The Little Sisters of the Poor are used to doing nice things for their Residents at St. Joseph’s Home in Totowa, and often a special birthday gets special attention. A 100th birthday party, on the other hand, doesn’t come along too often, and when it does the Sisters make sure it’s one to remember.
That was the case on July 2 when Elizabeth Harrison, a former nurse from Passaic who’s been living at the Home since 2006, turned 100, and had family, friends, fellow residents–and, of course, the Sisters–to wish her well. She began the day by attending Mass in the Home’s chapel, as she often does, and then it was on to the party, where she made sure she blew out her own candles on the birthday cake.
Mrs. Harrison smiles at the memory, as she does recalling other times from an event-filled life. She was raised in Passaic and went on to college, where she trained for a career in nursing. As a private-duty nurse she traveled to various parts of the country, including a tour at the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota–where she worked with the original Mayo brothers, whom she remembers fondly as “Doctor Charlie” and “Doctor Will”. Her husband, who was a trust officer for a bank, has died, as did their twin children, but she has nieces and nephews who live nearby and visit. Otherwise, she enjoys her days in the company of the Little Sisters.
She has a lot of company. St. Joseph’s Home for the Elderly is one of 202 worldwide operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community founded in France by St. Jeanne Jugan in 1839. Their motto is “Serving the Elderly with Love and Respect,” which is precisely what they’ve been doing ever since their formation. The congregation has steadily grown over the years, and today its 2,700 members serve in 32 countries around the world. Thirty-one of their homes care for the elderly poor in North America alone.
In addition to the traditional religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Little Sisters of the Poor take one of hospitality. It’s directed in a special way to the elderly, assuring them of comfort and compassion and responding with love to their needs and hopes. They’re given nutritious food, loving care and meaningful activity–all of which depends on the generosity of friends and the Sisters’ firm reliance on an all-but-forgotten activity: begging.
“We’re a begging order,” says Sister Cecilia Michael, lsp, who coordinates the Sisters’ begging schedule each week. It’s a tradition begun by St. Jeanne Jugan herself, who was usually recognizable by the begging basket she carried. Sister Cecilia and the Sisters who accompany her (the Little Sisters always travel in pairs) typically go out today with a van rather than a basket, but the idea is the same: it’s all in the tradition of the founder.
“We rely on donations and on God’s providence,” Sister Cecilia Michael said. She, another Sister and driver Mike Burke make their regular rounds of northern New Jersey locations and, once a week, go to the Hunts Point market in the Bronx, where dependable friends almost always come through with generous gifts, boxes of fruit and produce. It’s not only food for which the Sisters go out begging, though; the Home requires many other commodities to help serve its elderly population–everything from office supplies to items for the laundry. At the moment there’s a need for paper products; a particularly generous provider has gone out of business, and the Sisters hope to find another who’ll take over.
Sister Cecilia isn’t worried, though. If past history has anything to say about the future, she knows there’ll be another “miracle,” as she calls it. “One door closes and another one opens,” she added. “I’m just thankful for all the people who come to our aid.” Each weekend she has a chance to thank people like that personally, when she and another Sister travel to a nearby parish to do exactly what they’re used to: begging. Once again, it’s all in the tradition of their founder.
“St. Jeanne Jugan was ahead of her time,” Sister Cecilia said, “and she wasn’t shy. She’d write to the newspapers to tell people exactly where she’d be, begging for the old and the needy.”
Mother Gerard Marie, lsp, Superior at St. Joseph’s, makes sure that everyone at the Home–Sisters, staff and volunteers–does everything possible to live up to the Little Sisters’ tradition. It’s one that honors the past even as it looks ahead to the future. And it’s one that keeps everything a guest might need–from a comforting word to a gala 100th birthday celebration–always in mind.