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Home for poor is rich in spirit

Jeanne Jugan would have been pleased by the scene.

The tree-lined campus of St. Joseph's Home for the Aged was littered with almost as many fun-lovers as fallen leaves. And they spanned the generations: from giggling children pitching beanbags to elderly nuns getting their first taste of cotton candy and residents tapping the arms of their wheelchairs in time with the Irish dancers on stage. Nearby, guests visited rows of tents to sample cuisine from Italy, Ireland, Australia, Vietnam, Spain, and other countries represented by the Little Sisters of the Poor, while children circulated from tent to tent to have their "passports" stamped.

For more than 30 years, the Little Sisters of the Poor have held a bazaar featuring hand-crafted items made by the residents, sisters, and volunteers.  This year, as the nursing home celebrates the 135th anniversary of the Little Sisters' arrival in Virginia, the event was expanded into a family festival with an international theme.

As always, proceeds from the fall event went to help the Little Sisters in their mission of serving the elderly poor. But the festival was designed to raise not only money, but community awareness. For even with the nursing home's location adjacent to Three Chopt Road – a Henrico main street – too many neighbors seem to have no idea it exists.

Even when people claim to know of the home, says development director Christy Heinen, they often confuse it with another institution bearing the St. Joseph's name.

"'Oh,’ they say, ‘you're that place on Brook Road!’” repeats Heinen with a smile, citing a typical reference to St. Joseph's Villa.

In addition to commemorating the Sisters' 135-year presence in Richmond, the festival also celebrated the recent canonization of the order's founder, Saint Jeanne Jugan.

For visitors who spent even a few moments of the festival touring the home, it was impossible to miss the many tributes to Jugan -- or the reverence for Jugan that pervades throughout.

"Since the canonization," says Sister Loretto, who supervises the nursing unit, "there's been a new enthusiasm and fervor. The spirit and work of our mother deepened our spiritual life.

"She saw the wrinkled, the lame, the sick -- and she saw Jesus in them."

Taking Needs to God
As a 16-year-old working as a maid for a wealthy French family, Jeanne Jugan often received beggars who came to the kitchen door, and joined her employers on their visits to the sick and poor.

Declining a marriage proposal at a young age, Jugan said, "God wants me for Himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet founded." After several years working at an overcrowded hospital, she began taking the elderly and ill into her own home. Eventually, Jugan and her companions purchased a former convent as their home; in 1852, they adopted the name Little Sisters of the Poor.

Today the Little Sisters carry on Jugan's tradition of going out into the streets to beg for food, supplies and money for the home. But where Jugan traveled on foot and carried a basket, and later sisters used a horse and buggy, Sister Marie Edward makes her rounds in a "begging van."

Only 40 percent of funds for the home are derived from the 96 residents' Medicaid and other forms of insurance. For the rest, says Heinen, the Sisters rely on charitable gifts – and the power of prayer.

Jeanne Jugan didn't believe in endowments, Heinen explains. She thought it showed a lack of faith in God to provide. "So there's this incredible reliance on St. Joseph," says Heinen, "and taking needs to God."

Does it work? Just ask Sister Loretto, who reels off a story about the time another home needed a horse for the begging wagon. One sister tore out an illustration of a horse to place under the statue of St. Joseph, but detached the tail of the horse in her haste. Soon after, a local farmer stopped by the home to offer a horse that was too old to use on the farm -- and the donated horse happened to be missing a tail.

In a St. Joseph's newsletter, Sister Colette recounts a story from 1968, before the home moved from downtown Richmond to Henrico.

"Mother wanted to have chicken for the residents on Sunday," writes Sister Colette. "I told her we didn't have any, [but] she said, 'St. Joseph will provide' . . . Wouldn't you know, Saturday a truck pulled up filled with fried chicken and cole slaw. . . A conference had been cancelled and they wanted to know if we could use the food!"

‘It Takes Hold of Your Heart’
Heinen, whose grandmother volunteered in the laundry at St. Joseph's Richmond site, has been hearing about the place since she was a girl. After volunteering, her grandmother would come to Heinen's home to help with the formidable task of ironing for the family of nine.

As a result, says Heinen, "I was so excited to come to work here. The love and faith filters throughout; it takes hold of your heart.

"I knew it would make me a better person. "

There's a powerful family feel to the home, says Heinen, that inspires a special loyalty among the volunteers who come to work in the kitchen, read aloud to residents and take them to chapel or to doctor appointments.

But what truly separates St. Joseph's home from a typical care facility, Heinen believes, is the devotion of the Little Sisters of the Poor to the residents in their care.

And the sisters are at their finest, she adds, when residents are living out their final days at the home – as did Heinen's grandmother, and the mother of Wanda Vizcaino, who volunteered countless hours organizing the family fest.

As residents near the end, says Heinen, the sisters pray and keep vigil round the clock, in a ritual that they call "accompanying them to heaven."

For relatives who witness the vigil, it's a moving experience – whether or not the resident or family isCatholic. Heinen treasures the words of one late resident's son, who told her he "truly believes the Little Sisters prayed his mother to heaven."

But Sister Loretto insists that it's the other way around.

"We give our lives," she says in her rich Irish brogue. "But we get 100 percent back from [the residents]. We're so enriched by them.

"They'll pull us into heaven."

The Little Saint of the Poor, a play written to commemorate the canonization of St. Jeanne Jugan and present the story of her life and her struggles, will be held at Hermitage High School November 20 at 7 p.m. Produced and performed by Theater of the Word, the play is suitable for older children and adults and is free and open to the public. However, seating is limited, and audience members are asked to call 288-6245 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) to reserve a seat. Donations will be accepted to help cover expenses of bringing the touring show to town.

For information about volunteering, making a donation, or applying to live at St. Joseph's Home, call 288-6245 or visit http://littlesistersofthepoor.org
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