- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Between prayers and paperwork, the Little Sisters of the Poor are constantly on the move. These nuns on the run oversee the operation of the James P. Wall Home for the Aged in Brighton Heights - a loving place for the elderly poor that continues a tradition of care and humility established by the order’s founder in France nearly two centuries ago.

There are just 10 of them. The oldest is 94, the youngest in her 60s.

The kind of attention they offer is something money literally can’t buy. Residents cannot enter the home if they have any financial means. Medicaid contributes 50 percent of the cost of care for each resident, but the rest must come from other sources.

“At one time there were 52 such homes across the country, but today there are 30,” said Sister Judith, the Pittsburgh order’s mother superior and administrator. Attrition in the sisterhood continues to take its toll, yet they remain positive.

“You do the right thing, and you don’t have to worry, God will help you with the rest,” said Sister Monique. At shorter than 5 feet tall, she is the oldest and the tiniest of the working nuns. She celebrated her 70th Jubilee last year by renewing her vows.

“I was born in Bogota, Colombia, the fifth of 14 children,” she recalled. “I wanted to get married. I broke a man’s heart because I gave him up for the Lord,” she explained with a smile.

Sister Monique is known as a “begging sister.”

“We could not keep the homes going without the begging,” said Sister Margaret Mary, who joins Sister Monique on their mission. In their black habits and gray veils (they wear all white from May to October) the duo goes out every weekend to local parishes with baskets, asking for donations. They also visit Giant Eagle, the Strip District and other locations collecting donated produce and groceries.

Not exactly “Thelma and Louise,” they pray the rosary along with a CD as they drive to the collection points in their Kia Sportage. They’re guided by their GPS and a statue of St. Joseph - both placed on the dash of the car.

“They said, I had a sense of direction, I was a very organized person and I was nice with people,” said Sister Margaret Mary, in explaining why she was tapped to be a begging sister six years ago.

Donations bring in 55 percent of the operation’s $7.5 million annual budget. The James P. Wall Home for the Aged houses up to 48 residents in a nursing facility and 45 people in independent apartments.

“It takes a lot of courage and humility and littleness to go to people and ask for their help,” she said.

As part of the process of becoming a Little Sister of the Poor, they each have spent time at the motherhouse in Saint-Pern, France. The order was founded there in 1839 by Saint Jeanne Jugan, who gave her life to God and the elderly poor. The motherhouse was established in 1852. Because of the order’s foundress, the nuns pray in French three times a week and English the rest of the time.

The Little Sisters are known for their quiet, humble service and reverence, but they are not meek. In fact, the organization is involved in its highest profile mission in decades - its Supreme Court challenge to the birth control coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act. The challenge argued before the court late last month is one of a half dozen that includes a petition by Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik. Although it was filed through the Denver order, sisters across the land are praying for resolution.

In Brighton Heights, the nuns pray together several times a day, including morning and evening prayers. “Each sister gets one prayer day a month when they are relieved of all their duties for the day and spend most of their time in the chapel or in the convent chapel in prayer,” said Kathleen Bowser, director of development for the Little Sisters. Employees are asked not to disturb them so that they can focus throughout the day on prayer. They also get a well deserved 10-day retreat each year.

There are actually 13 sisters in the Pittsburgh order, but three are now residents of the nursing home. One of these, Sister Jeanne, continues to help where she can, such as doing one-on-one visits with other seniors.

Each of the working sisters has a task: Sister Mary Ellen is in charge of the independent living apartment building. Sister Gemma, a tall woman with a lovely smile, runs the annual rummage sale and helps out in the gift shop. Sister Grace is the chapel sister. She helps create programs for funerals, does the flower arranging and occasionally plays the organ. Sisters Marguerite, Dorothy, Claire as well as one lay supervisor, Julia Lyons, are each in charge of one of the four nursing households. Lyons is a member of the Jeanne Jugan Association, they are lay people who help the Sisters in their work. “Mother always describes Ms. Lyons as ‘like a sister without the vows,’ ” notes Bowser.

The newest working sister, Sister Augustine, arrived early this year.

All care for the aging residents.

Among their most important roles is comforting patients in their last hours to help ease their transition from this life to the next. When someone is near death, the nun at the bedside alerts the other sisters with a beeper so they all can start praying.

“That is the height of their vocation,” Bowser said. “They pray with them and hold their hand and comfort family if they are there. The sisters stay with them until God calls them. Sometimes they even sing. It is truly special.”

Sister Judith, the mother superior, recalled a very special moment. It happened shortly after she returned from her time in France.

“There was a precious little lady named Leona who would be seen with her rosary in her hand and reading her prayer book,” said Sister Judith, who was sent to be at her bedside when she was dying. She was in bed on her back with her eyes closed.

“I was alone in the room and at that time I was just back from France and had not been with many people who were dying, so I was a little bit nervous,” she recalled. “All of a sudden - I will never forget it - Leona leaned forward and opened her eyes real wide and raised herself off the pillow. She was looking ahead and up with outstretched arms,” she remembered.

“She had the most beautiful smile on her face and I have no doubt in my mind that there was someone there, someone from heaven,” she continued. “She then fell back on the pillow and died, it was really extraordinary.”

Keeping the elderly infirm happy and comfortable is the singular mission of the sisters on the hill in Brighton Heights and through generosity and divine providence they have managed to do it since 1923.

“It’s a real joy to do the work of taking care of them until they go home to heaven,” said Sister Margaret Mary.





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide