spend time with the residents.
The mascot of Premnagar is Cecilia D’Souza, at 104, the oldest resident. There are others in late 90s.
They say that an empty sack cannot stand erect. At the moment, the Home needs fund to renovate toilet blocks in its building complex. But, the nuns are unfazed. Sr. Catherine, Mother Superior, says: “We have experienced the charitable disposition of Mangaloreans. When we need funds or resources, we are granted. We continue to trust in the generosity of Mangaloreans”. Donations to the Home are exempt from Income tax. Its postal address is: Premnagar, Mangalore 575 005. Ph. 0824-2215269.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, Sr. Catherine is attending the canonization ceremony in Rome. A thanksgiving solemn concelebrated Mass will be offered, presided over by the Bishop of Mangalore, on October 25 at St. Sebastian Church, Bendur at 4 PM, and a programme and exhibition on the life St Jeanne at 4.30 PM at St. Agnes College Auditoriu
John B Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).
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