Jeanne Jugan was born in 1792 in a small fishing village in France. She was the sixth of the eight children of Joseph and Marie Jugan, four of whom had died in infancy. Her father was a fisherman and, when Jeanne was three year old, was lost at sea. Her mother struggled for years to keep the family together in their one-room earthen-floored cottage.
She began working at an early age. She would pray her Rosary while tending the herd, on the high cliffs above the sea. When Jeanne was about 16, she became the kitchen maid of the Viscountess de la Choue, a kind-hearted Christian woman, who took Jeanne on visits to the sick and the poor around her estate. Jeanne learned by example the meaning of truly Christian charity. She also learned a refinement of manners not customary among the peasant class.
When a young man asked for her hand in marriage, she told him that God wanted her for himself and was keeping her for a work as yet unknown. As an immediate response she divided her clothes into two piles, leaving the prettiest to her sisters. When she was about 25, Jeanne took a job in the crowded hospital in the town of Saint Servan. After six years of devoted toil at the hospital, she was so worn out that she had to leave this work. She enrolled in the Third Order of St John of Eudes. From that time her one desire was to “be as humble as Jesus”.
She went to work for a good Christian woman named Mlle. Lecoq. They spent hours in prayer each day, as well as attending Mass. They also instructed the town’s children in the catechism and cared for the poor and other unfortunates. After Mlle. Lecoq died in 1837, the forty-five year old Jeanne and a seventy-two year old woman named Françoise Aubert rented part of a humble cottage. They were joined by Virginie Tredaniel, a seventeen year old orphan, and the three formed a community of prayer. Whatever they had left over from their earnings, they gave to the poor.
At age 47, with the approval of Françoise and Virginie, Jeanne turned her attention to the most pitiful of the poor – abandoned old ladies. In 1839 she brought home a blind widow named Anne Chauvin. Jeanne gave up her own bed to provide sleeping quarters for their guest. This characteristic is expressed in the name that eventually developed for Jeanne’s charitable work, The Little Sisters of the Poor.
In 1841 she rented a large room in which she looked after twelve elderly people. In 1842, without money, she purchased a dilapidated convent where she soon provided 40 elderly persons with accommodation. In 1845 she won the Montyon Prize, awarded each year “to a poor French man or woman for outstandingly meritorious activity”. She founded homes in 1846 in Rennes and in Dinan, in 1847 in Tours, and in 1850 in Angers.
As the number of guests grew, so also did her little community. Jeanne wrote a simple rule for them and herself. The Little Sisters daily went out door-to-door asking for food, clothing and money. When she came back to live at the mother house, after a much younger woman had been elected Superior General, many of the sisters did not realize she was the foundress of the Little Sisters. She humbly and happily encouraged them, nonetheless. In 1879, when Jeanne was 87, she was given the Last Sacraments. Her last words were, “O Mary, my dear Mother, come to me. You know I love you and how I long to see You!” After her peaceful death on 29 August 1879, Jeanne was buried in the graveyard at the motherhouse. Her Congregation then numbered 2,400 Little Sisters in 177 homes on three continents. John Paul II beatified her in 1982. She was canonized by Benedict XVI in 2009.