The Little Sister of the Poor—Celebrating 150 Years in America!

By Janice Lane Palko 

On August 30, 2018, the Little Sisters of the Poor, an international Roman Catholic congregation of religious women, kicked off a jubilee year marking the 150th anniversary of their community’s arrival in the United States. Pittsburgh’s Little Sisters of the Poor community will mark the milestone on August 11 at 11:00 a.m. with a Mass in their Benton Avenue home’s Gloria Chapel in the city’s Brighton Heights neighborhood. The main celebrant will be Bishop William J. Winter, and Reception and Open House will follow from 12-4 p.m 

The Little Sisters of the Poor were founded by Jeanne Jugan in France during the turbulent French Revolution, where violence and destitution were a way of life. As a young woman in Brittany, Jeanne felt called by God to care for the poor. One cold winter night the young Jeanne, brought into her attic apartment an infirmed, elderly, blind woman and gave the woman her bed, with Jeanne sleeping on the floor. Word of Jeanne’s kindness spread, and more poor old people began to show up on her doorstep. And as they did, more generous young women came to help Jeanne. Local villagers began to refer to the women as the “Little Sisters of the Poor.” The name stuck and a religious community grew from their acts of charity and was founded in 1839Jeanne Jugan was canonized a saint in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. 

The Little Sisters of the Poor community soon spread to other parts of Europe, but it was in 1868 during the reign of Napoleon, that first Littles Sisters of the Poor came to the United States. Within the first four years after their arrival, they had established 13 home in America to care for the elderly poor.  

The Pittsburgh community of The Little Sisters of the Poor arrived in 1872 at the behest of Bishop Domenec, who petitioned the French order for them to come here to help the city’s elderly poor. Seven sisters came to the city and were given a small home on Cedar Avenue on the North Side, which was then not part of Pittsburgh, but was a separate entity—Allegheny City.  

“Back in those days, the sisters would just go out into the streets, collect people and bring them into their home to care for them,” said Kathleen Bowser, Development Director for the Little Sisters. “Things have changed a bit since then.”  

But what hasn’t changed is the sisters’ love for the poor and reliance on God. The sisters are a mendicant community; they beg and rely on donations to take care of their elderly. As their reputation for their love of others grew, so did their need for another place to care for the needy elderly.  

In 1885, a second home was built on Penn Avenue in Garfield. Now there were two homes in the area one in the city of Pittsburgh and one in Allegheny City, and the sisters were regularly seen throughout the area as they went about in their horse and buggy begging for food and essential needs for their homes.  

Eventually, a larger home was needed than the one on Cedar Avenue, and through the generosity of Patrick and Catherine Wall, in 1923 the home on Benton Avenue opened. Sadly, in 1931 fire ravaged the home on Penn Avenue with 48 people perishing.  

“Ten people’s remains were never claimed,” said Ms. Bowser, “but a Mass was held in their honor and St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland was filled with mourners.” 

The fire occurred at the height of the Great Depression, and although money was tight then, Pittsburghers rallied to support the sisters and the elderly poor, raising enough money within weeks to rebuild the home.  

Until 1971, the Little Sisters of the Poor operated two homes, but it was then decided to close the Penn Avenue home, and a new nursing home wing was completed in 1972 at the Benton Avenue location, just in time to celebrate the Centennial of the Little Sisters’ arrival in Pittsburgh.  

To keep pace with the changing times, a new nursing facility—one predicated on the “Households” concept—was opened in 2004. Given the demand for decent housing for low-income seniors, the sisters decided to re-make the original 1972 nursing home into independent living apartments. Today, there are 45 independent living apartments and the capability to care for 48 nursing patients. To apply to live there, a person must be over the age of 65 and must be financially needy.  

The home is noted for its exemplary care. Recently, The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released their latest ratings for all 15,000 nursing homes across the nation. The ratings scale ranges from 1 star to a high of 5 stars. The Little Sisters of the Poor home was rated as a top 5 Star facility—one of only eight nursing homes in Allegheny County to achieve such a level. 

The sisters still rely on the generosity of Pittsburghers. “Half of our income comes from Medicare and half comes from donations,” said Ms. Bowser, and if there’s ever an unmet need, the sisters rely on Divine Providence and the intercession of their patron and protector, St. Joseph. “Since he was the protector of the Holy Family and their home, the sisters have adopted him. And he’s helped to work miracles. We’ve had bills that the sisters didn’t know how they were going to pay, and after beseeching St. Joseph, miraculously a donation will arrive in the exact amount needed.” 

Fourteen sisters live in the convent with four residing in the nursing home. The sisters still wear a religious habit and can be seen throughout the year after various Catholic masses collecting on behalf of their charges. “People love the sisters. We still meet people who remember the fire and give generously.” In addition to donations, the sisters rely on numerous volunteers and staff to provide the best care possible.  

“The Little Sisters’ secret is simple,” said Ms. Bowser. “They see Jesus in the people they care for.” 

All are welcome to attend the celebratory Mass on August 11, but please RSVP by August 5 to (412) 307-1100 or adevpittsburgh@littlesistersofthepoor.org. If you would like to help the sisters with a donation, visit their website at: littlesistersofthepoorpittsburgh.org. 

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